The Culture of Craft: the ‘makers’ of Muskoka
“Creativity is contagious … pass it on!” Albert Einstein is credited with making this quip and, while it may be one of his lesser-known theories, Muskoka certainly bears testament to its truth.
Artistic souls who inspire each other with their collective appreciation for handmade craft endow the district with an abundant share of creative talent. Muskoka’s flourishing culture of ‘makers’ runs the gamut from food and drink to fine art and artisanry.
Beyond the Craft Beer
The local craft breweries excel at inventing distinctive flavours derived from indigenous ingredients and supplying them to enthusiastic consumers both within and outside Muskoka. Taking its innovative approach to craft beverages a step further, Muskoka Brewery recently ventured into the production of spirits. “We bought our first still and tried several variants before we got the type of London dry gin that we wanted,” said Todd Lewin, the company’s president. “Craft distilling is going to grow by leaps and bounds,” he added, “and, with our gin utilizing many of the same botanicals as our beer, it’s a natural fit for us.”
Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in Bala trod a similar path. Secure in its solid reputation for exceptional berries, the company expanded in the year 2000 with the launch of the Muskoka Lakes Winery. Harvesting fruit from their land, the Johnstons craft their wine by hand; and their award-winning products are now available online, at LCBOs, and exported internationally.
With a strong commitment to quality, Muskoka’s roasteries offer outstanding coffee that can rival the large global firms. Honouring its roots with brand names like Black Bear and Loon Call, Muskoka Roastery Coffee Co. sells its special blends around the world. Diesel House Coffee Roasters takes equal pride in its unique proprietary blends that can be purchased online and at many outlets in Ontario.
Sweets and Treats
Many tourists make sure that an early-spring visit to Muskoka is in their travel plans. The sap is running and the maple syrup producers are in full swing, celebrating their craft with sugar shack tours, pancake breakfasts, maple beer and wine, baked goods, and, of course, the sweet liquid itself, sold widely throughout the region. Maple Orchard Farms in Bracebridge is stocked with an array of maple-based goods, as well as preserves, candies, and chocolate.
Another sweet treat comes from Muskoka Honey Bee, where the experience of four generations of beekeepers safeguards the hives to yield pure wildflower honey, beeswax candles, and all-natural personal care products.
Originating with the sale of a few jars of jam at a neighbourhood street fair, ‘Yummies in a Jar’ turned a dream into reality for owner Lynn Murden. Her business has evolved into a booming operation, with a delicious assortment of jams and jellies, vinaigrettes, syrups, and condiments found online and through retail shops. Fascinated by flavour, Lynn loves to experiment, concocting taste sensations like Beer Sauerkraut Jelly and Christmas Jingleberry Jam.
Art and Craft Events
With this wealth of artisans in the area, Muskoka plays host to numerous cultural events. Established in 1980, the annual Bala Craft and Gift Fair draws hundreds of shoppers, with vendors in every type of handicraft. The Dockside Festival of the Arts takes place at the Gravenhurst Wharf; the Muskoka Arts and Crafts Show has attracted art lovers for over five decades; and the Huntsville Art Society frequently holds curated shows and workshops. The Canada Summit Centre, constructed for the 2010 G8 Summit of world leaders, includes a two-floor Art Atrium which displays the work of community arts groups as well as critically acclaimed exhibits on tour from other galleries.
In 1997, the town of Huntsville initiated a tribute to Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painters through an outdoor gallery of mural replications of their art. The first Mural Festival was held in 2007, highlighted by a collaborative project encouraging participants to duplicate the brushstrokes of the masters under the supervision of the muralist.
The Muskoka Autumn Studio Tour is proud of its role as architect of the original Canadian studio tour, presenting the district’s best artists and craftspeople. Guests see their techniques and gain deeper insights into the ‘work-behind-the-work’. The Artists of the Limberlost welcome guests to their studios in the summertime, while Gravenhurst ushers in the high season with its Spring into Summer Art Crawl.
Galleries and Shops
Many of Muskoka’s artists and artisans offer private or group visits to their studios, and there are several craft shops and galleries. Rotating exhibits are scheduled at the Chapel Gallery in Bracebridge, housed in a reconstructed church; while a splendid heritage building is home to the twenty artists of the Arts at the Albion Co-op Gallery in Gravenhurst. The Oxtongue Craft Cabin & Gallery in Dwight in the Township of Lake of Bays had its genesis in 1979, and it now carries a large and eclectic selection from varied artists and craftspeople, chosen for the reflection of Muskoka’s character.
With passion and determination, Andrea Balmer opened the Let the Cat Go Fine Art and Craft Studio this year, providing a space for artists to show their work and share their skills. Tagging her business ‘for the curious and creative’, Andrea brings art to life, stimulating interactive play rather than static observation. Supporting Einstein’s theory of viral ingenuity, she motivates kids and adults alike to overcome their doubts and explore their artistic potential.
The Shipyards Muskoka Marketplace is another new enterprise driven by the force of creative contagion. Tim Webb, a corporate mural artist, and Dave Campbell, a choreographer and theatre director with multiple television credits, have introduced the ‘flash retail’ shopping concept to the Gravenhurst Wharf. Owners of the town’s Gypsy Market Mews, they invited permanent and transient merchants to set up at the Shipyards market. “Creativity comes out of imagination,” said Tim … and there’s plenty of that at the Shipyards! Teresa McLaughlin of the Auburn Gallery of Fine Art displays Canadian artwork; there are purveyors of jewellery, glass, photography, décor, kitchenware, jams, body care, and clothing; and treats from The Nutty Chocolatier are paired up with Starbucks beverages at the Wheelhouse Coffee Lounge. Dave described its appeal: “It’s upscale and comfortable, a fresh hangout for locals and a fun destination for visitors.”
It’s crystal clear that there’s something about the native landscape and lifestyle that calls out to the artistic spirit. The region has given the people the boon of its spectacular scenery, and they wholeheartedly return the favour with beautiful handmade creations that steep Muskoka in the culture of craft.
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