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Originally published June 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 15, 2009 at 2:42 PM

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Salt Spring Island: It's the place where art is life

In a makeshift studio tucked in the forest near a strip of sandy shoreline, Trevor Whelon fires up his kiln and begins a day of glassblowing while his son and his friends play...

Seattle Times travel writer

SALT SPRING ISLAND, B.C. — In a makeshift studio tucked in the forest near a strip of sandy shoreline, Trevor Whelon fires up his kiln and begins a day of glassblowing while his son and his friends play tag in the back yard.

A stone mason by trade, he supports his family in part by making glass Christmas ornaments and his signature "stump" vessels, tall blue, orange and yellow vases he forms with the impressions of chopped wood.

A few miles away, on land shared with an islander who grows and dries 100 varieties of flowers, Lionel Demandre cultivates 15 types of willows that he uses to weave traditional French baskets, a craft he learned in his native Brittany and imported to Salt Spring 10 years ago.

At the end of a dead-end road few tourists would think of following, Geoff Fishleigh crafts chakra chimes used to produce soothing sounds believed to promote healing and a sense of well-being.

"Ten years ago, I wouldn't have sold one of them," said Fishleigh, 43. The hair that touches the collar of his fleece jacket is starting to gray, and he recalls a time not that long ago when he didn't even have enough money for gas to drive to a trade show in Colorado. Today, his company, Soul Vibration Instruments, supplies chimes to yoga and meditation studios across Canada and the United States and employs two helpers to keep up with the orders.

These craftsmen are three of the reasons Salt Spring calls itself the Island of the Arts. At little over 100 square miles, it's the largest and most developed of the Canadian Gulf Islands, and more than 10 percent of its 10,000 residents are estimated to be involved in some way with the arts,

Handmade goat- and sheep-milk cheeses line a case at Salt Spring Island Cheese on the east side of the island near Ruckle Park.

Downtown Ganges is the island's commercial hub, and the Saturday Market is famous as a gathering place for potters, painters, cheesemakers, jewelers, carvers and others who grow or make everything themselves.

But I was yearning for a more up-close and personal experience, and found that getting off the beaten path and catching a glimpse of the artists at work was as easy as picking up a map and following a self-guided tour of 37 studios marked along the side of the road by a black-sheep logo.

"The market has become so busy in the summer, it's almost become overwhelming," said Diane Mortensen, a weaver who makes evening gowns, scarves and movie costumes in her home workshop near Vesuvius Bay on the west side of Salt Spring. "I'd rather have people come and see me weave and experience how a real craftsperson lives."

Go exploring

Now in its 14th year, the studio tour has been expanded to include a breadmaker, a cheesemaker and an alpaca farm, all spread out on parts of the island where you're as likely to spot wild deer or walk among a herd of grazing sheep as pass an oncoming car.


"The bonus is that you get to peek into someone's life and get to parts of the island that you normally wouldn't go to," said Paul Burke. A woodcarver with a passion for natural history, he runs Blue Horse Folk Art with his wife, Anna Gustafson, a ceramic artist and furniture maker.

It's possible to circle Salt Spring by car in less than two hours, but getting here from Seattle takes the better part of a day, and there's much to explore. The outdoor possibilities include forest and beach walks, lake fishing and Ruckle Park, a historic working farm that's been turned into a public park.

By the time my husband and I settled into our room at the Old Farmhouse B&B in the late afternoon a few weeks ago, we knew we had been wise to plan a three-night stay.

Three acres of meadows and orchards buffer the Victorian-era homestead from the traffic along North End Road, five minutes' drive from downtown Ganges. Relaxing on our porch in the morning, sipping tea and listening to the birds calling to each other, we felt as if we were temporary residents in our own private park

Owners Jim and Celeste Halicki delight in preparing gourmet treats for their guests. We woke to the smell of fresh scones and cinnamon rolls, and it was with full stomachs that we set out with our map and cellphone to meet some of the island's artists and farmers.

Some are open only by appointment on certain days, but "appointment," we found, is a loose term for pulling over to the side of the road and phoning a few minutes ahead.

"Al's just getting the girls in and I'm out gardening, so come on over," said Joy Burrows when I called from Harlan's, a chocolate shop in Ganges.

She and her husband, Alan, raise alpacas on property skirting St. Mary Lake, Salt Spring's major resort area.

The "girls" are the female half of the couple's herd of alpacas. The fiber is spun into yarn and clothing and sold in a shop they run along with a healing center and B&B.

"I wasn't absolutely certain what an alpaca was," Alan Burrows recalled.

After retiring from their jobs in Hong Kong (he worked for Cathay Pacific airline, and she was a veterinary nurse), the couple moved to Salt Spring via Whistler 2-1/2 years ago. And like many of island's entrepreneurs, the couple took a flier on making a living doing what they love.

"A lot of us came here for the same reason," explained Gary Cherneff, 60, a potter with a studio hidden into the trees off he road leading to Long Harbour, one of three ferry landings on Salt Spring.

Seeking the simple life

He and his wife, Beth, a florist, moved to Salt Spring in 1974 from Vancouver. "Like a lot of people, we were seeking a simpler lifestyle, and we can see now that it's happening here again."

The town's only movie theater doubles as a community center for square dancing, dog obedience classes and tai chi lessons; Salt Spring has its own currency — colorful bills decorated with the work of local artists — that can be spent at local businesses; and a few years ago, to support efforts to environmental-awareness efforts, 32 island women posed nude for a calendar to raise money.

"Salt Spring answers the question, where have all the '60s hippies gone," a friend once told me.

Whelon gets a lot of requests for blown-glass hash pipes (he sticks to vases), and at the Morningside Organic Bakery & Cafe near the Fulford ferry dock, we picked up smoked-tofu sandwiches and sipped soy lattes at a burlwood table by a giant outdoor adobe fireplace.

"It started back in the '60s and '70s with Vietnam War draft resisters," said weaver Mortensen. "People like me came here and saw what a supportive island it is for the arts. You end up with enough artists and craftspeople to feed off each other in terms of inspiration and energy."

Salt Spring's most famous artist is wildlife painter Robert Bateman. One of his paintings, titled "Thinking Like a Mountain," graces the back of the $100 Salt Spring dollar bill. But many others work just as successfully out of the limelight.

Burke, 53, and Gustafson, 51, slept in tents before building their house and studio on a bluff on the scenic north end of the island.

Visit them today and you'll find yourself wandering through a bright cedar-shake gallery where the ravens and horses Paul carves from white pine carry $400 price tags.

They've opened a garden coffee bar, and recently converted part of their basement into a chocolate factory.

Studio tour drop-ins include Seattle high-tech entrepreneurs with fat checkbooks, and people like us, intending to spend nothing more than time poking along the backroads. Everyone is welcome.

"Here, we can have people come to us," Burke said. "You never know who's going to pull up in the driveway."

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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