The many lives of Beaver Sheppard

In a city that celebrates its artists, but where it’s increasingly difficult to survive as one, Beaver Sheppard has become a Montreal fixture as a cook, musician and painter.

Inside the strange world of the cook/painter/musician who found a home in Montreal

Beaver Sheppard at his studio in Montreal. An exhibit of his latest work opens Thursday, Oct. 10. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

When Jonathan Sheppard was 12, he went to a church camp in his native Newfoundland, where he was asked to come up with a symbol that represents Canada.

In three hours, Sheppard "twisted together a bunch of coat hangers" into the shape of the country's national animal, slapped on some papier-mâché and covered it in paint.

The nickname Beaver was born. It endures more than a quarter-century later.

"I haven't changed," says Sheppard, now 39.

"I feel like the impulse is where the goal is."

Since moving to Montreal nearly two decades ago, Sheppard has been a staple in the city's small English cultural world as a cook, musician and painter.

(A profile in Vice said he does all this with "the reckless abandon of a kid who's eaten too much candy.")

His new gallery exhibition, opening Thursday, will, for the first time, feature his paintings, illustration work and music in tandem.

And, later this month, he will open for J.S. Ondara, a Kenyan singer-songwriter, at Montreal's L'Astral.

Over coffee at his new poke bowl restaurant in Little Italy, Sheppard reflected on his journey from Newfoundland to fixture in Montreal's indie arts scene.

What comes through is how his creative drive has allowed him to make it in a city that celebrates its artists but where it's become increasingly difficult for artists to survive.

Chefs and painting, painting chefs

Sheppard grew up in St. John's and moved to Harbour Grace, pop. 2,500, in Grade 6.

Beaver Sheppard, back when he was Jonathan Sheppard. (Submitted by Beaver Sheppard)

He lived in that quiet seaside town, home to Stanley Cup champion Danny Cleary, until he went to Memorial University.

He lasted a single semester, dabbling in writing and history — and drugs.

"I was more into dropping acid," he says.

From there, Sheppard spent two years at the Culinary Institute of Canada in PEI.

"I feel like cooking school didn't teach me that much," he says."They didn't teach me about the grit."

"I was into these crazy colours," Sheppard recalls.

He poached cod in blueberry sauce — it came out bright blue — and served it on avocado mashed potatoes.

He followed a girl to Montreal in 2001. The relationship didn't last.

Years later, he saw her at a wedding and wrote a song about it.

We danced for three slow songs/

I love you enough/

but not right now/

And I'm drunk and about to die/

Sheppard took a succession of jobs at some of the city's top restaurants: Garde Manger, under Chuck Hughes; Globe, under David McMillan, now of Joe Beef; Pied de Cochon under Martin Picard. He rarely lasted more than a year in any one place.

After a long night in the kitchen, he would often retreat to his room to draw. One intricate late-night drawing of his own brain is featured on the cover of Still in Love, his 2016 album.

When he broke his arm, someone suggested he take up painting. And he did.

His first painting series, entitled Chefs I've Worked With, is a reflection on that intense, gruelling period.

"Some are well-known and some are not, but each proved uniquely gifted at fucking with me," Sheppard wrote in a blurb about the series.

"These paintings are more for me than for you, but all would probably look amazing in your law firm's office."

Chuck Hughes in paint form, according to Beaver Sheppard. (Never Apart Gallery)

Alongside the abstract paintings, demonic in quality, Sheppard included stories about each chef, which weren't always kind. (The one about Hughes told of how he berated a dishwasher.)

Burned out from years in some of the city's busiest kitchens, Sheppard took a job at Le Pickup, a dépanneur in Mile Ex with a lunch counter that quickly became a popular neighbourhood hangout.

He worked there for four years as Mile Ex grew into the city's next big thing.

Eventually, the owners offered him a stake in the business.

Fearing a stable and prosperous future, Sheppard promptly gave his two weeks' notice.

He was soon involved with nearby Dinette Triple Crown, where he helped launch the restaurant's popular southern-style picnic meals. The place was a hit, but Sheppard quickly moved on.

'A beautiful time'

He found a home at Bethlehem XXX, a restaurant where the decor was a mix of, as Maclean's put it, "Jesus-obsessed gypsy chic."

Under the ownership of Brett Stabler, a filmmaker and model who came to Montreal by way of London and Los Angeles, Sheppard says he was given free licence to do whatever he wanted.

"I was like, 'Can I just nail these computer parts to the wall?' And he was like, 'Yeah,'" he recalls.

"It was a beautiful time when I think about it."

A giant stuffed Tweety Bird, the torso of a mannequin and homoerotic portraits of Taliban militants lined the walls.

The menu was ever-changing. For a time, Sheppard featured the cuisine of a different Muslim country each week. Why?

"I don't know."

The offerings were simple, and delicious. The Afghanistan offering was a traditional chicken recipe with ginger and tomatoes with a garlic yogurt sauce.

Sheppard was the only cook, operating out of a tiny kitchen.

"It was the cleanest vent ever. Because it didn't actually work."

At times, he would stop cooking and parade around the restaurant playing music — on at least one occasion, without clothing.

Despite the freedom, Sheppard left that restaurant too. When asked later why he had left, and if the whole thing had been too intense, Sheppard replied on Messenger, "intense would be a understatement."

The restaurant closed two years later, in 2016.

Two years ago, Sheppard started Oke Poke, a take on the classic Hawaiin dish, with his longtime girlfriend, Marina Corsillo.

Beaver Sheppard, right, with his partner Marina Corsillo, at Oke Poke. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

The restaurant, popular for takeout and just steps from Jean-Talon Market, is all clean lines and carefully chosen decor — the opposite, in many ways, of Bethlehem XXX.

"This is a whole different can of worms. Very zen," he says.

The restaurant, half a block from Jean-Talon Market, is a popular take-out spot. The lunch rush is predictable, and much of the work can be done ahead of time.

"I find this the least stressful job of all time," he says. "I'm not going to get famous from this place. This place is not cool. I'm aware of that."

Living a quieter, more domestic life and no longer taking drugs, Sheppard says he's writing the best music of his life.

He's working on a collaboration with Suki Waterhouse, a model and singer, and his paintings routinely sell for upwards of $5,000.

He speculates they could sell for a lot more, if they end up in the right places, south of the border.

What we leave behind

Sheppard's studio is a shared space a short walk from his restaurant. (He soon plans to move north, to a place with cheaper rent and a screen printing machine.)

In his section, there's a scattering of paint cans, a bucket of brushes and a pile of canvasses, many of which have already been sold.

His paintings can seem almost childlike.

That's not an accident.

"I almost want to paint worse," he says, only half joking.

"I'm more interested in what falls on the floor."

Beaver Sheppard at his Montreal studio. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

There's not necessarily any great meaning in his paintings, he says. Art for art's sake.

And there's no plans to stop — the music, the food, the painting.

"I'm always thinking about death. I like the idea of leaving tons and tons of things behind. Something for people to fight over."

Beaver Sheppard's exhibition runs from Thursday, Oct. 10 through Nov. 11 at Archive Contemporary, at 2471 Rue Du Centre.


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