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‘The world needs to know about our rich culture,’ says curator/director of Freeport gallery

Monika Stark, the curator and director of Gallery 217, with some of the art currently on exhibit.
Monika Stark, the curator and director of Gallery 217, with some of the art currently on exhibit. - Angela McMullen

Gallery 217 in Freeport is the successful outcome of a one-week pop-up gallery that opened in 2018. 

In conjunction with the annual Breaking Waves music festival, volunteers created temporary space for an art exhibit.  

“There are so many people here who make art,” says curator, director and jewelery-maker Monica Stark. “I was confident that we would have no problem filling the gallery with their work.”

And she was right.

“It had been a lot of work getting it ready to only have it open for one week, so we decided to keep it open for the month of August. During that month, we sold $10,000 worth of art,” says Stark. “That was so far beyond my wildest dreams.”

According to Stark, the success of the one-week exhibit resulted in the permanency of the gallery. “The Freeport Community Development Association (FCDA) agreed to keep the gallery as a long-term project.”

The art at Gallery 217 is reflective of a proud seafaring history, an unwavering culture crafted by the sea.

“Artists are inspired by the natural beauty of Digby Neck and Islands,” says Stark.

‘So much talent’

Freeport is a small village situated along Highway 217 that runs through Digby Neck and Long and Brier Islands. Stark says many newcomers to Digby Neck and Islands bring with them artistic ability.

“The area seems to attract makers and creative types,” she says.

Digby Neck and Islands have an approximate population of 1,000-1,200 residents. The destination is rich in coastal appeal, from mouth-watering seafood to expansive seascapes and sunsets. The culture is derivative of the ocean: ritualistic, rooted, gently-paced. Stark says Highway 217 is the thread that binds these communities together.

“I am amazed every time someone brings new art in. There is just so much talent and creativity here.  I don’t know if it’s the long winters or if it’s in the blood, but talk to any Islander, and you’ll find out that almost all of us make things,” she says.

“We have thirty-nine artists who have their work in the gallery. That includes established, award-winning, and career artists, as well as people who are just beginning their artistic journeys,” says Stark.

Artists range in ages from 15 to 83, and even include Stark’s parents.

Stark loves the diversity of Gallery 217 artists.

“I love the dynamic energy of having this eclectic mix of experience levels, different media and different styles,” Stark adds.

‘Win-win situation’

Stark says the gallery has had a significant impact on the community as a whole.

The gallery is a project of the Freeport Community Development Association, a non-profit organization committed to fostering community, culture and economic development on the islands, she explains.

The association provides the space, and, in turn, receives a portion of the sales, which go toward funding other community projects, such as the Islands Women’s Centre, a free community meal program and local trails.

“It’s a win-win situation for the whole community,” says Stark. “Artists are making money, and money is going back into other beneficial programs that are making a difference for many people.”
Stark is amazed at the amount of hidden talent in the area.

“Another impact is that the gallery seems to be inspiring people to make art and encouraging closet artists to show their work for the first time.”

In fact, she believes everyone possesses artistic ability. 

“We are all born artists. That drive is often discouraged. We’re told that we lack talent, or that art is a silly hobby or undeserving of our time,” she says.

Stark says the gallery has changed that, inspiring both beginner and experienced artists.

“It’s important to me to have a place for anyone, of any experience level, to potentially sell their art,” she added.

‘Spinning with ideas’

Stark enjoys her own multi-level role at Gallery 217. 

“I absolutely love every aspect of the work.  I basically was able to create my dream job, in my home village, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.”

The seasonally-operated gallery opens for the Christmas season, and by appointment throughout the winter and spring.

“I am hoping, by the end of the summer, to have an online store set up so that we can sell internationally, year-round,” says Stark.

Stark’s vision for Gallery 217 is endless.

“My mind is basically always spinning with ideas,” says Stark, who supports individuals in both making and sharing artwork.

“I want to help people remember how fun it is to make art. And how satisfying it is to share what they’ve made.”

Expansion is on the horizon, and creating accessible programming is on Stark’s agenda.

“I am planning a series of workshops taught by local artists, including rock Mandela painting, paper making, bookbinding, life-drawing classes on composition and colour theory, jewelry making and photography.”

There are also plans for keeping community spirit alive on a grander scale. 

“I am also hoping to organize community art projects, large-scale projects that will bring people of all ages together.”

The area of Digby Neck and islands is commonly known for whale-watching adventures and the iconic Balancing Rock. Stark feels that with an increased interest in art-themed experiences, the area could quite easily evolve into an art destination.

“It is my dream to see Digby Neck and the islands become a real arts destination.”

Art experiences are popping up along Highway 217, Stark says. 

“We have a string of galleries, gift shops and artist retreat residences now.  And there is no shortage of talent here. I think the world needs to know about our rich culture.”

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