THUNDER BAY -- Many years ago in 1983, artist Ruth Tye McKenzie opened an artists’ supply store, the Painted Turtle Art Shop. It was the only store of its kind in the city, providing supplies to the numerous artists in the area.
When it was time for McKenzie to consider retirement, one of her employees, Lorraine Cull, couldn’t bear the thought of the store being gone.
“She was just going to sell everything off and close up. I didn’t want that to happen for the artists in the community because this store has been around for a long time and a lot of people love the store and rely on it to get their art materials. It’s not that I wanted to be a business owner but I didn’t want it to go,” explains Cull, who had worked at the store for 10 years before taking it over.
While Cull was exploring the possibility of buying the store, Angie Jensen, who worked at the Framing Post nearby, heard about it and contacted Cull. The two women decided their skills and strengths were a good fit and made a business plan together.
That was 17 years ago, and the store has continued to flourish. It is currently on the corner of River and Balsam streets, and shares the space with Gallery 33 and the Nest Studio.
Painted Turtle Art Shop serves a large regional community of artists, local schools and visual art students at Lakehead University. They also send up many supplies to communities up north.
Trends and mediums change quickly, Cull says, and keeping up can be a challenge. In recent years, manufacturers have created easier-to-use materials. “Printmaking and screen printing - a lot of the toxic mediums have evolved to non-toxic. Even the oil paints are less toxic; no turpentine necessary,” she explains. “And the acrylics are so diverse now,” she adds. The viscosity and texture of acrylic paints have expanded, from pourable inky ones to very thick, textured ones.
While selling artists’ supplies may sound like a pleasant and quiet business, there have been some extremely difficult times. The police came to the store in the early 2010s with photos of people, some of whom Cull recognized. They were investigating an alleged art forgery ring, and Cull had to comb through sales records from 2004 and provide testimony. The court case that followed led to some very disturbing discoveries, which haunt Cull to this day.
A popular event the shop hosts is a “drop in and play” session every third Saturday. Each session explores a different material, such as watercolour or acrylics. Participants pay a small fee (usually $10 plus HST) to experiment in different mediums. “It’s expensive to buy a lot of stuff at once,” Cull acknowledges, so these sessions allow people to try it out first. The sessions are open to all ages, and the store announces the next month’s session in an ad in the Walleye.
Even with the help of two employees at the shop, Cull’s days are full and she wishes she had more time for her own artwork. She paints, draws, works with metal sculpture and creates silk scarves and jewelry. She has, of course, experience in all the things the shop sells. “Anything that needs to be tried [in the shop,] I have done,” she says. “Then I can talk to customers about it.”