Two years ago, fresh out of the University of Guelph’s studio art program, Abby Nowakowski and Ahmri Vandeborne took over Art in the Ward, a collaborative art-making venue in Guelph’s Ward neighbourhood.
They renamed the 800-square-foot space on York Road as Otherwise Studios and worked for a year to build programs, ranging from art classes and workshops to concerts and gatherings for various kinds of artists. “We were all about bringing people into the space,” says Nowakowski, a printmaker who majored in studio art and art history.
Then early last year came COVID-19, and the duo had to shut down in-person art-making at the studio.
Not that that stopped them, says Nowakowski. “Both Ahmri and I fully leaned in. Instead of stopping, we knew how important it was to keep people connected and creative.”
Referring to a range of virtual workshops led by various experts last year, she says, “People gravitated to anything that kept them creative and occupied and inspired. There was this obvious need for connection during the pandemic.
“As facilitators, our response was to keep programming going. It was up to us to brainstorm creative ways to keep Otherwise alive.”
Earlier this year, they ran virtual workshops in printmaking as well as kids’ spring break classes. They’ve also kept up their monthly profile series of featured artists, including other U of G grads such as graphic artist Emmali Branton and ink-on-paper artist Emmanuel Chukwu.
This year, Otherwise Studio is also running its Co-Create residency that pairs artists, musicians and other creative types to develop projects together.
Nowakowski and Vandeborne met in their third year at U of G, when they worked on a joint installation in the student gallery in Zavitz Hall.
A year earlier, Nowakowski had connected with U of G grads Amanda and Kiel Wilson-Ciocci under a mentorship program run by the Guelph Arts Council and the University’s School of Fine Art and Music.
Both Amanda and Kiel grew up in Guelph, where they dated in high school. It was a backpacking trek around Europe, including visits to Rome and Florence, that sharpened their mutual interest in art and history.
Recalling seeing Michelangelo’s David in the Ufizzi Gallery, Amanda says, “To see that human hands had created this piece and that we were experiencing emotions from hundreds of years later, that really flipped the switch for me to know that I wanted art to be a big part of my life.”
Back home, they enrolled at U of G, where they were encouraged to explore their interests and aptitudes. “We were exposed to printmaking and photography and sculpture and a range of mediums and materials,” says Kiel, adding that they worked closely together during the program. They also got married while studying here.
After graduation in 2010, they moved to Orillia, Ont., where they attended teacher’s college and where they began collaborating on the same artworks, melding their varied perspectives in single mixed-media pieces. They also established a joint practice called KIAM Studio.
Ultimately, they returned to Guelph, where they set up their Art in the Ward studio. They also reconnected with U of G as mentors for other students.
Nowakowski says that mentorship program helped her with everything from seeking grants to doing her taxes.
Adds Amanda, “I think that mentorship program is amazing to help students with life beyond the University walls, to learn that this is what it’s like once you step outside the box.”
By 2019, she and Kiel were ready to move again, this time to Collingwood, Ont., which they had often visited while living in Orillia.
Rather than shutter their Guelph studio, they found new co-owners. Nowakowski and Vandeborne took over the lease and pledged to keep the place going as a community art venue.
Vandeborne, who also minored in art history and French studies at U of G, recalls their first joint meeting and notably a bit of advice from Amanda: “She said, ‘Figure out what your why is.’ Our why is community and collaboration. We’re an inclusive community hub that facilitates and creates opportunities for artists to connect, get messy, be creative.”
In a Collingwood Today online story published earlier this year, Amanda and Kiel said the pandemic has curtailed arts activities in Collingwood. But as in Guelph, they’ve connected with local artists and explored their environs.
Still working together as KIAM Studio, they’ve shown their joint creations in the Collingwood Foundry, a collaborative co-working space. That exhibit featured artworks based on their European travels, including street scenes from Italy, pre-COVID, with people interacting, all without masks and physical distancing.
“Our work has been described as memory, that dream-like state and nostalgic feel,” says Amanda. She adds that the past year has been a time of reflection and reconsidering about how to use their work to comment on their shared experiences.
“COVID has slowed everything down,” says Kiel. “We have extra time to sit with our thoughts.”