Haliburton School of Art and Design marks five decades
By Jenn Watt
Published August 29, 2017
Haliburton School of Art and Design was one of Shelley Schell’s first serious jobs. When she joined the college, then known as Haliburton School of Fine Arts, it was 1983 and she was a part-time registration clerk.
“I used to hand-write all the registrations … in triplicate,” said Schell, now a training officer at the college in charge of co-ordinating the busy summer program. At the time, all of the registrants’ names would fit on one piece of bristol board that she kept behind her desk.
As registrations went up, Schell innovated by introducing a paper record system: one sheet for every class. She laughs when she recalls how few students they had back then.
“I remember hitting 500 [students] and thinking that was amazing,” she said.
Schell has worked most of her adult life at the college and has seen its steady progress and rising enrolment. She has watched with pride as students discovered the college’s innovative summer classes and instructors fell in love with the Highlands, returning year after year to teach.
Today, thousands come during the summer months to take classes at HSAD’s waterfront campus and a strong lineup of full-time courses throughout the year connects the campus to other arts universities and colleges across the country.
What HSAD is now is exactly what its founders were hoping would happen, said Carole Finn, a Minden-based artist and one of the visionaries behind the school.
Finn said a small group of artists hatched a plan for an arts school in the mid-1960s. At the time, community colleges weren’t commonplace and what this small group was dreaming about was entirely new for many people. There were several people who initially worked toward the goal, including Ron McCaw, Karl Hanke and Jan Augusteijn and Finn, among others.
At the same time, the Haliburton Highlands Guild of Fine Arts encouraged groups of artists to organize around the county.
Finn said she worked on organizing many of these groups, which started with weavers and potters.
“It was the interaction between the guild people and the school that built up the core of people that gave the school a population and also vice versa,” she said.
Around the same time as Sir Sandford Fleming College was being formed, Haliburton School of the Arts was formalized and became an extension of Fleming – in 1967, 50 years ago.
Its first director was Don Popple, who started with the college in 1970 teaching in the recreation program.
Asked if he wanted to run the Haliburton school, Popple said he was happy to accept the challenge and he ran the program until 1975.
“It was a pretty stimulating time,” he said. “Things were growing. We brought it to pretty good heights and it was well accepted.”
He estimated the student population at somewhere between 150 to 200 students. Most of the classes were in the summer, but during his time there, some part-time year-round courses were added.
The school’s supporters frequently refer to their vision for Haliburton as being “the Banff of the east,” and Popple said passionate people worked toward that goal. High quality instructors were necessary and sometimes investment in equipment, when it wasn’t too taxing on the school’s budget.
He remembers renowned Canadian author Austin Clarke teaching in Haliburton.
“Those [classes] all sold out,” he said.
After a few years of running the school, Popple moved into the business world, running Curry Motors for another 38 years before retiring.
It was his former student, Barb Bolin, who took over the reins as principal.
“I said to her, this is made for you,” Popple said.
That turned out to be incredibly accurate.
Bolin said she never expected she would work for 36 years at the same institution, but the atmosphere of the place kept her firmly planted in Haliburton.
“My favourite thing to do when I was working there was go to classes and stand and watch,” she said. “What a wonderful thing: to work with people who are excited about what they’re doing and proud about what they’re doing.”
An article in the Haliburton Echo written when she retired in 2008 noted that her incredible energy and encouragement of others helped her accomplish many feats during her decades with the organization.
“For many, the pinnacle of her success was convincing the provincial government to build a year-round campus in a rural community and then raising the community’s $2.5 million contribution almost single-handedly,” the story reads.
Bolin said the construction of the campus was a major feat, crucial to the continued growth and success of the institution.
The new building was opened in 2004, replacing the Lakeview Centre on Highway 118, which had held classes for years.
Popple said before the Lakeview school, most of the classes were run out of the high school – and sometimes out of people’s homes.
“I remember pottery classes in a woman’s garage on [County Road] 121,” he said.
The school has always been a place to support artists’ education and Finn said Bolin ensured that the arts community was supported. “Barb’s personality of working with other people is absolutely paramount,” she said.
Bolin didn’t expect to be heading up an arts college. She, like Popple, was trained in recreational leadership. Her background was farming and she said she has no natural ability in the arts. However, she said she soon found a connection between the world she came from and the one she was hired to lead.
“Farmers, their work is their life,” she said.
“It’s seven days a week and they do it all their life. Artists are very much the same. I found artists to be absolutely ... kindred spirits. I really liked the attitudes and their perspectives.”
It turned out that Bolin fit well with the arts community and ended up guiding the school from having about 75 summer students to the thousands it hosts today.
Part of the growth came from attracting high quality instructors, which partially was due to the condensed structure of the classes. It’s easier to ask a world-class potter to come to Haliburton for a week of her time, than a semester. It’s also easier to convince a teenager from the city to take a four-month intensive course than a two-year one (even if eventually many students choose to stay on, once they’ve experienced the school).
But on top of that, a camaraderie that was built up intentionally over time has kept instructors coming back and enticed new ones to come on board. The college’s cabins offer accommodations for out-of-town artists, who then spend time together in what some call a camp-like atmosphere. There are regular social get-togethers and the college encourages them to take each other’s courses.
“We decided that faculty could take another course for $5,” Bolin recalled. “People started to take other people’s classes … That cross-pollination of information turned out to be enormously valuable to both the artists themselves and to the work.”
It wasn’t only arts classes that the college has provided for the community, Schell said.
“We needed to be and we were the community’s college – not just a community college, but the community’s college,” she said. That means classes on lumber grading, CPR or swimming lessons at Pinestone Resort.
Several resorts played an active role with the college in its early days, a document Schell compiled with research by Cheryl Wray reveals.
“Those first offerings in 1967 were held at Royal View Lodge on the shores of Lake Kashagawigamog. The brochure noted that ‘There will be accommodation of a great variety available in the area at this time ranging from approximately $5 without meals to $20 with meals per day.’ Ensuing years would see courses, faculty dinners, entertainment and art auctions hosted at many local lodges, among them: Deer Lodge, Wigamog Inn, Chateau Woodland, KenMar Lodge, Bonnie View Inn, and Domain of Killien,” the document reads.
In 1969, the summer school was launched with nine courses and children’s programming.
“Children could be introduced to arts and adults could choose from drawing, painting, weaving, ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, creative writing, photography and movie making. Interestingly, those techniques can all still be found within the program,” Schell’s document reads.
Haliburton School of Fine Arts became Haliburton School of the Arts in 2000 and transformed to Haliburton School of Art and Design last year.
Over the last decade, the school has focused not only on growing its vast summer offerings, but also its year-round courses.
“The rigor of our full-time programs have provided the opportunities for HSAD to partner with arts specialized institutions across the country such as NSCAD University, OCADU, Emily Carr University and Alberta College of Art and Design, plus other universities with recognized visual arts degrees such as York U,” said HSAD dean and principal Sandra Dupret in an email to the Echo.
“With the opening of our ‘new’ campus in 2004, it was important to have year round programming to make it financially sustainable. Since opening, our full-time enrolment has increased over 44 per cent. This increase has seen more students and faculty in our community during the fall, winter and spring,” she said.
HSAD offers 11 one-year certificates, two graduate certificates and two diplomas, Dupret said, which is up from when she started a decade ago.
“I don’t think that people truly understand how special it is to have an incredible school like HSAD that has done so well for so many years. We are a rarity not only in Canada but across the U.S.A. There are a handful of places where individuals of all levels can come and learn so many different hands on practices in craft, art and design,” she said.
Finn said watching the school grow over the years has been a satisfying process, largely because it fills its role so perfectly.
“What I feel is an accomplishment, in that I can now do my art,” she said, adding that the following week she was enrolled in a printmaking course with Otis Tamasauskas. “If that school hadn’t been there, you’d never get a chance to meet people like Otis. It makes you want to do the work that you do.”