Many artists consider their studios to be sanctuaries of creativity, but few have as literal a claim as Lake Country artists Jim Kalnin and Lois Huey-Heck. Since 1991, the two have both worked and lived in a repurposed church, drawing inspiration from its history, architecture and spiritual roots.
“Both of us have a spiritual focus in much of our art, that’s always been there. It’s part of who we are. And it fits hand in glove with why we bought the building,” Jim said.
The husband and wife team – Jim is a recently-retired art professor from the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia and Lois is the recently-retired president of publisher Wood Lake Books – had been house hunting for some time. They were looking for a home with studio space for each of them but finding nothing that suited them in the tight market of the day. Finally, they spotted the little church for sale in their real estate agent’s big book.
Despite its remote location, tucked into the hillside on the far side of Wood Lake, Lois had seen the church several times while driving by and was already smitten with it. As soon as they saw it was available, they wanted it.
“It was a lovely day, the day we went to view it, and there were Irises out in the yard, I have a fetish for Irises, and they have featured in my artwork,” Lois said. “When we came in, it was all set up and ready for worship. There was a rose quality of light coming in from the upper windows (above) and I could have just cried.”
The church, St. Mary’s, was an Anglican church, consecrated in 1931. Jim and Lois attended the last service and deconsecration and moved in a few months later.
While the church kept or divided among their congregation most of the old pews, Jim and Lois were allowed to keep several. One is currently stationed in the kitchen’ breakfast nook.
Much had to be done to the place, in the way of renovations, to make it livable. Being a small church, there were no showers or laundry facilities and only a partial kitchen. They also needed to make modifications to create bedrooms – for themselves and their son, who still lived at home at the time.
They’ve kept what was the sanctuary in tact. The main part, where a congregation of worshipers once sat, is now a dining room and living room, with a piano in the corner where it may have once sat to accompany church song service. The small area where the altar would have once been is now a small library or reading room.
Lois and Jim decided early on not to have a television in this room, out of respect for what it once was.
While it is now a home, and has been for almost 20 years, Lois says that there’s still a reverence that can be felt in the place, and not just because of the arched windows and layout.
She notes that it is a place where people once came to pray, to sing, to worship, to mourn, to marry and to baptize their babies.
“It feels, to me, like a First Nations prayer stone. You hold the stone when you pray, and they believe that the stone keeps the vibrations of all the prayers of the people who use it,” Lois relates, explaining that she feels something similar in their home.
While much of the influence of living and making art in a former church is subtle, it sometimes comes out in more obvious ways, such as this painting of Jim’s (above), which features a collaged addition of windows photographed from their home.
Jim’s studio is in the basement, which once housed a Sunday School.
He works right on the walls, and had to put up gyprock because they are all cement.
Small adornments, such as this collection of feathers, help to personalize the space.
Lois works upstairs, in a room that was once part of the church’s meeting hall. Because of a need for more rooms, it was divided into three rooms – an office, a studio and a bedroom.
The natural light that comes into the room through the arched windows is beautiful, and the view of the lake and hillside captivating.
Lois considers herself a pack rat, and falls back on her occupation as an artist as an excuse for saving found things such as unusually shaped scraps of metal or fabric, as well as old photographs and postcards.
While the two studio spaces were created primarily for fine artwork, Jim and Lois are both writers as well, and have tucked themselves away in their respective studios to write, as well as paint.
Together, they wrote The Spirituality of Art, one in a series of 10 books published by Northstone Publishing, an imprint of Wood Lake Books. Lois was also one of four writers who contributed to The Spirituality of Sex, and Jim wrote The Spirituality of Nature.
Of course, their working space is not confined to their studio alone. Outside, among the pine trees and wild flowers, below the broad sky and beside the sweeping view, Jim and Lois can also be seen applying their creative souls to canvas.
While it’s a little corner of the earth they feel very blessed to call their own, they are loath to claim ownership of it, spiritually.
“I feel like we’re just caretakers of this place,” Lois said.
For a closer look at some of Jim’s work, visit the Vernon Public Art Gallery before May 18 to see his current show, One Planet.
-Story and photos by Lori-Anne Poirier