Art and magic at the Drake Devonshire Inn

“Do you like the lake we had put in?” jokes Mia Nielsen, art curator for the Drake Hotel’s collection of properties, as we stare out at a thawing Lake Ontario from the restaurant at the Drake Devonshire Inn.

Though it’s been hosting overnight guests and serving dinners since September 2014, the inn officially opens on May 1. Sister property to Toronto’s hip Drake Hotel, the Devonshire calls Wellington, Prince Edward County, home. An increasingly popular seasonal holiday region best known for its wineries and provincial park, Sandbanks, the County is two hours east of Toronto by car, but a world away from working-class, albeit gentrifying Parkdale, where the original Drake Hotel has operated since 2004. Bringing the two worlds together has been a balancing act, achieved largely by the Drake’s trademark art and decor aesthetic.

“We wanted to restore this beautiful old building and celebrate the region,” says Nielsen. “But also create a space where city folk can connect and feel at home.” Touring the property, she points out pieces that range in size from covering entire walls to being enclosed within a single 8×10-inch picture frame, and admits that when you’ve got the ultimate piece of art in the form of a Great Lake, her goal is only to complement what is already in place rather than compete with it.

“Sight lines are very important to me,” Nielsen says while standing underneath Cabin Fever, the permanent installation by Brooklyn-based artist Kirsten Hassenfeld that hangs at the inn’s front entrance and extends two floors. Nielsen found the work online and monitored it from afar as Hassenfeld installed it in other locations for exhibiting.

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“I wanted to have this connection with the county and rural ideas, so I looked for things that were handmade and had a tactile element,” she says. “This is a malleable piece that hangs differently depending on the space,” Nielsen explains of the made-of-paper work. Here, depending on how you look at it and the time you look at it, because natural light hits it from several angles, you can see different things: a kite or quilt, or even a waterfall. It is delicate, but doesn’t look fragile, just like the surrounding countryside.

Further tributes to the landscape and immediate premises can be found throughout the inn. Spreading across two walls from the corner of the top of staircase leading to guest rooms on the second floor is a collection of herons, illustrated by hand and each individually hung in an antique frame. “It’s typical of a salon installation to fill a big wall with lots of little things, and I think when people come to a country inn there is the expectation for a salon-type set up,” Nielsen says, and it lends a cozy, homey vibe to the space.

The collection of images, called Notebook, is a site-specific piece commissioned by Nielsen to honour the area’s wildlife and the history of the land. “A heron is often seen on the property, and so I thought, ‘What if it was like we found a sketchbook of someone who used to live here, of their life work following this bird?’” Nielsen sourced the collection of frames from an antique dealer in New Jersey and Toronto illustrator Gillian Goerz ran with the idea, both women agreeing that the sketchbook “artist” would have been a practiced amateur — Goerz reflected this level of skill in her work and drew to the specifications of each frame.

In guest rooms, “art is placed in a decorator sense vs. as an installation piece,” Nielsen explains. It’s all about the little touches in the 11 rooms and two suites. Victoria-based painter Rick Leong created small, colourful murals of bird, butterflies and other creatures above the headboard in each room, and eagle-eyed guests will spot verses by poet Al Purdy, who was born in the region, scrawled in nooks in each room — a sort of “Al was here” inside joke.

But, without some edge, it wouldn’t be a Drake property. In each room and throughout the hallways, guests will find framed pieces of old art, 40 in total, that might look normal — boring, even — at first glance, but a second look will reveal the touches applied by Toronto art collective Team Macho. A painting of a flower-filled vase has one bloom that extends on to the frame, for instance; a portrait of a young girl reveals she is actually a robot (Team Macho calls this piece Terminette).

And once again downstairs, in the Pavillion, a transitional space adjacent to the restaurant that this summer will become a wine bar pouring County vintages, the back wall is a bold, colourful mural by New York-based collective Faile. “It took about a week to complete,” says Nielsen of the work, which features a bad-ass cowgirl strumming her guitar.

Nielsen says her criteria for any project is simple: “It has to make magic, and it has to work.” The inn is already booked every Saturday through the summer, so it’s fair to say her wand is working.

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