Urban exodus: Why these artist couples left the city for Prince Edward County

Urban artists: how many times have you dreamt about quitting that day job, getting rid of your overpriced apartment and moving to the country to rebuild your creative lives surrounded by fields and farmhouses?

Have you ever dreamt about rebuilding your creative life? Here are 8 artists who did

Urban artists: how many times have you dreamt about quitting that day job, getting rid of your overpriced apartment, and moving to the country to rebuild your creative lives surrounded by fields and farmhouses? With rents skyrocketing in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where home ownership is essentially impossible for anyone with a household income under six figures, it's not exactly the worst idea.

And it's an idea that four artistic couples — filmmakers Tess Girard and Ryan Noth, theatre maker Krista Dalby and painter Milé Murtanovski, designer Kate Golding and photographer Johnny Lam, and musicians Miel and D'Ari — all recently made a reality when they made the move to Prince Edward County, a community of 25,000 roughly two and half hours east of Toronto. It hasn't always been easy, but none of them have any regrets.

"We took a big risk moving here, buying a house and starting an arts-based business in a community where we knew no one, and we were pretty naïve about a lot of things," Dalby and Murtanovski, who together run arts centre Small Pond Arts, said of their experience. "But because we are open-minded and willing, we've become good at adapting and picking up new skills, and all the challenges we've faced have forced us to grow both as individuals and as a couple."

Prince Edward County has gained considerable attention in recent years as a tourist destination for urbanites, thanks to its picturesque scenery, sandy beaches, and extensive wineries. Toronto staples like The Drake Hotel and The Dakota Tavern have taken notice, opening offshoots in the area (The Drake Devonshire and The Hayloft Dancehall, respectively). But anyone who thinks those two establishments are Toronto's greatest exports to Prince Edward County haven't met these eight folks or the many people like them — and CBC Arts would like to change that, at least in a certain sense. We spoke to each couple about what spurred their decision to leave the city and what that experience has been like. (Fair warning: it might make you want to follow suit.)

Krista Dalby and Mile Murtanovski run Small Pond Arts just outside of Picton, an art farm which houses their gallery andis home to lots of creative events and an artist residency. Separately, Dalby is a playwright and theatre maker and often uses puppetry in her work. She also produces Prince Edward County’s Firelight Lantern Festival and annual Scarecrow Festival. Meanwhile, Murtanovski is painter whose work includes human figures, many local landscapes, and 100 paintings about World War I. He’s also recently participated in two sleepless 100-hour painting marathons. (Johnny Lam)

Why did you decide to leave the city?

Krista: In 2010, we moved from "the shoebox," our tiny apartment in Toronto, to our 160-year-old Prince Edward County farmhouse on 87 acres. It all started with a crazy idea — more of a joke, really — but over time the idea of moving to the country and creating our own little universe started to become more appealing. We wanted to take control of our destinies, create our own opportunities, and achieve a better quality of life. We started doing some research and a friend told us about the County. Neither of us had ever been here before, but the first time we visited we knew that this was where we wanted to be.

Tess: We were living at Queen and Dovercourt in Toronto when we had a small amount of savings that we thought perhaps were enough for a down payment — until we started looking. Then we realized we didn't have enough and we decided the city was just too hectic for us. Both Ryan and I grew up in small town Ontario and Prince Edward County seemed to be an ideal place to look. We saw a cute modest house and put in an offer and suddenly we were buying a house.

Kate: I moved to Toronto in 2000… touching down for my first year in Kensington Market and then proceeding to work in television commercials for the following 10 years. I loved my years in advertising, learned a lot, and made a lot of cherished friends, but I knew it wasn't my destiny. I wanted to return to my creative roots. In 2012, I sold my condo, left my career job, and moved to Prince Edward County to start a new life with Johnny.  It was a massive leap of faith — and one of the best decisions I have ever made.

We wanted to take control of our destinies, create our own opportunities, and achieve a better quality of life. We started doing some research and a friend told us about the County. Neither of us had ever been here before, but the first time we visited we knew that this was where we wanted to be.- Krista Dalby

Johnny: When I first met Kate, I told her I'd been looking for properties in the County and was planning to leave Toronto. To my surprise, she was very supportive and interested in my idea. She had a killer good job in advertising and her own condo, but something about the notion of starting a new life in the countryside really spoke to her... Unlike me, Kate wasn't a freelancer and she knew she had to start from scratch. With a fine art degree under her belt and a passion for wallpaper design and interiors, the County was the perfect place for her to reinvent.

Miel: We moved to Prince Edward County in 2008 on a whim. Initially, we rented a house here for a month to work on a record for a different project we were in. In the last week of that rental, we found a crazy, power-of-sale property with an abandoned farmhouse on it. The house had no doors, bathrooms, or kitchen and was inhabited by animals. For some reason, we thought it was a good idea to put an offer in on this place, and for other reasons entirely, we were chosen to be the proud owners of this "villa." We spent 5 years renovating it, building a home studio, writing hundreds of songs, and focusing deeply on our art. The result was a project so informed by relocating to this place that we named it after our house, Villas.  

Kate Golding is a surface pattern designer working in fabric and wallpaper, while her husband Johnnt Lam is an editorial and advertising photographer, mostly shooting people (including all of the other couples featured in this article). Lam has been freelancing for over a decade, while Golding launched her own business last year with a collection of designs inspired by life in Prince Edward County. (Ryan Henderson)

What are the advantages of being an artist in a small community?

D'Ari: Space! Our house is enormous, which allowed for us to build it into a rental property, construct a yurt on it, and build a home studio that we can work out of. In the city, we were paying for our apartment, parking, a rehearsal space, and studio time, which really added up. Here, we can live, work, and create under our own roof, without worrying if we're playing too loud after 11pm. Our nearest neighbours are half a kilometre away.

Ryan: To me the biggest advantage is really the space you have to just hole up at your place and focus on projects. There's nothing quite like waking up on a quiet winter morning, putting some logs on the fire, and sitting down with a coffee and just reading a book to start the day.

Milé: We named our company Small Pond Arts because before we moved here we felt like little minnows swimming in a vast sea. Sure, we had some artistic talent, but there were a lot of other talented minnows, too. Since moving to the County we've both flourished, fulfilling our dream of becoming big fish in our small pond! It's been easier to stand out, and we feel that we've been able to have a tangible positive impact on our community. We've both become more productive and adventurous, mostly because there are fewer distractions here. Living on our farm we're surrounded by fields and trees, and this incredible serenity creates a space for ideas to blossom.

Tess: I've felt a real sense of the connection with the people who live here. I have incredible relationships with my friends and neighbours. It's like we're all working toward the same goals and share the same life values. There is a great effort to support each other because we share the same struggles, needs, and desires. A small ask for help results in a wave of people reaching out.

Kate: We have made wonderful friends here and have a community surrounding us who support us and elevate us. So many talented creative people have chosen to make Prince Edward County their home.  Most of our friends work with their hands, they are makers and inventors… artists, chefs, florists, farmers, musicians, winemakers, architectural restorers.  There is a collective energy of working hard, being prolific, and inspiring one another.  Someone recently said to me, "Failure is your badge of honour."  There are a lot of folks here risking a lot to follow their dreams.

Miel: Support is a big one. When you live in a small community, there can be a very supportive energy that ties artists together. There seems to be an awareness that we're all trying to do crazy things in a slightly crazy place, which makes us want to see one another succeed. As a result, there is a lot of beautiful collaboration that happens. There is less "competition" to be seen and heard in a smaller place, so communities tend to be more aware and conscious of your art and willing to support it, compared to a metropolis like Toronto where it's much harder to garner support due to the volume of art there.

Tess Girard and Ryan Noth are both filmmakers working primarily in documentary, which makes for quite the team given Girard is also a scinematographer and Noth an editor and producer. They have a production company together, Fifth Town Films, which is based in a renovated barn on their property in Prince Edward County’s Cherry Valley. Currently, they are co-directing a documentary short set in Webequie First Nation, Ont. for BravoFact and finishing up post-production on Girard’s latest feature, As The Crow Flies. (Johnny Lam)

What about the disadvantages?

Krista: The biggest disadvantage is feeling isolated, especially during the long winters. Also, we have fewer artistic inputs than we did living in the city, such as the lack of access to certain types of art events, the lack of cultural diversity, and fewer people to collaborate with.

Ryan: There's an anonymity in the city, despite everyone being physically closer to one another, that you don't get in the country. Also, renovating an older home has been eye-opening in a really great way, and way less expensive than in the city I'm sure, but it can also be a time-suck from other projects.

Tess: We were told when we moved in that we had "high speed" internet access. There is a fibre optic cable buried in our front yard — and of course we can access it, but for $700/month. We're with satellite internet that cuts out when it rains, when it snows, when there are leaves on the trees. It also gets throttled during "high traffic" periods which seems to be any time except 2am. It's also the most I have ever paid for internet. Unfortunately for us as a media company it has been an ongoing struggle.

Looking back, it is maybe a miracle that my move here worked out.  I didn't have a driver's licence and moved to the middle of nowhere with a guy I had only known for a year.  I learned to drive our neighbours' tractor before learning to drive a car.- Kate Golding

Kate: Looking back, it is maybe a miracle that my move here worked out.  I didn't have a driver's licence and moved to the middle of nowhere with a guy I had only known for a year.  I learned to drive our neighbours' tractor before learning to drive a car; drove a scooter into the ditch; helped deliver lambs, my wellies covered in multi-coloured placenta. I went from a luxurious office setting to being knee deep in renovating a farmhouse ourselves.  We spent six weeks bathing with a bucket in the field as our bathroom was in pieces.

D'Ari: Time! It's a misconception that people who live rurally have more time than urban dwellers. Our friends here are the busiest people we know. Living rurally can be a very different kind of hustle. Because there isn't the economy here to support all of our art forms, many of us have to do many things to make a living. This isn't unique to the country — we certainly did the same in the city — the things we have access to to create income are just different here. Not to mention the maintenance and constant battle with nature that really dominates your time when you live rurally — whether you're shovelling out your whole front door and driveway or spending 3-6 hours a week mowing the lawn and weed-whipping, all of that time can feel like a burden sometimes. It's definitely worth it when you're sitting in your orchard drinking coffee and looking out over the stillness of the scenery — but we work for those moments. Also, while community is one of the advantages of living here, it's also a disadvantage. It's wonderful to have the support of a community, but it's hard to grow and expand as an artist when there isn't a large community of people who create in your niche. The County is big place, so we could be wrong (we also haven't left our studio in two years!), but there aren't a ton of people making electronic music here. When we go to Toronto or NYC, we're amazed at how many live shows, producers, and players we have access to. It's nice to be in our own bubble, creating without too much influence from outside sources, but having access to a community who create in our vein would be nice.

Miel and D’Ari are two songwriters, musicians, producers and educators. After being involved in several other music projects over the years, they recently released a new alterative electronic pop project together called Villas. (Johnny Lam)

What do you think of the idea of a "rural renaissance" happening for younger artists, particularly in a country where the urban areas are becoming increasingly impossible to afford?

D'Ari: I'd like to think so. It certainly seems to be happening here. When we bought here, there was a small handful of young artists creating — that demographic seems to be growing every month. It's nice to see, but also a little scary. Like watching a child grow up — you're excited for what's ahead of them but yearn for them to stay innocent forever. By no means can we lay claim to knowing what the County was like prior to the influx of newcomers, having only been here eight years. But in the short time we've been here, the changes have been fast and furious. It makes us wonder what lies ahead for this place that we love. One can only hope that it continues to offer refuge for artists and people who are passionate about preserving all the things that are wonderful about it, without driving prices up so high that it becomes an extension of the urban places we all fled.

Krista: We look around at the newcomers to Prince Edward County and the ones that we admire most are making a huge contribution to the local culture, arriving with fresh ideas and tremendous energy, clearly loving the County and celebrating it. They've integrated themselves into the community, understanding that this place is so much more than a trendy spot with great wine and a pretty beach, that it's got its own culture, traditions, and history. These are the people who start grassroots initiatives, make friends with their neighbours, and reflect this beautiful place in the art they create and the way they live their lives.

Tess: I think there is a stigma that artists in non-urban areas are not as successful or talented as other artists. Perhaps some of this is because of retirees who pick up paintbrushes for the first time in their 60s or hobby artists who might not have as much experience under their belts. Before moving I had a fear that the city legitimized my career; our biggest concern was not having any work. But it was actually moving away from the city that helped legitimize our careers.

Johnny: I'm inspired by people's faces and their stories. To photograph content that moves you is integral to successful work. Life here in the County directly feeds my creativity.  Urban settings are fascinating and I appreciate all the amazing things a city has to offer, but there's something about living in and being a part of a smaller community that is very satisfying. As the world seems to be moving towards urbanization, I am not surprised to also see the rural renaissance truly taking flight.

(These conversations have been edited and condensed.)

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