Hamilton drawing artists with its space, inspiration

When Ron Weihs and Judith Sandiford opened the doors of their Artword Artbar on Colbourne Street to the Hamilton Fringe Festival crowd last week, there was no shortage of former Torontonians like themselves who have migrated south to Hamilton.

Artists moving to Hamilton to get involved in the scene

Hamilton has become a popular place for artists moving from elsewhere, such as Ron Weihs and Judith Sandiford, who opened the Artword Artbar in 2009.

When Ron Weihs and Judith Sandiford opened the doors of their Artword Artbar on Colbourne Street to the Hamilton Fringe Festival crowd last week, there was no shortage of former Torontonians like themselves who have migrated south to Hamilton.

There are playwrights and musicians. There are writers and visual artists. Often, the couple run into other former Toronto residents who came to Hamilton for the same reason they did — it's more spacious, more livable, and for many in the artistic community, more inspiring.

It's not exactly an artistic brain drain. It's more of a slow, steady migration of Toronto artists to Hamilton to join the local scene, said Weihs, a playwright who moved from Toronto in 2007 and opened the Artword Artbar two years later.

"They're slowly, tentatively finding their way here," he said. "I'm just as happy about that because Hamilton has a very strong scene of its own. The healthiest thing is for that scene to assimilate new people rather than artists coming in from outside guns blazing."

Each year, the Fringe Festival is full of examples of Toronto artists who have left the city for Hamilton. Radha Menon, whose play Ganga's Ganja played at the Fringe Festival last week, moved here from Toronto four years ago.

She now lives and writes in a Victorian house downtown that "we could never afford in Toronto."

"Since I've been here full time, I've written so much because I have the space to do it," she said.

"I live in a home with high ceilings and big windows, and even though we're downtown, it's so quiet. There's an energy that's conducive to writing."

Lisa Pijuan-Nomura finds the same thing. A multi-disciplinary artist, she is a storyteller, dancer and puppeteer who also creates and performs one-woman shows.

Pijuan-Nomura moved here from Toronto in January and finds the creative energy flows in Hamilton. She has started a new performance series called The Quarterly at The Pearl Company, and her company, Girl Can Create, has a studio in Hotel Hamilton.

Needed more space

Pijuan-Nomura lived in Toronto for 22 years. But when she had a baby two years ago, she started to feel stifled.

"I sort of came to the point of feeling that things were very saturated," she said. "It felt like physically there wasn't a lot of space. Whether or not that was true or if it was me personally, I felt like I needed more space."

At first, her friends were skeptical. Like Pijuan-Nomura, they only knew what they saw when they drove over the Burlington Skyway. She didn't realize the architecture and rich artistic scene that lay behind a single glimpse from the highway. When she visited last August, for her second visit ever, she saw the possibilities.

"Since I've moved here, I know seven or eight people who have moved," she said.

More affordable

Stephen Near won the Hamilton Fringe new play contest in 2011. He has also migrated from Toronto to Hamilton in, among other things, a desire for space.

The cost and pace of living in Toronto "was getting to be a bit much," he said.

Hamilton has found its way into his work. He is now the program director at the Hamilton Arts Council.

He has founded Reaching Symmetry Theatre and is writing a play called And to Remember about the War of 1812. It is set in Hamilton.

As Toronto gets more and more saturated, and its artist spaces are overtaken by condos, Hamilton looks more attractive, said Sandiford. And through word of mouth, it's spreading.

"There are the most amazing things going on in underground Hamilton."