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Why these artists rejected city life (and how they’re making it big in their small town)

Lead photo credit: Arden Wray

Kyle Topping and Chrissy Poitras were fine arts graduates with a specific vision: making a living as artists without going broke. The way they were going to do that was by bypassing expensive, big city life and starting a unique business in a small town.

There’s a feeling in the arts community that “either you have to move to Vancouver, Halifax, Toronto, or do it on your own,” Kyle said. “We said, hey let’s do it on our own.”

“We didn’t want to go to Toronto,” Chrissy said. “Just so many people, such a high rate of competition.”

“Artists don’t make a ton of money. Coming to Picton meant that we could buy a house for $200,000. You could never find that in Toronto.”

After attending a conference on artist-run centres in Ottawa in 2009, they realized a huge component of success in those ventures was owning your own property. Chrissy was raised in Picton (population 4,702) and the pair realized having an established support network in a town with a tourism sector was the perfect choice.

“Artists don’t make a ton of money,” Kyle said. “Coming to Picton meant that we could buy a house for $200,000. You could never find that in Toronto.”

The couple realized that they wanted to keep making art, and devised a plan to create an artist residency that would allow them to sustain their own artistic practices while running a business that would benefit other creatives at the same time.

(Photo courtesy of Yu Li)

(Photo courtesy of Arden Wray)

(Photo courtesy of  Johnny CY Lam)

That’s how Spark Box Studio was born. The house itself is a gothic-style cottage on 1.5 acres overlooking a farmer’s field and can host up to three residents at a time, each with their own bedroom and workspace. There’s also a 1,000-square-foot out-building the pair has fashioned into a print studio, giving visual artists space to spread out and make to their heart’s content in a gorgeous pastoral setting.

“You go to art school, learn about art, talk about it, cry about it, but it’s rare you learn how to make a living in it."

On top of unbeatable real estate prices, moving to a small town opened Kyle and Chrissy up to a world of community support that enabled them to get on their feet in the first place. Prince Edward County’s Economic Development office took a special interest in the pair and transformed what was originally a notebook of ideas into a 60-page business plan.

“You go to art school, learn about art, talk about it, cry about it, but it’s rare you learn how to make a living in it,” Kyle said.

“The county actually really liked the project and it fit with a bunch of community mandates they were trying to establish. They assisted us in securing funding for the first two years,” Chrissy said. “Just the amount of manpower they put behind us was really impressive.”

As governments begin to realize the benefits of a town rich with culture, programs like this are popping up in small towns and counties all over Canada. “Being in a small town can open up a lot of opportunities to make meaningful connections with people who can help you along the way,” Kyle said.

(Photo courtesy of Johnny CY Lam)

(Photo courtesy of Johnny CY Lam)

Lambton County in southwestern Ontario’s Creative County program also sees the value in helping creative entrepreneurs get started. Andrew Meyer has been Lambton’s Corporate Cultural Officer for the past two years and it’s important to him that the county is “recognizing the increasingly important role played by culture in growing local economies and enhancing the quality of life for its residents.”

According to the Canada Council for the Arts, in 2016 there were 652,406 self-reported culture workers across the country, which brought in over $53-million in GDP that same year.

In 2013, the county created the grant program as a result of its cultural plan, “Building a Creative Economy.” They allocate $75,000 annually to the program because they know that an investment in this sector will pay off both socially and financially. In fact, according to the Canada Council for the Arts, in 2016 there were 652,406 self-reported culture workers across the country, which brought in over $53-million in GDP that same year.

“Progressive municipalities find themselves trying to grow and prosper in a highly competitive environment, and that requires innovative thinking and changes in the traditional
way of doing business for communities,” Andrew said.

(Photos courtesy of Johnny CY Lam)

That break from tradition also allowed Kyle and Chrissy to nestle into the fabric of the town and lay down roots. “You become a staple in the community,” said Kyle, who, along with Chrissy, gives guest lectures, facilitates workshops, and mounts exhibitions of their own works, on top of their duties as residency directors to up to 70 artists per year. “We want to teach artists that you are an entrepreneur,” said Chrissy, who took what she learned in Spark Box’s early days to create a solid business foundation for their establishment.

(Photo courtesy of Johnny CY Lam)

“One of the reasons we chose to start Spark Box is because we were leaving our [school] community,” Kyle said. “We came here and we built our own community.” By choosing a small town to set up shop, that feeling of local fellowship is something the couple is able to focus on because their Picton price point is lower. “We don’t have to work 60 hours a week,” Kyle said.

And while they have many friends who have gone on to have successful artistic practices in big cities, the life and home they’ve created for themselves in Picton, surrounded by like-minded creators and farmers alike, is just what they always imagined.

“It’s a very unique experience to have,” Chrissy said. “It’s really fulfilling.”

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