While the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts opened its doors in 2015, that’s not where the institution’s story begins. The process started back in 2008 when the late Marilyn I. Walker, a Canadian quiltmaker, author and philanthropist donated $15 million to the University in order to assist with the revitalization of the arts in the Niagara region, a cause that she was passionate about.
The donation prompted the University to look into the potential relocating of the Music, Drama, Visual Arts Departments and Studies in Arts and Culture Program to the downtown core of St. Catharines. In 2011, the University was awarded $26.2 million which allowed them to acquire the former Canada Hair Cloth Factory and begin construction.
“In acquiring the former Canada Hair Cloth building, a late 19th century textile factory, we were able to adapt its naturally-lit, unique open spaces to our many specialized needs,” said Derek Knight, who has been a faculty member in the Department of Visual Arts since 1985.
Moving the arts facilities downtown presented a unique opportunity to have all of the disciplines located in a singular building, as well as new opportunities to reach out to the wider St. Catharines community.
“It creates a really important hub of creativity where students in the different disciplines can interact more closely with one another, unlike when we were on main campus, they weren’t all concentrated in one area,” said Elizabeth Vlossak, the current interim director of what she refers to as simply, “The School.”
Vlossak is a professor in the Department of History, and recognizes the significance of the building itself.
“When I first moved to St. Catharines in 2006, the factory was still operational, it was one of my favourite buildings, I loved how evocative it was,” she said. The construction was careful to preserve the original factory, leaving most of the original building standing. This presents a visual marker, a modern remnant of the industrialization that once dominated the Niagara region.
St. Catharines was once a hotspot of industrialization, its proximity to the waterway and to the United States allowed for the industry to thrive.
“The building is now serving this new purpose. What do we do? What do communities do when their traditional industry is no longer viable. They have to observe, reimagine themselves,” said Vlossak.
What was once a hub of industrial companies is now a hub of creativity and art.
“It is a highly stimulating environment to work and study in: the sounds emanating from the music practice rooms or on the ground floor, the vital energy of the drama rehearsal studios on the second level and the large-format canvases filling the painting studio on the fourth level, are typical of a productive, studio environment,” said Knight.
Brock has state-of-the-art facilities, but one struggle that the move downtown has presented is the sense of separation from the main campus. It is difficult to get students and faculty from other departments to make the trip downtown and participate in the creativity. “I know that people on main campus, students, but especially faculty who have been there for a while and remember having the arts on campus, and they miss it. They miss encountering the arts students and encountering their work,” said Vlossak. “It’s wonderful that we’re downtown and embedded in the community, that our students can access all the venues downtown and it’s such an important part of the downtown regeneration, but it also leads to very separate identities and there is very little movement between the two.”
The move downtown has been a net positive for the department and the separate arts campus is something that prospective students tend to look at when considering Brock. On one hand, they are separated from main campus, they’ll have to bus downtown, but on the other hand, they get to learn and create in such a stimulating environment.
“To bring everybody together in a purpose-built location where they have access to amazing studio spaces, fantastic visual arts oasis, the theatre, the costume room, the [props] shop. These are some of the best facilities in Canada, so speaking to students who are here, now that they have a space for themselves that they can call home, where they feel comfortable, where they can create, interact with each other, and with their professors and their instructors, there really is this sort of buzz here that students love, and I really love working and being around that creativity,” said Vlossak.
The anecdote that perhaps best sums up the story is the story of the chimney swifts. If you’ve taken a class downtown then you’ve probably already heard it, but the chimney swift was a bird that adapted to industrialization, their feet evolved to cling to the inside of a chimney, but now that the hallmarks of industrialization are being wiped out of Niagara, and factories are being torn down, the birds are at risk of extinction. The Marilyn I. Walker School has a family of them living in their chimney; on a clear spring day, you can sometimes hear them. If you have a keen eye, you might be able to spot them flying overhead. They mark the intersection at which the school exists. The building sits in between an industrial era and a modern era, in between main campus and the downtown core.
While the move downtown separated the arts faculties, they have revitalized the work and given students a new creative outlet. The work that comes out of the Marilyn I. Waker School of Fine and Performing Arts may be harder to find, but you can be assured, it will always be stunning.