A.Y. Jackson Studio

Carrying on in A.Y. Jackson’s place

Taking over stewardship of the famous painter’s studio and home an inspiration for its new owner

  • Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson built his modest, flat-roofed home in the 1950s on a former sheep grazing pasture. Over the years, thanks to both Jackson and nature, a forest grew up around the combined studio and home. All Photos: Jean Levac , Ottawa Citizen/Postmedia News
  • Owner Irene Staron’s ode to Jackson, which sits on a side table in the studio, includes an autographed book of his sketches, given to Staron by Jackson’s family under the condition that it stay with the studio.
  • A wall of bookshelves once stored Jackson’s supplies, while 8x10 sketches and works in progress were propped up along a ledge above.
  • Before the trees grew, Jackson could look through the seven-foot tall studio window to see the Rideau River below.
  • An unusual bathroom layout let’s Staron see out through the kitchen window while lying in bed.
  • Modelled on a boat galley, designer Irene Staron maximized space and function in the tiny kitchen.

Designer Irene Staron has an affinity for nature. It’s what drew her to a modernist cube in the woods built by Group of Seven painter and fellow nature lover A.Y. Jackson. And it was the driving force behind a renovation of the combined studio and home she undertook after buying the property in 2006.

But nature lashed out at her recently when Staron was attacked by wasps and suffered an allergic reaction the night before a meeting to show off the lovely little Manotick retreat that’s to be featured in this year’s Homes for the Holidays tour. Nevertheless, she was determined to keep her appointment so, despite still suffering the effects of the reaction, she opened her front door just before Labour Day weekend and welcomed me into “the studio”.

Built in the 1950s when Jackson decided it was time to leave Toronto, the minimalist home was designed by friend and fellow painter Maurice Haycock and built on a bare, rocky patch of former sheep grazing land overlooking the town.

Originally about 1,000 square feet (a sunroom, garage and deck were added later), the flat-roofed, white and blue stucco home was half studio and half living space. The front door opens directly into the cavernous studio, with its 11-foot ceiling, nine-foot-long brick fireplace and wall of windows that stretches across 17 feet and more than seven feet high to take advantage of the northern light.

“When he lived and worked here, he could actually look right down and see the ­Rideau River,” says Staron.

That view exists no longer. In place of the grazing land, there are now trees, lots and lots of trees, some planted by Jackson, some a result of Mother Nature, an arboretum of sorts that affords Staron and her husband, Al Smith, some privacy.

The studio today is where Staron runs her business, Staron Design. Although she has renovated almost the entire home, the studio is where she did the least, merely bringing it up to code, in an effort to maintain Jackson’s presence in the space.

Her easel sits in virtually the same spot where Jackson once painted. The bookcases that stored his supplies now hold hers. The ledge on which he propped up 8×10 sketches and works in progress now display a couple of her own paintings. And a table beside the sitting area is her ­vignette to Jackson, displaying an autographed book, print and some paint brushes for inspiration.

But it was the rest of the one-bedroom home that was transformed under her guidance, updating and making better use of the space, but always with an eye to its creator.

“All the decisions and all the choices were based on all the things that A.Y. loved about this property: the light, the surroundings, the sloping situation, the natural setting,” she says.

Subscribing to the idea of small-space living and a holistic approach toward design — “it’s all about everything has to flow and everything has to have a reason and to surround ourselves with objects that have meaning and substance and authenticity” — Staron was keen to show what can be done when there are specific design challenges with a space.

The tiny kitchen, once closed off and closed in, was opened up to become the hub of the home. It’s still small at just 7.5 feet wide, but Staron maximized the space by using the idea of a boat galley in its design.

“That enabled me to put a lot of function into a very small footprint,” she says. “You can have three or four people working in the kitchen at the same time and they won’t get in each other’s way.”

She eliminated the need for wall cabinets with a wet prep area in an island in the middle of the room, while the back wall houses the stove, flanked by what Staron refers to as the portals: two windows that take the place of a backsplash, letting light in along with a view of the back garden and woods.

The bedroom runs off the kitchen in a unique configuration that lets her look from her bed through both the bathroom and the kitchen to see out into the yard. While an enclosed water closet with shower offers privacy for both the couple and any overnighting guests, the rest of the bathroom, comprising a soaker tub and vanity, is exposed to the bedroom.

“There’s outside awareness everywhere,” Staron says. “It extends your perception of your living space.”

She’s very pleased with the overall result.

“You know how when they speak of an artist working with material that the object or the subject comes from within and it emerges? That’s exactly what happened with this renovation.”

10th annual Homes for the Holidays tour

What: A tour of six homes decorated for the holidays by top florists and decorators.

When: Nov. 9, 10 and 11

Cost: $40 if picked up in person at the hospice; $43 if ordered online at hospicemaycourt.com or contact Jana Rand at 613-260-2906, ext. 224.

Background: The Hospice at May Court is at 114 Cameron Ave. Since 1987, it has provided palliative and end-of-life care services to patients and their families regardless of religion or culture in a supportive and peaceful homelike setting. It has day programs and nine beds.

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