Students paint a mural depicting summer in Southampton during a recent workshop for children ages 12 and up. The Southampton Art School offers both adult and children's classes, with the kids' courses always filled up. Artists and would-be artist have been travelling to Southampton in the summer for more than 50 years to get in touch with their creative side, while enjoying the sun and sand on the shores of Lake Huron. (Photo courtesy Southampton Art School and Gallery)

A summer tradition on Lake Huron:
Young and old unleash creativity at Southampton Art School

Each year, hundreds of visitors to the Lake Huron community of Southampton pack their art supplies along with their swimsuits, eager to follow in the footsteps of countless others who have gathered here in summer to explore their inner artist.  

Described by one cottager as “home to the most beautiful convergence of earth, water and sky,” Southampton, perhaps best known for its oft-photographed Chantry Island lighthouse, is the place where both the professional artist and the dabbler come to be inspired. They are drawn here by the Southampton Art School, which has been offering instruction in everything from landscape painting to sculpture to jewelry-making in a small downtown heritage building for more than 50 years.  

The school is so popular — there are waiting lists for high-demand courses, such as abstract and acrylic art — that Jo Ann Sturgeon, president of the Southampton Arts Society, admits: “We’re bursting at the seams.”  

Originally built in 1887 to house James Howe’s private collection of books, the art school building was donated to the town in 1912 on the condition that it be used only for cultural purposes. First used as a public library, it was transformed into a school of art in 1957. From a few students back then, almost 1,000 adults and children now take courses there each year, mostly in the summer months.  

Classes range from one-day affairs to a full weekend and up to one week. Depending on your course, you’ll be taught right in the art school or at various venues around town, with plenty of “plein air” instruction for the inspiration that will get you painting like a pro in no time. One popular three-day course includes a trip by boat over to Chantry Island, where students can get up-close with the imperial tower and keeper’s cottage — climb the lighthouse's 105 steps for fantastic lake views — and soak in the beauty of the rocky island, a national bird sanctuary.  

Combining art and the cottage

“People enjoy that trip,” says Sturgeon. “Chantry is a calling card for us. The combination of the boat ride and the painting — it’s very thrilling.”  

While the majority of visiting summer students come from southern Ontario, with many of them returning each year, there are also American families who take classes while they vacation at their nearby cottages. The school is also popular with the retirees who live in Southampton and neighbouring Port Elgin, which together form the community of Saugeen Shores. If you’re only in Southampton for a day or two, there are plenty of B&Bs to stay at, or you can camp out.  

The Southampton Art School, along with the adjacent gallery, are governed by the non-profit Southampton Arts Society. Sturgeon, as president, has firsthand knowledge of the art school, having taken many courses there over the years, most recently an abstract landscape class. 

“Most artists do continue to take courses because they find it inspires them, keeps them fresh,” Sturgeon tells “I’ll be taking courses for the rest of my life.”  

Three of her grandchildren will be taking half-day classes when they visit this month.  

Cyndi Burgess, director of the Southampton Art School, says there has been great success with programs for children in the three- to six-year-old category. “We’re getting them hooked early,” she says of the school, which began life as an adults-only learning centre.  

Burgess, whose art background is in pottery and ceramics, is in the ideal position to help other residents who miss out on learning opportunities at the art school because they work all summer, as she does. Thanks to new programming to be introduced this fall and winter, locals who don’t leave town for warmer climes will now be able to sign up for courses designed just for them.  

“The local working community would like to try out the art school, but it’s hard to commit because of the length of some of the workshops,” says Burgess. “So we’re tailoring the fall and winter programs to the local working people by having them on the weekend and in the evening.”  

Lots of courses to choose from

While the number of fall and winter courses on offer will start out small, the move is the final push needed to transform the Southampton Art School, which began life as a summer school, into a true year-round facility. For now, the school’s satellite winter location will be in an out-building at Shulars Garage, 78 Albert St., because the school building is rented by an outside group in winter.  

Burgess, who says she likes that classes are taught in various locations in Southampton, including a boathouse, says “we’re weighing our options” regarding the future and the feasibility of moving to a larger space.  

For now, the setup works just fine, with the school and the adjacent gallery feeding off one another. Originally designed to showcase the work of the school’s visiting instructors, the gallery, opened in 1999, now features the work of about 55 artists from Bruce and Grey counties. You’ll find everything from paintings to pottery to jewelry to fabric art.  

The gallery’s signature event this year is the Beautiful Women Project, a touring exhibition of 120 life-size clay sculptures of the torsos of women ages 19 to 91, designed to celebrate women in all shapes and sizes. The exhibition by Cheryl-Ann Webster will be at the Southampton Art Gallery Aug. 6 to Sept. 7.  

Why not find your inner artist while you’re in town for the exhibition? There are still plenty of courses to sign up for this summer and fall. You’ll find the art school’s catalogue online. — August 2011

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