Salt Spring Island beckons art lovers

Off the west coast of Canada, laid-back artists and farmers welcome visitors.

Joan Warren sat down to throw a bowl. She wasn't angry; she's a potter who moved to Salt Spring Island (the largest of the Gulf Islands on the west coast of British Columbia) more than 20 years ago.

"I fell in love with this island immediately," says Ms. Warren. "Just look at my front yard."

Standing by her studio flanked by kiwi trees proffering ripe fruit, Warren pointed to her own private slice of beach, and the view across the water - the island's only white coral beach where chocolate lilies grow wild.

Warren is one of many artists who have set up their studios on 17-mile-long Salt Spring, positioned between Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver. Home to 9,000 year-round residents, swelling to 30,000 residents plus visitors in the summer, Salt Spring has long been a mecca for those seeking a tranquil, natural existence.

Artists have poured in from around the globe, including Argentina, France, and South Africa, and over the past 30 years, the island's arts community has evolved into the dominant industry. It features tree-enveloped studios specializing in everything from wood-turning and pottery to weaving, painting, and glassware. Its quietly exploding artistic community has led to Salt Spring Island becoming a rapidly growing travel destination.

Touring the Salt Spring artist studios is as easy as picking up the free self-guided map available at the downtown Ganges Info Center, and starting to drive.

My sister-in-law, Lynne, and I could not resist the idea of renting a Mustang convertible (although less expensive options are available). Winding through the hilly island, our hair whipping in the wind, we began our journey toward some of the 31 studios, all easily spotted from the road, thanks to sheep signs with numbers corresponding to those on the map.

We passed rural farmland, fields of dry grasses, and lush forests of Douglas fir and oaks. Lakes dot the island, and for much of the time you will travel along stunning rocky coastline. Studios can be found almost anywhere on the island: up a narrow winding path, next to a heritage barn, or connected to an owner-built home along the beach.

Back-to-the-land potter

We began our tour in the Ganges area, at Stoneridge Pottery on the east coast of the island. Gary Chernoff's ridge-top home and studio overlooks Goat Island and Ganges Harbor. Born and raised in Vancouver, Mr. Chernoff was part of the "back to the land" movement of the 1960s and '70s.

"It was the time of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Joni Mitchell," he says. "My wife and I were part of that - traveling the world and looking for models of how to live life. A lot of idealism to be sure." But after a year of soul-searching they landed permanently on Salt Spring, a place they found to be a "strong community, enthusiastic about young artists."

Focusing on one-of-a-kind stoneware, terra cotta, and raku ware, Chernoff often travels to Japan to study technique. "My work is informed by the Japanese notion of discovering nature in materials and process," he says. "Design by discovery and looking, rather than design by abstract conception."

Over the past five years Chernoff has begun to more vigorously explore the materials available on the island - clays, rocks, and ash - for glaze materials.

"I use these materials to produce work which has a flavor of place...," he says. The result is a collection of one-of-a-kind treasures that simultaneously capture the essence of the island and his influences abroad.

Continuing our tour, Lynne and I headed west, cutting across the northern section of the island toward the area known as sunny Vesuvius, noted for having the best summer swimming on the island. There we were greeted by South African newcomers Gail Coney and her husband, Bruce, with a plate of fresh figs.

"It was a dream come true to move to Salt Spring," Mrs. Coney says.

Besides offering true island hospitality, the Coneys sell a wide range of household goods, from elegant stoneware pottery in vibrant colors - kiwi green, papaya orange, Delft blue, citrus yellow (some of their larger bowls even feature 22-karat-gold accents) - to a series of decorative decoupage clocks.

But for the Coneys, living on Salt Spring is as much about the lifestyle as it is about existing as artists.

"We love it on the Island," she says. "The people, the music, the activities, the culture, and artistic talents. Here, people care for each other and show a genuine interest in what you are doing. That is what life is all about."

That sentiment is shared by Argentine artist Antonio Alonso, who owns Antonio Alonso Wood Turning, located on the eastern side of Salt Spring.

His smooth, elegant vases and bowls are considered some of the finest on the island. While traveling in India, he met the Canadian woman who became his wife; they eventually moved to Salt Spring in 1992.

"People don't move here to get rich or famous," explains Mr. Alonso. "We come because of nature. It is so powerful - the rivers, the mountains, the trees. We live here because it is so peaceful."

Honoring local woods

Sometimes he works with wood from different parts of Canada - maples, oaks, and occasionally tropical hardwoods. But Alonso mostly works with what grows on the island: arbutus, oak, various maples, and fruit trees.

"I feel tremendously lucky," says Alonso, "that during the past few years the most exquisite and wonderful pieces of wood have passed through my hands. There is a responsibility to honor them somehow, both for what they cost and for their rarity."

Another must-see studio is Pacific Basketry, tucked away on a hillside among a grove of trees. This studio showcases the art of basketmaking, a craft that has recently undergone a renaissance on Salt Spring.

Seven basketmakers use local materials such as cedar bark, reed, rush, and honeysuckle, all of which are found in abundance on the island.

Salt Spring Island's art offerings aren't just for the eyes; they may also appeal to the ears, as Soul Vibration's handiworks do. This studio produces Chakra chimes.

If you miss some of the studios on your driving tour, very likely you can catch them at the Island's Saturday Market, a fabulous collection of outdoor arts, crafts, and organic produce held at Centennial Park.

An all-out "war" used to go on to secure a spot at this oceanfront weekend event, now held every Saturday, rain or shine, from mid-April to mid-October (8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.).

Today it is much more civilized, though highly competitive, and artists and farmers from across the island - and from a few islands beyond - set up shop here to sell their goods.

One local favorite is Aroma Crystal Therapy Ltd., which sells Gardener's Dream Cream, which contains peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary, and cinnamon. Look beyond the hippie marketing to discover a delightful hand cream, say its fans.

Food and active pursuits

Besides being known as the home of one of the largest concentrations of artists in Canada, Salt Spring is also known as Canada's "organic gardening capital." A whopping 225 farms are located on the island.

With cheesemaking, vineyards, organic produce, heritage seeds, and specialty crops such as garlic, herbs, and lavender, the island's farms provide an organic food-lover's treasure-trove.

Wandering the market this time of year, you may see fresh asparagus, organic eggs, and fresh-cut flowers.

Everywhere a visitor turns, there are temptations in the form of delightful prepared products. Locally made organic cheeses, for instance, from Salt Spring Island Cheese Co., and Moonstruck Organic Cheeses. Or Bright Farm's "original" Salt Spring island garlic braid.

Active travelers - those who might be more interested in working up a sweat than sifting through serigraphs - should not miss kayaking along the shores and archipelago of the Gulf Islands.

You can rent kayaks from Sea Otter Kayaking and head out on your own, or go on a guided trip (anywhere from two hours to several days).

Cycling on Salt Spring is also great fun, but be warned: It's hilly. Many of the more stalwart visitors extend their stay to island-hop with their bicycles, staying a few days on Salt Spring before visiting the nearby islands of Mayne, Pender, and Galiano.

After touring the studios and speaking with the artists, I came to realize that art mimics nature on Salt Spring, as artists regularly pay tribute to the nature that surrounds them. Whether they are incorporating local materials or trying to capture the natural essence of the island in their work, nature is never far from the finished product.

At the end of our visit, as Lynne and I settled into our float plane, careful not to squish our bags of new pottery and glassware, we gently rose above the shimmering waters and lush forests of Salt Spring. Looking down, we smiled, happy to have discovered a spot where art, nature, and people seem to exist in perfect harmony.

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