Beau’s: Tasty Beer & Social Goodness

I was really exited to get some one-on-one time with Steve Beauchesne to chat about what makes Beau’s beer soooo tasty and their special brand of social goodness. Steve is an easy going, intelligent guy who has spent a serious amount of time thinking about beer and it’s place in our society.


Tell me a little about yourself?
I started the brewery in 2006 with my dad but the story of the brewery starts a couple of years before that. Here  is the pre-story to the pre-story. I grew up in Vankleek Hill. I moved out when I started college because I was really into indie music and loved the idea of living in a big city. I moved to Toronto, went to school, stayed for a while. During this time my dad was running a textile business in Vankleek Hill. Just as he was gearing up for retirement the whole textile industry in Canada went off shore. In  a very short period of time he went form running a successful business to closing shop. In 2004 he came to visit me in Toronto and said he had to shut the doors on his business because he had no customers left. We spent that afternoon, a nice sunny day, having a couple of pints of beer, and somewhere during that conversation my dad said “Steve, you are always showing up with these nice beers, you are brewing at home, what do you think if I were to open up a craft brewery in Eastern ontario?” I said “Well dad, not only do I think that is a really cool idea, but if you would want I would quit my job, sell my house and move home to start a brewery with you!”


I had a job I really liked. During the day I was doing business planning for the Ontario government and at night I was running a record label and playing in a band. I loved the night life and I loved the job I had during the day. As much as I liked everything I was doing the idea of getting to run my own brewery was just so exciting that it trumped everything else.

So what is it about beer that you find so irresistible?
Music and beer are two of my passions. I was already a home brewer. For my 18th birthday I went to Montreal and discovered Boréale beer which back in those days was so mind-bogglingly different from everything else you could possibly try. From there I found           St. Ambroise stuff and got into Quebec’s scene in the early 90s. In Toronto, there was Amsterdam then Steamwhistle.

I can get pretty esoteric about this question why beer is important. People have a visceral connection with beer. It stretches back to the begining of civilization. There were several points in human history if not for beer humanity would have failed. Medieval times, the patron saint of beer was the first person to realize that people were dying from the plague because the water was filthy. When you make beer you have to sterilize the water. The local priest decreed “don’t drink water anymore, drink beer”. The amount of invention, industry and commerce, as well as, things like taxation, have all been based around beer.

This visceral response to beer may be the same kind of emotional response I get when I am walking home on a cold day and I smell a wood burning fire. Growing up we never had a wood burning fire. This memory isn’t from my youth. This is something that I am connected to through generations. I can’t smell a wood burning fire on a cold day without having that feeling of comfort and warmth and everything wonderful in the world. It’s the same thing when I have a really good beer. That first sip gives so much comfort and warmth and creates a connection to the generations of the past.

Wow, that’s pretty deep
I wouldn’t have had this answer for you when I was starting the brewery. At that point, I don’t think I understood why I loved beer as much as I do. Ten years of reflection have helped me gain this level of insight.

Beau’s gets involved in a lot of causes. What drives your decision to get involved?
I like to think of the brewery as a piece of performance art mixed with a bit of social experiment more than I think of it as a business. I subscribe to Andy Warhol’s philosophy “art is good, business is art and the best art is good business”. He was one of the first artists to recognize that commercial success wasn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing. What you decide to do with it makes it either good or bad.

The unfortunate thing in business is that the prevailing philosophy is that the only thing the business should be doing is maximize shareholder profit. I think that is a fundamentally flawed principle. If you are only focused on maximizing profit and you don’t take into account your stakeholders and the environment I don’t think you are ever going to achieve your full potential. For me the business is the vehicle and profit is the fuel. If we don’t make money, we can’t keep the lights on and we can’t do anything good, but if profit is the goal, then you aren’t really doing anything. For me it is very important that we have a higher purpose that transcends beyond self-sustaining. It’s important to do things that are impactful and I feel very fortunate that the brewery allows us to do these extra things. To me these extra things have a lot to do with why we are successful in the first place. It becomes this self fulfilling initiative. It also allows us to excite our employees more. It changes what we do from making wigidts to doing something important. For our customers it changes them from being customers to being fans. It’s not just a matter of ‘they make good beer’ but also ‘they do this thing I really care about’.

Can you talk about some of the causes Beau’s has donated to?
We started awards for diversity and innovation in brewing at Niagara College. Some things we fund are pet projects my father, I, or someone else at the brewery is passionate about. Other times people reach out to us. There are so many worthwhile causes out there. I would have a tough time saying we only support a single cause. We support more than a hundred charities a year and we have donated over a $1 million over the 10 years of business. It allows us to support causes that don’t have big marketing budgets behind them. We are currently helping a woman entrepreneur in Rwanda get a brewery off the ground. Beer tastes better when you can feel good drinking it.

Where do you see your company heading in the next ten years?
As we approached our ten year anniversary we took a moment to define ourselves not for the next ten years but for the next hundred years. We decided to start focusing on legacy. That is what participated the move to employee ownership because that protects our legacy of being independent. Our project helping to open a craft brewery in Rwanda is legacy from a global community perspective. The award and scholarship with Niagara College is our legacy for the brewing community. Looking at Ottawa in particular, because Ottawa has been such a key market for us, our involvement in Ottawa 2017 is a way to say we want to make significant investments in community building in Ottawa.

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When we look at our next hundred years, what are the core values we can ensure  will endure for generations. We also looked at ourselves from a short-term and medium-term perspective and that includes what kind of cool beers we want to make and kind of techniques we want to use. We have a long list of tactical based things we are taking on. By next fall at the latest you can start to expect some kind of sour or wild beers coming from the brewery. We are going toBrazil to start some collaborative projects with a Brazilian brewery.

The interesting part for me out of this long term exercise is that we want the core principles to be the same. They should never change: family run, local, award winning, certified organic, do it yourself. Some of these labels will change but the values behind it will stay the same. I think this is one of the reasons we have been as successful as we have been.

Michael Tardioli, School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO)

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Broken Book No. 8, 1998                                                                                                         Michael Tardioli

I have been a faithful SPAO follower over the past decade and was really excited to chat with its Director, Michael Tardioli, about what makes him tick, how the school got started and where it’s headed. Michael is modest about his talents, genuine, and caring. His students come first. He brings a human touch to the education system. Oh, an he is funny. SPAO has it’s annual open house next Friday, November 4, 2016 from 3pm-10pm. There will be some exciting announcements!

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How did you get started with photography?
I don’t have a big arts background. My youth was consumed with playing soccer. I was on provincial all-star teams. I was on a professional reserve team. I had skills but I just didn’t have that athleticism that I needed to stand out a little more and there was not a lot of opportunities.

I was an only child. I had a great aunt who used to have these photo books that I didn’t realize how critical they were at the time. We would go over to their house and there was no kids around so I would look at these books. I would see these naked people in them and it was kind of scary because it was in black-and-white. It affected me. I always loved the act of drawing and I couldn’t draw as well as people around me. I had a cousin that could draw perfectly. And that type of drawing, not necessarily art drawing, but there is a car and he would draw it perfectly and I was like “Why can’t I do that?”

After soccer had ended, I had injured my ankles, I lost my identity. Then someone showed me a camera and for some reason, I had no interest in photography, I got caught with the mechanics of it for just about a year. Someone suggested I take a program at the college. At the time they trained as printers or lab techs not photographers. I excelled there. I met my mentor there, this German man, who really showed me how to work . I got a job right away in the industry and it sort of began like that. I developed print techniques later on which  got a bit of attention for me to go into teaching. And that’s when all the SPAO mess began…

SPAO “mess”?
Everyone thinks I started the school on a positive note but I kind of didn’t. I was teaching at Algonquin College. They gave me first-year students, about eighty of them, and said form your own curriculum. And I did. Well, my first year group started outperforming the graduating group that I didn’t have and the graduating group got really upset by this and said “Why don’t we have Michael in the classroom?” Which was very flattering, there’s no question about it, but I could understand the department heads at the time saying “Wait a minute, we don’t necessarily want a popular instructor, we don’t know if that is a good idea.” So, for union issues, I didn’t  return to Algonquin College. I had this exiting interview and as we were talking they were all obviously very happy with my work and they sort of hinted that I was a bit of a higher level than what they wanted. I said to them “You have three or four students that have a lot of talent here and I think you should take a look at them.” The instructor said “No, we treat everyone the same way.” At that time, it turned me a little bit. I got angry. I didn’t show my anger, I just said “Look at this, eh.” I want a culture where we secure our talent. All the other students are going to get what they are going to get and get it well but we gotta look at our talent here. So I went away angry and said “In another world, I should just start my own program.”

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Image by Abigail Gossage

What happened next?
get these emails during the summer “Michael, we are not going back to school.” Five of them. I said “Come on guys, you gotta go back and get your diploma.” Five became ten, ten became twenty and that’s when I talked to someone and they said “Michael, why don’t you look at opening something up”. I didn’t want to go through the work of it. I took a long walk and said “What the hell!”. I thought maybe we will last a year just to get those kids through everything. Well, it’s twelve years now .

So it wasn’t this entrepreneurial thing. I don’t make a lot of money. It’s really because I love talent and I am attracted to it. I don’t care what it is, I am fascinated by it. So, if I’m able to manage that,  help with developing it, than I love being a part of it. I will support talent at any level. When I go to soccer games I always watch the best players and ask myself “What are they doing that we are not doing?” So, when I say that I want my students’ work to be a world-class that’s not a joke. It sound silly , and I am sure that some people say that I am a fool, but I take it on that level all the time.

Where does SPAO fit in the photography scene? 
Higher learning sort of describes what art can be. Academic cultures provide conceptual ideas showing the potential of creative contemporary photo-based art. SPAO is a production house. I am embarrassed to always give sports analogies because it looks pedestrian in the art community but SPAO really is a training ground: a camp of these new artists, young artists, misdirected artis, students, a polishing, a place to repeat, a place to experiment. It’s production based and I am really proud of that.

Where the school is really different from the bigger educational institutions is that we kind of secure lives a little bit by creating a place for people. Someone who can’t go to university or college, someone like a couple of our students who are going through a lot of trouble. Maybe it’s a place for these individuals for a couple of years. There is a human element of caring about you as a person and I don’t want to lose that.

How’s SPAO run?
We don’t get funding. Zero. We are a charity now so we get some donations. I am getting thanked in another way. We had to produce talent, careers, establish careers, establish a presence in the community. We have been criticized for having a SPAO look, well that’s earning it on merit to create an identity through the work coming out of the students. If the school shuts down tomorrow, I would go to bed alright because we did it.

I am not interested in fame, I am interested in the stability of the school. That there is going to be a place for people to come. I had a chance not coming from an arts background to do something artistic and I want other people to have a chance to do the same. I want anyone who wants to express themselves with their hands or wants to think about things to come on down. I don’t care what you look like or who you know.

What does it mean for SPAO to be in Ottawa?
The people running the city arts program have an interest in photographic arts. They want Ottawa to be the hub for photographic arts based on the Karsh legacy. There is a feeling that this could be the place. We don’t have the commercial culture that Toronto or Montreal has, but Ottawa has this chance to be a hub and the school could be a really big part of that.

One of my petpeves is that we don’t have a representation culture in Ottawa. Art reps, galleries, we have very few photographic galleries. Is it going to come to SPAO to run a critical gallery now? We don’t have a photography festival in Ottawa.  Is it going to be up to SPAO to do that again? It’s tough because we are an aging culture. Is that going to be problematic in the future? What is the youth going to do?

What’s your vision for SPAO moving forward?
Personally I will be an old senile man in the corner and I will always have a job at the school. That’s one thing. Two, as much as I love the school becoming more civilized, bigger space, wheelchair access bathroom, all the right stuff, I want a culture of uncivilization. I need it to be hard and awkward and frustrating and a think-tank that really promotes the emerging artist. I want to have a camera building lab in the background so we can build our own cameras. I want a place for historical processes. When I named the school I included “the” because I want us to be a think-tank.  I want SPAO to be  a place where we can try all kind of stuff, to have conversations about work, to hang out at the school with a collective of artists. It’s hard to be alone in the arts and SPAO allows you to drop by and hang out, do stuff. There are so many alumni who are envious of the new group because they know its the place to hang out. I have seven groups of collectives that have stayed with me for years because they are a group and it’s part of the artist team; the studio exists within all of them.

What’s preoccupying you when it comes to photography?
The photograph as an object as opposed to photograph as an image. SPAO wants the photograph to remain an object. The viability of an artist career. I am obsessed with that. Is it going to be up to the school to form it’s own representation agency? How can I help my students after they graduate? I worry about those teaching because then you don’t do their own work. Commercial practice I don’t worry about – you need a different type of energy and you can make a lot of money doing it. But the viability of the artist. I want them to live well. Not just live but live well.

What’s the importance of the photograph as an object for you?
I love films. I could watch movies every day. Film allows me to look into the content. I am not looking at the movie. I am not looking at the seats and the projection, I am totally consumed by what’s going on in the film. What the still photograph allows me to do is to look at it as an object. I get to look at it not just in it. This doesn’t necessarily follow suit with what’s going on in contemporary photography. There is a lot of interpretive documentary now that is very much about story telling and narrative -something we don’t do enough of at the school that I want to bring in. It’s tough to develop narratives in a school environment because you have a shorter amount of time. Nothing much can happen. It’s hard to manufacture narratives just like that. Something has to come at you. I want to make sure that my students can visually organize themselves before they start a narrative. I have taken the position to start with composition and craft right away and get to narrative later.

How do you stay inspired?
All students. When I go home I don’t do any photographic work and I don’t look at art. I am into model making so I do that. I am building a soccer stadium from the 1970s. A friend of mine willed me his model kits and I am not sure what I am going to do with them  – I just stare at them. I put it all in here [SPAO]. I wish I could describe the feeling better than I am…there is nothing better then when a student finds it. It’s a motivator for me. It is selfish in it’s own way. I get celebrated for it too. When one of my students does well and the byline says “studied at SPAO” that’s a handshake for me. I know what I have.

Sarah Swan of The Village House

I have to start with an apology…this post has been sitting in my inbox for a while. With summer holidays behind us and September already disappeared, I am just getting back into the rhythm of things.

In August I spent three days in Wakefield. It was lovely! Stand up paddle, trail walks, bike rides and food. The Village House was the best dining experience I had in those three days. The place is charming and the food is excellent. Real comfort food! I was really excited to get to know the people behind the restaurant Sarah Swan & her chef husband Michael Houle.


How did you get into food?
I started at a really young age in the service industry and pretty much grew up in it. I was probably twelve years old when I worked in the first restaurant job and carried on and on.

Are you parents in the restaurant business?
No, they are both teachers. I started my first job at the Earl House which was at the corner and they needed a bus girl. I worked there for the summer. Then I worked at bakery, at Mont Cascade the beer cart and then I finally migrated to Ottawa and worked in bars and then restaurants including Social, Black Cat and Navarra.

What is it about this industry that attracts you?
I am a really social person so I enjoy that connection. I would say this is probably the easiest serving job I have ever had. It’s my own business so I am basically a server that owns the place [laughs]. I love my customers. It’s fun, I get to have that connection. We hire people that we want to spend time with and that are talented. Most of them have been with us from the start and we have a really personal connection. When we throw family bbqs our staff is there. We spend not only our work time with them but also our off time with them as well.

Where were you before The Village House?
I was managing Navarra. Rene Rodriguez and I had worked at Social together and when he wanted to open his place he approached me to be the manager. At the same time my husband, whom I didn’t know at the time, was working as the sous chef at Bistro 51. That was eight years ago. After about three years at Navarra I was approached to manage the  Wakefield Inn. I wanted wrap my head around the corporate side of restaurants so I took the job.

How was The Village House born?
A mutual friend of ours Luigi who owns the famous little pizza place in Wakefield knew we wanted to open up our own place told us this place was coming up for sale.  He was like a restaurant pimp I would say [laughs] because every time a place would come up he would be like “what about that place…and that place”. We knew the place already and fell in love with it immediately and it’s was kind of ‘now or never’ so we jumped in. This was four and a half years ago.

And how is it going?
It’s really good. It’s a steady increase. We don’t advertise, we really like a lot of word of mouth, we love having a very strong local clientele, but we have great new clientele which is steadily growing. We have regulars who come from Barheaven three times a month so those are always really amazing things to hear. Our media levels have been going steady. We are going into gold medal plates this year which is a huge competition for us. We have both done it with other chefs we have supported so it’s pretty fun now that my husband is the one competing. We are  featured in the Ottawa Cooks.


Can you talk about the concept behind the restaurant?
We describe our food as upscale comfort food and the décor is country shabby chic. Which is kind of what Wakefield is – very eclectic. It speaks to our personality. The artwork is from a friend of ours – photos of trees from the area. I like things here to have personal stories. Most of the antiques are from my parents. I have my grandmothers cast iron pans. The barn board is from a one of the old Bed and Breakfast’s in the village, the woodwork is done by a friend of my mother’s who is the artist on tour in Wakefield. Our stools have been here since the previous restuaranteur and they still have names of the regurals that came to her restaurant that now come to our restaurant. We kept their names and they still sit in the same stools. The antique phone has been in my family for over a hundred years so I convinced my mom to lend it to us. Everything is very personal – we lke it so it’s here and thankfully it all works.

Can you talk about what it’s like living in Wakefield?
It’s amazing. I always knew that I would probably move back here. I lived out in BC interior and Vancouver for four years and worked at a prominent restaurant there, Lumiere, so I got a lot of my fine dining and wine expertise from that restaurant for sure. But I always knew I would come back to Wakefield because it’s a great place to raise kids. Its one of those special villages because you really feel like you are in the country but you are only twenty minutes from the city. It’s a local town that welcomes tourists. People are really friendly and welcoming. Each business is very unique so no one is competing. I love what I do but I don’t know if I would love what I do as much if I was in the city. I feel for them. It’s a lot of competition and hussble bustle.

It seems like you have found a good balance in your work and personal life?
We strike a good balance here. We don’t need to be open seven days a week twelve hours a day to make ends meet. Our family time is very important. My husband’s sanity is very important. This summer is our first time doing six nights a week but we did a casual night on Monday – it’s a wing and taco night so it’s really simple. We have great staff so we are ready to just let them run with it. Usually I am here at night time and my husband is here during the day and also sometimes at night.  We finally hit that stride where we said ‘let’s not be here Monday nights and test the waters’. It has been a slow build but we are comfortable with our growth and see a bright future!

Ottawa’s coming of age: an engaging conversation with Alexandra Badzak, Director & CEO, Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG)


Daily Ave. facade in the making

Tell me about yourself?
I am a prairie girl, born and raised in Saskatchewan. I trained as a visual artist. This is surprisingly rare for art gallery directors who tend to come from an art history background. I realized I loved the idea of connecting art to people and the ideas that art was exploring. I moved into my masters degree which was all about informal learning in the art gallery and grassroots movements pertaining to art and community involvement. That led me to eventually rise up through the ranks for the municipal art gallery in Saskatoon.

How did you end up in Ottawa?
I came to Ottawa as the first Executive Director of the Diefenbunker Museum.  I took it through a big organizational change including a big capital project. The Museum went from being able to allow 65 people in that huge underground bunker to over 500 that they are allowed now. That was a big project. I flowed right into this position. I have been at it for six years and every day and every year of it has been preoccupied with making the OAG expansion happen.

Can you talk about the genesis of the OAG expansion?
The OAG expansion is in a lot of ways a wish fulfilment for the arts community here in Ottawa. The OAG as it sits now at 12,000 square feet is one of the smallest municipal art galleries in Canada and that’s including Grande Prairie, Alberta, and Brandon Manitoba. A lot of it comes from the dynamic of national institutions. We hate to use the word ‘overshadowed’ but in fact that is part of the issue. In the early days a lot of patrons and a lot of artists were very much occupied with the National Art Gallery. In the 80s there was a real movement, and that came because there were other institutions forming and the University started playing a bigger role and the arts community rose up and said ‘we need a gallery of our own’ and that’s really where the genesis of the OAG emerged. Officially we started as the Gallery at Arts Court, the building we are in now in 1988, and we were fully incorporated as the Ottawa Art Gallery in 1993. Since then we have had three female directors, I am the third, and we have slowly built up the organization to what it is now but there was always, I think, a feeling that our occupation within Arts Court was a temporary solution and that we truly needed to build a building that is museum designated that was up to the proper standards and that truly showcased the talent that the city has to offer in terms of its art community.

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The future is near and beautiful

And now you are growing exponentially…
That is what we are building. We are going from 12,000 square feet to a building that is going to be over 80,000 square feet. We will have increased exhibition spaces, four times the size visitor amenity and programming space, four times the size collection storage space for our art. What we are trying to build is a space that people can commune with art at their own level. We are not just building a building we are growing an organization, but we are also trying to shift the paradigm a little bit and really look at things like radical access.

Radical access…
We did some interesting work with non-visual learner Carmen Papalia, he is an artist as well, kind of pushing what it’s like to think of an art gallery for someone who is blind. We are looking at mobility issues but also very simple things like ‘hey, let’s have our hours of operation actually be open for times people actually need us to be open’. So many galleries are usually not open Monday, and open from 9am-5pm, well that’s just ridiculous because most people are working during that period of time. So we are going to be open until 10pm, open Monday, we are going to be free – that’s a crazy idea.

We are very aware that museum building in western society is a colonizing activity. It was about taking artefacts from other culture, I think with good intentions of educating people about those cultures, but it nonetheless was a colonizing activity and it still continues to be based on those traditions, and of course there has always been the criticism of it being elitist. We are very interested to break through some of those barriers for participation and those come in a myriad of forms, such as economic, so getting rid of entrance fees is one part of that. The concept of barriers delves deeper, we present art on the walls in a way that generally does not allow people to touch the art, and there are good art conservation reasons why we have done that, but what is the real risk to the art? Can we start to push those boundaries? Can we start to find ways that art can be touched so that non-visual learners can gain access to what the art might be? We typically put a tiny little label next to the art – what do we want to shift that to? I think for a lot of non-visual learners, for example, the story behind art making, the story behind artists themselves becomes a way into the work, so how do we deliver that story, can new technology be a way? If so, how does that change our budgets and the way we typically hire people.  For instance, writing will always be an important part of a curator’s job but it seems to me that interview techniques and digital technology are going to be more and more important to the staffing of visual arts institutions. So those are small examples of where we want to go.

Can you talk about the partnerships in the expansion of the OAG?
The wonderful thing is we are also going to be the first public-private visual arts project in Canada and we have some great private partners like Le Germain Hotel, a boutique hotel out of Montreal and they are great because they are green, very progressive, very arts friendly and arts-focused, and they have been a really interesting partner for us already. Then we have DevMcGill’s ArtHaus Condos. They are very green, contemporary looking, and we have already established some very interesting connections to that condo development in terms of our membership and our rental and sales program. We will also hook up to the old Arts Court building on four different level so when we are all done 2017-18 we are going to be one city block dedicated to the arts in Ottawa. It’s a game changer. Our architects are particularly good at building gallery spaces and they love these volumes and forms that come through. The whole concept was to create a sense of interconnection with Arts Court and OAG. We will also be connected to the University of Ottawa’s Theatre Department. They will have a black box theatre and four classrooms that are part of the whole mix. There is a great flow from all of the spaces. Finally, Arts Court will become accessible.

How would you describe Ottawa’s visual arts scene?
That’s a big one [she laughs]. It’s a fascinating one. It’s in our minds because it is the focus of our inaugural exhibition. We will finally have the space and opportunity to tell the breath and depth of our art history in conversation with our contemporary scene – so that is going to be our big show. There is a pattern, Ottawa becomes to some degree a bit of a meeting place for artists. In the early days they came because they were serving the Federal government, there was a lot of portraiture work because it is a government town so we saw a lot of artists coming for that kind of commissioned work. And then the 70s and 80s you got more public art commissioning work that was happening. The visual arts department at University of Ottawa was important so you had what was called ‘the Montreal mafia’ the teaching faculty was dominated by teachers coming from Montreal. Not quite staying flowing in and out of Ottawa but now we are starting to see that there are a lot of emergent grassroots movements that are happening. There are so many pop up artist run centers; private galleries that are emerging that are really fascinating and quite diverse. I don’t think one could pinpoint what Ottawa art is, I think it is just too diverse for that and I think it should be. We have strength in photography for sure, great painting tradition, absolutely strong assemblage, sculpture tradition, and very interesting mixed media artists. There’s also a great mix with the Ottawa institutions SAW Video, SAW Gallery, Artengine, I think these are all interesting institutions that start to shape and foster and allow for incubation space for the art of our times. The OAG moving forward is really interested to work with those groups.

Can you talk about the relationship with national institutions and how, if at all, that will change with the expansion of the OAG?
It is a great question and I think we have had to explain why we are not the National Gallery of Canada and that in fact it is a very complementary relationship. If the OAG is not doing its job, we are not fostering and supporting the artists that can rise to the top of their game and make their way into the collection or be in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. We are very much part of that matrix much like other municipal and regional galleries across Canada. We are very comfortable in that position, but we do have to explain it form time to time.

I think that there are some great models that both the National Arts Center and the National Gallery of Canada have started to foster that allow for greater exchange with local institutions like the OAG. The NAC Scene Festival is an example of a model where the NAC comes to us, we talk about complementary programming and they actually provide monetary support for the programming that we do and we become part of their whole festival marketing, it is a very exciting couple of weeks in the national capital. The NGC started to move into that territory with Sakahàn, an international indigenous exhibition which they did a couple of years ago whereby we had a great conversation, then developed complementary programming and then we became one venue that was part of their larger festival. I hope that kind of programming will continue. On a person to person basis, which is ultimately what it comes down to, we started to form really great relationships with their curators.

We will be meeting with them very soon to talk about our upcoming programming and their programming and how again we can find linkages. That is the same conversation we are having with Carleton University Art Gallery and we are very interested in some partnership development with SAW Video and SAW Gallery, Artengine and Gallery 101. I think that’s a bit of our mantra moving forward is that we are interested in working laterally.

What keeps you in Ottawa?
For one thing, I think its Canada’s best kept secret, how beautiful it is. Coming from the west, Ottawa represented government and it was an eye opener to see how gorgeous it is. A lovely city that is walkable and bikable and getting better that way. Five minutes out of the city and you have hit the most gorgeous countryside you could possibly imagine. I just feel that Ottawa needed to pick up its game because there is some great art institution building across Canada and we are not at that level yet and we should be given how big of a city we are and how mature of a city we are. The OAG Expansion is a bit of a coming of age project for our arts community.

Do you see that similar trend in other sectors or instating you are in contact with?
I would say Ottawa overall is coming of age as a city onto itself. Not in separation but in partnership with the concept of the national capital. You can look at the Red Blacks and their renewed venue, the Ottawa Public Library working on big plans, the downtown core is starting to redefine itself and the LRT is very important. All these things are happening at the same time so by 2017-18, Ottawa is going to feel very different, especially the downtown core of Ottawa. We are going to feel like a big city. The OAG is a 2017 cultural legacy for the city that we plan to open in the fall of 2017. That will be a great moment where we hope the whole city rallies behind and gets excited by it.

Rapid-fire chat with co-hosts of CreativeMornings Ottawa Sharif Virani & Maxine Patenaude


I was really excited to chat with Sharif and Maxine about CreativeMornings Ottawa and how they see the monthly event evolving to meet the changing needs of our rapidly growing city. Sharif and Maxine are very busy professionals who are giving back to the creative community. The platform they have created nourishes the city’s thirst for knowledge and ideas while inspiring an environment where connections grow and lead to new projects and businesses.

How did you get started with CreativeMornings Ottawa?
Sharif: I am the co-founder of the CreativeMornings Ottawa chapter. We are in our fourth year now. I started it with a friend of mine, Mike Grigoriev, who went off to start Ottawa City Woodshop. At the time we were both looking for a more creative outlet for our passions. I had just come back from the west coast and was energized by the innovation, culture and vibe happening there. We wanted to create something interesting in Ottawa that would bring together people of the same ethos who are interested in creativity, social change, moving the status quo. We started to look around for models. A designer, Swiss Miss, had founded CreativeMornings out of Brooklyn. It kind of ballooned from there. There are around 200 chapters now but at the time we were only at about 30. Mike and I put in an application video together depicting why we think Ottawa deserved a CreativeMornings. Not so much why we think we should run it but why the city could sustain it and why the city deserved it.


Sharif on the right

Why did you think Ottawa deserved a CreativeMornings?
Sharif: We thought the city was deserving for a multitude of factors: four seasons, so many mixing cultures and it’s a creative city. There are so many variables here. In a sense it’s made up of creativity.

What’s happened since you first applied?
Sharif: We have had our highs and lows. We have had to go back to the drawing board now and then. We run out of funding or it looses steam. We don’t want to force it. At the time we started it Ottawa really did need CreativeMornings and it has done a lot to push that creativity. It’s when Shopify started to gain steam. A lot of people cite CreativeMornings as something that inspired them to go off on their own. It did that for me and it did that for Mike as well. The past year we took things back to the drawing board. Max joined as the co-host. When we started CreativeMornings Ottawa we had a three year plan. We have hit those goals for every single year so where do we go from here?

What’s next for CreativeMornings Ottawa?
Sharif: Maxine and I are still talking about what that is going to be. There is definitely gong to be a next iteration 2.0 of CreativeMornings Ottawa if you will. The first three years were about getting people in the room and making creativity become a topic of conversation, something that it wasn’t before. I think that was maybe driven in part by the recession. Government funding and spending dried up and people had to figure out what to do without it. For some it meant going off to pursue their passion out of necessity. The past year to two the government is back in full steam, especially now, and creativity is taking a bit of a back seat I would say. The tap is back on.


Maxine on the far right

Maxine why did you get involved with CreativeMornings?
I was born in Ottawa but did my schooling in public relations in Toronto. When you are in public relations your network is everything. I came back to Ottawa and realized I didn’t have a network any more. I was looking out for things I am interested in and found CreativeMornings right away. It might have been through HUB Ottawa where I was volunteering at the time. I started going to CreativeMornings religiously. I loved them. I got to meet new people. I was learning about different things I didn’t necessarily have an interest in but the way that they showcased it, that creative angle, it fed my soul on Friday morning to go to work and feel the way I never felt before. As soon as I had the opportunity to give them a hand and make it the best that it can be I jumped on it. At first I started helping them on the communication/social media side and once Mike stepped down I jumped at the chance to co-host.

You mentioned that Ottawa has matured?
Sharif: Because people don’t have that thirst any more but also because the city has reached a totally different point. We are no longer the city we were pre-recession. That same monumental exponential speed that we had is slowed down a bit. A lot of people are saying the ‘tap is back on’ meaning money is coming back from the government. You see that especially in the creative and marketing industry where a lot of firms depend on money from government contracts or spill offs from external organizations that work with government. During recession you had to look for different types of clients because you didn’t have that normal fund basis of a three year budgetary plan approved by the government to re-brand Parks Canada for example. I am pulling from my own experience because that is what I was doing.

My hope is that people are savvier in the way they perceive their creative process. We will see what happens but I think that will be part of the CreativeMornings 2.0 discussion; it’s no longer creativity through necessity but now it’s creativity because we want to be creative. We have Ottawa 2017; we have all these great opportunities where we are on the world stage. Canada is on the world stage with Trudeau mania back again so we have that opportunity to showcase to the world and rest of Canada what we can be. So how do we do that? I think that is the main question of Ottawa 2017 in a way but that will also be central to where we progress CreativeMornings.

Maxine: When CreativeMornings Ottawa started there wasn’t a platform for creative people to get together and network, make those relationships and do that cross pollination that currently exists. CreativeMornings Ottawa has served as a birthplace for many of the city’s creative projects, and that’s something we’re really proud of. There’s that returning community of talented and passionate creative people but now it’s taking that a step further and reaching out to the people that do not necessarily identify themselves as creatives but that can see creativity in a different way. This is a huge thing for our chapter because we are not in a city where you have massive heads of design agencies or large design communities so I think we find creativity in different outlets. This is reflected in the variety of the talks we have had ranging from foraging edible plants, architects, psychologists, furniture builders. This makes CreativeMornings Ottawa a little different. It taps into worlds that are not usually tapped into. Now it’s about continuing that.

Sharif: From the start we were adamant that we didn’t want to be an event just for graphic designers or marketing or programmers…

Maxine: It wouldn’t be sustainable here either…

Sharif: but also you bottleneck yourself.

Where does the funding come from?
Sharif: From different sources. Lots of the startups, Wallacks, Beau’s…

Maxine: There has been a lot of support from the community.

Sharif: Organizations that try to push the barrier a little have been great in supporting us and recognizing that there is a need for this. The City of Ottawa has been one of our biggest funding partners through the Community Arts and Social Engagement division. The Ottawa School of Art was involved with us as well.

So now it’s time to start reflecting how the city has changed?
Maxine: The city has grown in the last five years and there is so much art and culture compared to what we had. There are a lot of opportunities. We’re looking at how we can involve the community in a way that hasn’t been done before – maybe something more hands on. It will be playing and exploring to see what works and what doesn’t.

Sharif: The first three years were really about having Ottawa recognize its own creative potential. The basis of CreativeMornings is showing how your city is creative. We had to take it a step back and let the city realize that it was creative because that was missing. I think we did that and now it’s how do we position ourselves as a creative city within Canada, which I think is happening right, and how do we show that on the North American stage and international stage. There are multiple steps to that. I don’t have the answer right now. It’s not uncommon to see Ottawa ‘change-makers’ in the papers these days. Shopify has done a great job of opening that door for us with Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, etc. We have the limelight now and let’s use it as a stepping stone to showcase the other amazing people in town.

Ottawa’s identity is a topic that keeps coming up …
Sharif: Ottawa is like a confused teenager right now…

Maxine: Ten articles have come out this year with ‘Ottawa is boring’ ‘no it’s not’ ‘yes it is’ and so on. Why??? It’s ridiculous that there is this ongoing debate about what Ottawa is and what makes it interesting. There is probably a 60/40 split who do think Ottawa is boring. Ottawa is what you make it.

Sharif: We are not a city that functions on one layer. We have those people that live in the suburbs and want to live in the suburbs, and we have the people that want to live on the other side of King Edward which is like the wild wild west. Hull is a whole layer in itself. There are so many different unique layers to Ottawa and that’s Ottawa, that’s what makes it so special. There’s the French, there’s the English, there’s shawarma, pho, all those different mixing cultures and that’s what’s made us unique.


Maxine: Its part of what we do. We don’t stay in the downtown core when we do our talks. One of the recent talks was out on St. Laurent Boulevard at the Ottawa Art Bank. A lot of people in our community were like ‘why are you going out there keep it downtown’ but if you keep it downtown you are going to get everyone from the downtown and that is not the goal. Ottawa is all those levels. There is so much to tap into. We want to avoid limiting ourselves.

Remco Volmer & Artengine: imagining a more sustainable, creative and generous world

A gorgeous spring day, coffee in a historic courtyard, and a mind-bending inspirational conversation. I am excited to share with you the highlights of my chat with Remco Volmer, the Managing Director of Artengine. The expansion of the Arts Court will bring with it a new era for the organization and further explorations at the fringes of art, technology and society.

photo (9)

Remco Volmer – taken at the bio-art exhibit “Playing Life”. The piece is called “Transience Mirror” where the silver layer has been allowed to rapidly oxidize in various stages to create the patterns.

You are Dutch…
Yes, I worked at the Dutch Embassy here in Canada for quite a while. The work itself was very interesting – we had a small cultural department and it allowed me to get to know the Canadian arts and culture field quite extensively because we worked across Canada on projects involving Dutch artists. I was able to work together with a lot of different organizations and cultural places here in Canada through all kinds of disciplines. In the end I didn’t have the right temperament for what was still mainly deskwork – I felt the need to be more actively involved in Ottawa’s cultural life.

What’s your academic background?
My degree is in Creative Media from the Utrecht University for the Arts – that’s a very broad catchall for anything tied to arts and technology including interaction design and audio-visual media. At the time, the move from analog to digital technologies had only just begun, and the school’s focus on that change and its impact on cultural production was considered pretty radical.

How did you get involved with Artengine?
I had been involved with Artengine for quite a while. First on the Board when there wasn’t even staff, and then later on as a coordinator for the Electric Fields media arts festival that Artengine produced and from there it actually grew to steady and greater involvement to the point where it was ‘well it makes far more sense that I start working here than just being involved on the side the whole time’.

What attracted you to Artengine in particular?
Artengine in particular has always had a future-forward view on art and technology and society. As an organization it is always in motion. By not settling on any one discipline specifically but more on the broader intersection of art, technology and society, it can move with the times – it’s inherently unstable in that sense – but it makes for really interesting experimental and provocative works that come out of it. It’s always exciting.

necropolis layout oulines3.indd

How would you describe Artengine’s core mandate?
The way I currently describe it is that we look at the impact of new and transformative technologies on society through the lens of art and design. With technology it is often the corporate narrative that gets told, but we are more interested in the social and aesthetic dimensions. If you look at science fiction literature, there were big ideas there and really aspirational ideas. Those stories were trying to clarify the now, the present, through speculative designs of the future – and I think Artengine is more in that space. We are trying to move toward this combination of design and what-ifs to imagine possible worlds. There is a very aspirational quality to what we are trying to do and to share that sense of imagination and wonder with others. It is meant to be a very realistic and concrete thing, to look at the social impact of our tools and technologies and from that create poetic experiences, new measures of meaning. Through these projects we try to imagine a more sustainable, creative, generous world around us. At least that is what we are aiming for.

What’s next for Artengine?
What’s exciting right now is the redevelopment of Arts Court, which will benefit Artengine as well as SAW Video and SAW Gallery. We will triple in size from our current square footage into a large open space within Arts Court. We are transforming this new space into a lab of sorts – a workshop for creative thinking and critical making. The activities will take place across three complementary platforms.

  • First there is the lab as a place for creative experimentation. Makers can use our workshop to collaborate and combine vastly different disciplines such as architecture, biology, fashion, art, design, media technology, engineering, sociology, gaming, and robotics in new and exciting ways. The lab will be activated through commissions, artist-in-residence programs and self-directed projects. But it will also serve as a presentation space where the results of these investigations can connect to the public to enjoy and interact with.
  • The second component is to go a bit more into knowledge sharing, connecting and spreading these ideas through open studios, workshops, small symposia which would also take place in that space. The idea is that this space becomes a dynamic interdisciplinary environment. Very modular, adaptable to the needs of the projects, all of these functions are fluidly flowing into each other.
  • The third pillar is the large public presentation of these ideas and projects, for instance through festivals. Currently, Maker Faire is our major platform for that but we can totally see that evolving over the years. It will still be another year before the space is active but I’m really excited about the possibilities.

What do you see on the horizon in this intersection of technology, society and art?
Right now, we’re looking at things like a virtual reality, food and technology, synthetic biology, new materials – new materials in the sense of circuitry woven into fibers from which clothing can be made for instance – there are so many developments right now. One of the quotes we try to live by is from William Blake that ‘the true method of knowledge is experiment’ so we try to keep an open mind and explore. For instance what are the technologies shaping the future of food? We want to work on projects that involve chefs and scientists looking at what we eat and how we make it. So things like lab-grown meat and 3D printed candy but also objects for sensory enhancement.

Art is inherently social, it’s a means of communication, and technology is inherently political, who has access to it and how is it used.

The more we look at the possible projects, the more we realize that these things are not separate elements. Art is inherently social, it’s a means of communication, and technology is inherently political, who has access to it and how is it used. So one thing we see on the horizon is an opening up to a more diverse way of making, allowing a wider range of perspectives to shape these developments. There is some talk in education to go from STEM – science tech engineering and math – to STEAM by throwing arts in there, but that’s not enough. Hands-on skills are of course important but what we need is a new type of thinking for the new techno-social environment that we find ourselves in, and that also involves philosophy, and social sciences and design thinking – skills that are critical and speculative.



We had one art piece last year at the Maker Faire, a feeding robot. It was a robotic arm with face recognition software. It was mounted on table. It had a couple of spoons with a glob of unidentifiable foodstuff on it. Next to it was a person who was referred to as the slave who wasn’t allowed to say anything to anybody and a fridge with more spoons with foodstuffs. The person would stand in front of the robot; it would recognize it as a face would go down and pick up one of the spoons with a magnet and would bring it the face to feed the person in front of it. Once it had done so it would drop the spoon of the hands of the slave who would then replace the spoon from the fridge. That was the activity. Of course, the face recognition software is not perfect so the spoon would sort of go in the general direction of someone’s face and every time the person would adapt to the robot so would move towards where the robot was bringing the spoon. People conforming themselves to what the machine wants them to do. Maybe that’s what we’re trying to counter a bit, and instead imagine and maybe realize more habitable futures.

Announcing the next Creative Mornings speaker!


Satish Kanwar, Director of Product at Shopify

I will have the pleasure of interviewing Sharif Virani, the host of Creative Mornings Ottawa, next week. In the meantime, he has given me the scoop on their next speaker: Satish Kanwar, Director of Product at Shopify.

Why is this supper exciting??? Satish was recently named one of Forbes’ Retail & Commerce 30 Under 30. He was noted for “being instrumental in launching the ecommerce software outfit’s biggest outfits, including Facebook and Pinterest’s Buy Buttons.” Check out his talk on how to build products that don’t suck.

Satish will be speaking on Friday, May 20, 8:30am at Shopify. Stay tuned for registration here Facebook or here website.


Andrew E. Pelling biohacker & TED Fellow

Andrew bio image

In February I attended a HubTalk with Andrew Pelling, University of Ottawa biohacker and 2016 TED Fellow. He was there to talk about taking risks. What really got my attention, apart from the fact that he had successfully grown a human ear out of an apple, was his emphasis on the importance of play and curiosity for its own sake. These activities should be spontaneous, motivating and FUN! He also spoke about the need to include creatives from all fields in his lab – not a conventional approach to science. Andrew was gracious, funny, humble and insightful. There is so much to say about him so please check out these links for more

At the HubTalk, Andrew demonstrated his willingness to take risks by introducing what he thought was a crazy idea: pHacktory. What happened next highlights Ottawa’s readiness to take innovation to the next level. I am really excited and honored to give you the scoop on Andrew and pHacktory.

Why Ottawa?
Good question. I actually applied for my job six months late when I happened to see an old job ad. At the time I was living in London, England and I was getting a lot of pressure to stay there in that position. But I was pretty tired of London, especially after living in Toronto and LA. London is pretty insane. It’s a great place to visit but after living there for many years it really wore on me. I was surprised because I never thought that would happen.

I wasn’t really intending to come to Ottawa. I just happened to see this really old expired ad and I sent my job package in anyways. I gotta hand it to the guy who saw it because he recognized right away that I might be the person they were looking for. It’s just serendipity.

I always liked Ottawa because it was the antithesis to these big crazy cities and I was ready for change. Something closer to nature. A little more relaxed. It’s sometimes a little too relaxed around here [laughs]. That was in 2008.

What do you think about Ottawa now?
I have a nice job because I travel all around the world and I get my fill of the big crazy cities. Then I get to live in Ottawa by the river and I can run to work. It’s a really nice balance. I have discovered all these great people here. They don’t get any exposure. There is some really cool stuff happening and no one knows about it. Photographers, architects, like Manuel Báez, who did the ceiling installation at the HUB, and others. Community stuff like the various makerspaces and Maker Junior. People doing their thing. This is what I like about New York City; everybody is just doing their thing. We have that spirit in Ottawa but it’s not in your face and it needs a bit of growth.

Can you tell me about your appointment as a TED Fellow?
The TED thing has just made life insane in a really good way. They warned us it would open up opportunities that you would have never imagined and so far so good. It’s really true. Suddenly you have this massive global platform and the backing of TED. There is so much more than just giving a TED talk. The incredible network of TED Fellows and the support and mentorship from the TED organization…it’s amazing.

In some ways it has changed the way I do science because for the first time ever a granting agency came to me. So that’s transformative. It makes life lot easier and opens up projects that I didn’t think I could have done or wouldn’t have been able to fund. The incredible network and range of TED fellows breeds collaborations between all sorts of people and disciplines. The support of the TED network really allows the Fellows to amplify their ideas.


Let’s talk about your latest idea: pHacktory?
I was giving a talk at the HUB about taking risks in my career. When I was putting the talk together I really wanted to demonstrate this to the audience, I didn’t want to just talk about it. So I thought I would throw out a crazy idea I hadn’t even thought carefully about. I put up this image of what I imagined pHacktory might look like and said ‘what would happen if I put my lab on the street?’

I had no plans. Literally no plans. I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I just wanted to show that I could take a crazy idea and share it with a prominent crowd of people and the response I got was insane. I’ve been totally surprised by the amount of support I have received for this initiative. Communities and individuals across the city are stepping up to help out and pHacktory is really looking like it might become a reality.

So what is pHacktory?
This would be a street level lab, studio and workshop for amplifying community ideas through craft, serendipity and curiosity. We would curate these activities, put out calls for those crazy, audacious and transformative ideas. We want to hear about ideas that make our skin quiver. The ideas where you don’t know how they’re going to get done, but if they were achieved they would change everything. And it could be in fashion, it could be in design, architecture, it could be something scientific whatever, I don’t care, as long as it’s that type of idea. We would offer an open, shared space to make it happen, along with resources and expertise. We would reach out to our partners and communities to bring in the expertise when needed to work on particular projects.

There would likely be a café and boutique on the public side of it, a lounge, documentation of previous projects, etc. Really, a flexible space for events of all sorts. Of course there would be access to the labs where all this experimenting is happening, where curiosity is valued for curiosities sake. This is a place where failure is ok and taking risks is the goal.

What is it about the idea that makes everyone so excited?
It’s obviously something that everyone has been looking for because I am hearing this excitement from people on the street to major corporations, hospitals and institutions in town. It’s a sense that this is community driven, that anybody, kids or adults, could walk in at any point, and its street level. I think people want that front row seat to cutting edge design and research and are tired of it being locked up in ivory towers and only hearing about it through the New York Times. I want to level the playing field. Kids come up with the greatest ideas. Can we leverage that? Can we wrap diverse communities into this? We are going to create this playground and do cool stuff and whether it has an application or not is irrelevant. pHacktory is the place where we will tackle those truly audacious, worthwhile and wildly transformative ideas. At any given time we will probably have between 3 and 5 curated major projects on the go. And each project would involve really creative and curious people from the community, companies and institutions working together. And I think where the magic is really going to happen is when these separate teams start chatting. When they are hanging out, inventing new ideas and are working in a space that gives them permission to try anything. Those unpredictable outcomes are what I’m really excited about.

And there is real value here. This is an opportunity for real partnerships between people from communities and institutions. pHacktory is a place to learn from experts and facilitate mentorship, teaching and learning and passing on knowledge. We’re really talking about apprenticeship in many ways. This is what pHacktory is all about.

You often mention importance of play and creativity. Can you talk about that?
You can see my office looks like a dumpster blew up. This is how I play. I am not building next gen technologies in here. I am goofing around with old CD-ROM drives and motors and making fun things. This is what’s so fundamental to creativity – I don’t know what I am going to make out of all these parts, but I am going to sit here for an hour and will invent something. How about a plant that spins around when I send it Facebook messages. It’s totally stupid but you have to go through the process of ‘what do I need from this thing, how do I design it, how do I code it, how do I put it together, how do I make it talk to Facebook?’ This is creative problem solving and it’s a skill that requires training, repetition and practice.

That is what’s so important, and what is missing, from education in many ways. ‘I am going to give you something you have never been exposed to, how are you going to solve that?’ In today’s world we encounter this all the time. We need people who know how to think rather than memorize. Letting myself play keeps my mind fluid. My lab is full of garbage and junk and the students all know to go play with it. I don’t care what they make with it. Just make something. It helps you to be flexible, nimble and creative. We lose curiosity because we are not allowed to just play. Play is a critical part of my scientific practice. It is absolutely essential to what we do. The list of discoveries that have come out of my lab because of play is getting really long.

So how did you keep you sense of play alive? How did you protect it?
It’s how I started this lab. It was almost an act of defiance in some way. I had no interest in running a conventional research lab. I figured that if people didn’t like it then I would probably lose my job. I thought that would be fine since I am still young and I knew I’d figure out something else to do with myself. I knew I would regret not taking the chance to create a really unconventional lab.

Through my career I’ve encountered so many professors near retirement who would say things like ‘now I can do what I really want to do’. I was like there is no f**king way I am spending thirty years doing what I don’t want to do, so that when I am at the end of my career I can finally do what I want to do. No way, I cannot live like that and I am not going to. And my office is a great reflection of that because it used to be a very conventional professors office. I asked the university to take all the conventional furniture out and for a few weeks I was working on the floor. Then I moved part of the lab up here because I thought ‘why don’t I have a workbench?’ It was so hard to get away from the computer and administration to go all the way downstairs to the lab. I have this room so let’s make this my personal playground. I got rid off the huge desk and huge workspace and replaced it with a workbench and a lounge and this tiny desk. It’s so much better and it’s good for creativity. This is also why we fill the lab with scientists, engineers, artists, social scientists. It’s so important to have all these perspectives colliding and mixing. I think we come up with better questions.

Tell me about how you got started in science in the first place?
It was actually in art school. It was that fascination with the natural world. Science is just as creative as art. There is no difference. The distinction we make as society is arbitrary. That is why it’s so important for me to have artists in the lab and all sorts of people in the lab that you wouldn’t expect.

But, during the very first lecture on the very first day of my undergraduate career, a prof said something like ‘at the heart of any good chemist is someone who wants to make things burn and blow things up’ and I was like damn I didn’t realize it, but I am a chemist! That is what I have been getting into trouble for my entire childhood. And that’s play and failure all wrapped into one. That hooked me on the idea of being a researcher, being able to explore ideas and do things and the traditionally the mechanism to that path is getting hyper specialized and being a world-leading expert in something.

When I got my job here, when I became a Canada Research Chair, I felt like I had proven what I needed to prove as a scientist. I am a tenured professor, I have all these awards, international recognition, yes there is always a bigger award and better paper, and bigger grant, but I have played that game and it’s not interesting to me any more. I thought ‘how can I completely throw out everything I have done and disrupt it and do something completely crazy?’ that’s why my lab went in a different direction. I am not a pioneer in any sense though. I have just been exposed to people around the world who have made similar types of choices and I am building on their risks and their lessons. It’s great. It’s a community of people.

Let’s talk about craft
The conversations I am having with people behind pHacktory are a lot about craft and really traditional apprenticeship models. Science is very much craft. In the lab you have to practice and learn and use your hands instead of just pressing a button and waiting for the computer to do something. You have to get in there with pipettes and work with cells. There is a craftsmanship to that work.

My wife’s work as a musical instrument maker is the very traditional notion of craft. There is an interesting parallel in our work. The theme is the same, the medium is different. We have collaborated now and then. We made a violin that tweets which we showcased at the Ottawa mini Maker Faire a few years ago. I created the board, the code and web interfaces for a violin she created. Basically this thing played bird songs in response to your playing, and also sent tweets out on Twitter. It was a really annoying account because it would blast Twitter messages based on whatever bird was playing and links to a website – we picked endangered birds. More highly endangered birds were assigned to frequencies you would not hear as much.

At the time I was also thinking about how we could use social media interfaces to connect to our scientific instruments. This led to creating a microscope a little later that could be controlled through Twitter. It was the same code, the same process. It started with this goofy project but it actually turned into a device that was eventually collected by the Canada Science and Technology Museum because of its significance to the landscape of Canadian science. We could have never predicted that or created a business plan to come up with this thing: it came out of play. That’s just one example.

Yael & Pat of the True Loaf Bread Company

078 (2)Bread is my one true love. Being Bosnian I cannot imagine life without bread. I still vividly recall how thrilled I was to discover this amazing European style bakery.One summer morning found me pedaling madly down Gladstone so I could be there as the doors opened at 7am. I got there early! I hung about conspicuously watching Yael take out the recycling. Thankfully she took pity on me and sold me a loaf of bread before opening time. There is nothing more beautiful than biting into a warm, crusty loaf of bread right out of the bag you are carrying or tearing off bits and pieces as you walk home. Pure pleasure. It wasn’t until I started the blog that I had the chance to speak to Yael and Pat, the couple who owns the bakery, about their story and what brought them to Ottawa. My interview was with Pat.

When did you move to Ottawa?
We moved here from Montreal in 2008 to open the bakery. We have family here. I didn’t think Montreal was a big city having lived there for a lot of my life and coming here it felt like a town. In Ottawa there are tons of big city things with town mentality. They want to cultivate as much localness as possible. Ottawa was one of the forerunners in the local food scene. We got here and local food was already big here. It wasn’t in Montreal. The 100 mile thing was happening already. We knew about it but it wasn’t a thing in Montreal yet.

How did you get into baking business?
I had worked for 10 years or so in high end restaurants doing everything and doing a lot of pastries towards the end and not liking it that much. Liking working with food but not liking the restaurant scene at all because it is so high stress. Yael had done some home baking and said ‘I think you would like baking’ and gave me the Bread Alone book. It’s always the book that I recommend to people. Now I would consider Tartine as well – the bakery is more interesting, more our style. I started baking at home and liked it and we had thought about opening a restaurant before. We were looking at the interior of BC and there was nowhere to learn how to bake bread like this. Yael had worked at Le Fromentier in Montreal so we moved back to Montreal. I applied to like 100 places to try and start baking. I didn’t speak French and I didn’t have any experience. Finally I got a job at Le Fromentier the second or third time I had been there. I worked really hard for over two years and advanced really quickly. I was lucky to have so many good teachers.

We were planning on heading out back west at first and at this point we had a son and we have family in Ottawa. It also seemed that there was nothing here in this European style of bread. The bread/pastry scene is still in its infancy. The good thing about the market though is that there are a lot of people that have travelled and a lot of Europeans.

photoWhat was it about bread that was so attractive?
I like that it is physical. I like working with my hands. It gives me a great sense of accomplishment to make something beautiful every day. I like that it’s transient, that someone will break that baguette and dunk it in soup, polish it off, and I get to do that all over again the next day. I like taking a pile of dry stuff and turning it into a really beautiful loaf. There’s science. There is so much I like. Everyday is different. Working with organic flour from bag to bag can change rapidly. We have to be able to adjust really fast and it keeps us on our toes. There wasn’t as much of that in my restaurant experience.

20150530_072759The hours are hard and for a long time I was working 10pm until 7am. My schedule now is 4am till noon. If I were to start over again I would start with the day schedule (the latter one mentioned). Interestingly enough it improved the bread – working with sourdough different environments encourage different tastes. A warm environment encourages a yogurty taste (lactic acid) and a cold environment encourages acetic acid. By changing the length of time we ferment the sourdough we can get a really good blend of lactic and acetic acid to have almost a balanced flavour.

Why own a bakery?
I always wanted to have my own place, to be the owner. Before I became the owner I didn’t really get what that entailed. I thought it was like ‘oh I will just be baking and making all the decisions’ but there is so much more I have to deal with. At times I have thought ‘wow if I could make the same amount of money and just go be a baker somewhere I would do it’. Paperwork and talking to the mill, the new year’s harvest, the last year’s harvest, them running out of things. As an owner it’s really nice interacting with customers. You get to see how important something as small as bread is to people. They are looking forward to it and they are happy.

Do you hire people have experience in baking?
I don’t like hiring people who have that much experience because it’s such a difference between Ontario and Quebec. Ontario is not a bread culture. The French heritage in Quebec is strong. There are bakeries that make breads similar to us everywhere in Quebec and everyone expects it. Something that is really fun as an owner, just being a local bakery, lots of who people come here consider themselves foodies but we also have a lot of customers that walk here because it is the local bakery and they don’t care, they just like our bread, they don’t know more about it than that. More than once people have come back from Paris and would say things like ‘you know I was in Paris and the bread wasn’t that good’ and I am like ‘YES!’ So without being super into it they have learned to evaluate it just by eating it.



Petr Cancura the ultimate imroviser

Petr Cancura is the Programming Director of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, prolific jazz musician, and a teacher. His face is a graced with an easy smile and I can understand why it’s there – he simply loves what he does! An improviser at heart, Petr has brought together his passion for jazz along with a vast knowledge of Balkan, African and American folk traditions to create a truly unique, grounded sound.


Petr Cancura in his living room. (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)

Tell me a little about yourself?
I was born in Czech Republic and lived there until I was 9 years old. I actually escaped with my family we lived there during communism and went to Austria, spent a year there and ended up here as landed immigrants in Ottawa. I went to Carleton for music, I toured around a fair amount and then I ended up in Boston at the conservatory for a masters and immediately moved to Brooklyn NY which is a common migratory pattern for musicians. I was there for the last 10 years. I moved back to Ottawa about a half a year ago.

What brought you back to Ottawa?
I play jazz, I sax, banjo, mandolin and woodwind instruments. I am an improviser but I also play bluegrass and have played in a lot of world bands. I like combining a lot of roots music and jazz and improvising. My personal project Down Home it uses a lot of characteristics from Mississippi and blues and Appalachian music along with high level of jazz improvisers. About 6 years ago maybe even more I started working with Catherine at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, I pitched her a few projects and she always liked them and hired me to do them. I had a jazz composers collective for a while and then I would do this workshop series that’s more like a folk festival style, and eventually Jaque Gimon who started the festival retired and she suggested I apply for the position and got it. So I have been doing that remotely from Brooklyn for 5 years. I would come up once a month for a week and down there I would be mostly touring and recording. What came up last year is I have a position at Carleton as a artist in residence which is amazing, I kind of get to do “what course would you like to teach” and I came up with a course I teach developing your own style through jazz and roots which is exactly what I do. I started an ensemble, I do a series of master classes and concerts and I teach a handful of students. Then I have the series at the NAC to mix jazz and roots. i am still touring and recording.

What is it that attracts you to blending those genres?
I had a bit of an epiphany a couple of years ago when I realized I could really make a difference to connecting people. I know that seems silly because I played music for a long time but it was more form the arts perspective for me for enjoyment. About four years ago I went down to the Othar Turner festival. Othar Turner was a legendary fife and drum blues musician – it’s very obscure – it’s this thing that has been part of Mississippi and deep south tradition for a 100 to 200 years but it is really obscure but it’s really unique it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. It’s a whole bunch of drummers playing kind of a mix of African and marching/military but then these fife players play the blues. It was in a bunch of movies like Martin Scorsese and others. We went down, it was an hour south of Mephisi, tiny little signs, it was not advertised at all, you drive on dirt roads to get to this place which turns out to be Othar Turner’s shack where he lived his entire life and in the backyard they had a flatbed truck and that was the stage and local blues guys played and the marching band would play a set every few hours. This went on from Friday to Monday nonstop all night. It was one of the first times that I saw musicians play because they had to for survival. It’s very impoverished there. The toll of racism and segregation is really obvious down there, it’s very in your face. To see these people get up and sing about hard times and be on stage because its survival I said ‘this is what music is about’.

I went back home and wrote the entire album of the first record that we put out. Before that I started playing mandolin about 8 years ago and I did that because as a saxophonist I went to a camp with a bunch of my musician friends and they all had guitars and signing and I decided to pull out the saxophone for about 30 seconds and I put it back, this is not happening at a campfire and that’s when I decided I wanted an instrument I can sing with and I like the mandolin, I like blue grass and I love that connection of folk music of raw expression, that’s what drives me. The blues in Mississippi. Then later on I realized the connection why I am drawn to that is because of a lot of the Romani music in Europe a lot of the gypsy music is raw. It’s the eastern European blues. But I have that with the saxophone in the jazz aspect puts it all into context a little more for me. I am around some of the best improvisers in the world so I had to combine those two. Music should inspire people. It’s a really fun time in music for me.

What has moving to Ottawa been like?
It’s been really nice. One of the other reasons we moved is we have a four year old. Once you have a kid things change a lot. The things that used to be really attractive about NYC you just don’t do anymore because you don’t have time and it is extremely expensive. My parents are here and a lot of those things start to matter. And the claustrophobic thing we love the outdoors so going from Brooklyn to go for a hike is like $50 in tolls and gas and the entire day just to get there.  I am busier than ever. I was really afraid, I miss the music scene in NYC a lot and that was the hardest part to leave I don’t miss anything else. I am in NYC in the next three months 4 times I just condense things when I go there. I would rather do this.

Do you think this move/change will impact your ideas/creativity?
Yes, absolutely. The thing with Brooklyn is that I was able to find musicians who do what I do and I found a scene. I have a number of projects that I am involved down there that are all kind of combining improvising and folk music. I am in a band that just released a CD called the Brooklyn Blowhards I am also in a bad called Old timers and we play fiddle music on two saxophones and a rhythm section. I found all this scene of musician who are really good at what they do and who like what I like to do. I don’t know anyone who does what I do here. Having said that at this point in my life I am OK to bring up people from NYC combine them with in Toronto and Montreal and I like the idea of combining all that. It’s hard to do locally. I also want to get involved locally and want to start up a project that is purely local. I think it’s important for me to have something regular wherever I am living. It is going to change. The music will be different.

How would you describe Ottawa’s music scene?
There is a lot of talented musicians here. Everybody is really versatile. New York made me focus because when I came from here I played a kelzmer wedding, a pop gig, I could do a rock gig, I could do a straight ahead jazz thing but I got the New York and I realized very quickly that there are people doing these things really well and unless I wanted to put my energy into that I should probably not do that. Same thing goes for everything. Very quickly you realize ‘OK, well this is what I am about, this is what I will invest all my energy into’ so you become very good at it. I think that is the big missing thing here however the positive thing of this is that I got to check out all these different music while I was young which if I grew up in NY I might be forced to go down a path. And I like variety. I I am like a ‘me too’ person. There is a lot of knowledge in Ottawa and people have specific skills and specific expertise and I am re-entering the scene and re-learning what kind of colors and musical personalities there are to deal with and what to make with that but that’s how I see it. There is a whole slew of young musicians that is really healthy now and I feel like it’s on the verge of something bigger happening. There is a large number of young musicians that are very active now. That hasn’t happened in a long time. If we can get more pople to stay or come back like I did I think we can really build this up, we can make it really great.

What would help people to stay?
It’s collective effort. It’s a critical mass thing. I have this advantage that I am involved all these different scenes. If I came here just as a musician it would be really hard. I also have all these different connection so it’s OK if I don’t play here for a month because I have five other gigs in Toronto and NYC again if I came here to be just in the scene it would be really hard. It’s a beautiful city and I love the lifestyle here, I can bike everywhere in the summer, everywhere, and I love all that, its very important to me and I loved being based out of here I would rather be based here than in Toronto or Montreal or new York for that matter at this time in my life I don’t mind travelling in those places and start to build something here. the scene is on the up and up if you can base yourself here and figure out how to make enough money.

Why is it challenging to get folks to attend local stuff when they show up in great numbers for the festivals? A lot of the smaller local stuff doesn’t get the same uptake from the folks who come to the big festivals?
That happens everywhere.  That is not unique to Ottawa. People don’t go to see the local stuff when there is a festival they go see big names they want to see something unique. Even with what I have done I will eventually become a local and people get tired of it and that’s OK. The advantage of that is you have an opportunity to build something and that is why I want to get an Ottawa project happening for me. You build an audience which in turn helps you build the music. It all comes together. And that’s kind of the future of it on the local level. It’s gotta be grassroots. There is that and then there is collaborating with bigger names. That’s the whole idea behind guest artists on CDs, it just helps sell the record if you get someone more or less famous on your CD. It just works. I hate to admit it. I am a proponent of building music from the ground up rather than throwing together a project that will sell but that in turns helps you make money which helps you do what you do. The older I get the more sensitive I am to being true to myself but within that allow for things like that.

That’s also what I have been trying to do with the festival we have for example for the winter jazz festival we have a thing called special projects and the whole incentive for initiative like that is to get local musician to work with someone from outside of Ottawa and we are able to fund that in a way that here is an x amount of money which you don’t have to risk by inviting someone flying them over because I did find that the working musicians are frustrated in the city they don’t have a lot of capital to work with so I really wanted to give people the option. It’s like helping people step outside of themselves and do things that may appear scary. John Geggie came up with a project that is really interesting and he put together the most interesting projects. Fet.nat they are my favorite local band they are like an improv punk thing they are really great and the last year it was more to do something that we haven’t done before and they did a concert with a quire with a directed improved quire. I like seeing people really go for it. That’s what I took away from new York and that’s what I want to do here.

Can you give me an idea of how you are going to inspire yourself to bring this kind of innovation to your music?
I am going to continue to play with all the groups that I play with. That’s what I have built up and I am not giving that up by moving here. I am recording another album with this Mississippi live group probably in the summer. I just basically get projects and tours happening and I keep writing music just keep pushing. If I stop then that’s when it will be over. I need to do that. Right now it’s just insanely busy so I don’t have time to start what I want to start here. I want to start a small orchestra that I conduct and play with and arrange a lot of the music I already have that mixes a lot of this and I know exactly how I am going to do it and who I want to get I just need a bit more time and I want to get a series somewhere to develop that. That is something that I am planning to do here. I am setting up concerts with my groups here I am just going to put myself out here.