By John Swartz
The last few years have been kind of strange in several ways, one of them being economically. Many businesses failed. Many others are trying to have us believe the linger effects of supply chain disruptions and 100s of other excuses are the reason for continued upheaval.
And yet, there are those who chose to start businesses. Here in Orillia several restaurants opened and are thriving. Several specialty shops opened downtown and are making waves. Heck, we even got a high end art gallery (which opened in a completely renovated artist haven/workshop/meeting and business space – Creative Nomad Studios, which only opened as the pandemic took hold). An art gallery, of all things.
On a list of things we need to function with during times of economic turmoil, an art gallery would not make most people’s lists.
Yet Mark and Blake Fletcher opened an art gallery in the spring of 2021. Granted they started planning their venture, Cloud Gallery, before we all had to stay home, but they didn’t stop because of a pandemic. And they did it their way, not following convention.
“From the very beginning we’re not going to try and do everything like most galleries do. We’re going to focus on one thing and do it very well, and that is Ontario natural beauty. So that’s landscape art and nothing else; no apples in bowls, no horses, no people,” Mark said.
And no, or relatively few, small artworks. Everything on display is big. Everything is good looking. And they move a lot of paintings. Most entrepreneurs start with the premise of what’s missing from the market that people want, a product. Mark and Blake started from a position of what’s missing in the business in general, and that turned out to be business. Most galleries are owned and run by artists, art historians, or people with some kind of technical expertise, but they aren’t business people first, or at all.
“It’s an example, I think, of one of the things we’ve had going on from the beginning. It’s bringing a real business mentality to the art gallery. Most art galleries are not run by business guys like Blake and I. It wasn’t really a hole in the market. We just said let’s think of the buyers and why do they buy art,” Mark said.
They started with a better than average appreciation and knowledge of art as collectors and turned the equation around. They looked at the people in the circles they travelled who bought art, sometimes frequently, and asked why.
“They have places up here. They have places typically in the GTA as well. They’ve got some the money, but they really love it up here. They can’t wait to get up here. So what would they love to buy paintings of – oh, up here,” Mark said.
“People fall in love with the land and they want something in their cottage or their home that reminds them of that place that makes them feel really good and that’s what our art does here.”
You will only find landscapes of places in Muskoka, Georgian Bay, Algonquin Park and Killarney. You can always go into the gallery to see the paintings, or you can view them online – organized by artist, or those geographic locations. The collection is hyper-focused.
“I’ve been in art galleries, 100s of them over 30 or 40 years, and see just a mishmash of everything. People come in here, they know what they are going to get and it leads them down a path that makes it easy to make a decision and make a purchase,” said Mark.
Mark is the salesman, Blake will readily admit. As business partner, he is happy to do what he does best, taking care of the business functions, especially their online presence and digital marketing.
One of the things they do very well is stage events, exhibitions. Each says they both contribute to ideas of how to generate interest in getting customers through the doors of their gallery.
“We have so many ideas floating around here, it’s hard to keep track of who’s idea,” is the next to act on Mark said.
One of those ideas is having its third go round, a series of exhibits featuring one of the stable of artists in quick succession each fall. What is unique about them is duration. While most of the art word has month, or two month long exhibits, Cloud’s fall series has a new exhibit every two weeks starting October 21.
“We try to keep things fresh and we try to do things differently. We just thought a shorter exhibition can still pack a pretty good punch.” Blake said. They observed most of the sales activity for exhibits comes at the outset, about 80%, with the rest at the end of a show. While many business people tell you, “we cut out the middleman,” they just cut the middle altogether.
“We thought let’s make the in-between shorter, let’s try to emphasize the opening and really promote as best as we can,” said Blake.
Not only that, they have these shows in a traditionally dead part of the year, which helps to contribute maintaining a high number of monthly sales for a gallery.
“The reason we do these is that in the fall we have to get creative in getting people to the gallery. There’s less tourism and people are focused on other things leading up to the holidays. A lot of the people who come to the shows are driving distance, not necessarily local, we’d love for there to be more local; these are just kind of a reasons to make that trip and to think of us as a destination,” said Blake.
The gallery has a roster of 35 artists. The Fletchers keep an inventory of 350 paintings beyond what you can see on the walls. They pursued their artists, as you will see below, almost relentlessly. They started with a list of names attached to art they saw online, the kind of which they wanted for Cloud Gallery.
Aside from creating a portfolio of wonderful art, they did something, as you will also see below, many have tried and failed to do. They created a community. The running joke is trying to get a group of artists to congeal around a mission is not unlike herding cats. Visual artists work alone, as opposed to musicians who almost necessarily have to work with others, so it’s not difficult to understand the reluctance to throw in with others, or organize with common purpose.
Here’s what the artists featured in the fall series have to say about being part of the Cloud Gallery community:
What The Aritists Say
Lori Meeboer is sharing the limelight with Jennifer Woodburn for the first set opening October 21. Meeboer does her creating in Corbyville, a small community swallowed by Belleville and also home to Corby Distillery.
It’s a short distance from there she finds most of her subject matter.
“Just north of me, all of a sudden you’ll see it go from farmland and you just know when you hit it, the typography changes, the trees change, there’s more evergreens, more pines. That’s what runs in my blood. For me that’s home. When I see pine trees I’m home,” Meeboer said. The Fletchers found her.
“They had seen my work on social media and my website, so they came to me, explained their business model and what they were looking to do. Being an Ontario artist who paints largely the Canadian Shield and Muskoka region they felt my work was a really good fit for them,” she said.
“It was very clear to me in the first conversation was Mark A) knew business and B) knew art. That very much set me at ease. I loved the idea of a gallery that was carrying mostly Ontario artists, yet had a vision that aligned with the kinds of things I paint. Above all Mark’s an art lover. To me when someone really loves the art, how they sell it is going to be with their passion.”
She has not regretted taking on another gallery to represent her work.
“The support they provide us artists is just phenomenal. I know what is selling, what trends, what sizes, I’m never in the dark about what I should be providing next. It really is a very special gallery. The artists they built into their portfolio is really exceptional because there’s a very strong sense of community among us,” she said. “Very few galleries provide the level of service they provide. They really make sure their clients are getting exactly what they want. They deliver, they hang, they do everything.”
“Cloud has consistently, successfully sold my work. They are one of my top selling galleries. One of the things I appreciate most about Cloud, let’s face it, the economy has been a roller coaster since they opened. We’re a luxury product. It’s not a necessity. How I’ve seen them pivot with the economy, it’s really awesome. Because they’ve kept their finger on the pulse of that, they are one of my top selling galleries.”
Collingwood artist Jennifer Woodburn joined Cloud Gallery a year after it opened. She’s sharing the bill with Meeboer October 21.
“When they first approached me I was at a point where I had a couple shows going on and I was overwhelmed and I was very intrigued by joining them, but I didn’t just have the artwork to give them,” Woodburn said. That was before the gallery opened. She followed what was happening, even visited the gallery, and when she had time to think about the next thing she thought it was time to call the Fletchers, but she didn’t get a chance.
“And then Blake and Mark called me. It was Kismet,” she said.
“They’ve done a fantastic job of curating a great group of artists. You go in and there’s such a variety and there’s always something for someone. Woodburn said. “The space they created, that alone is fantastic. Every two or three months they have all the artists in on a Zoom call to talk about what they are doing at the gallery. Considering they are such a young gallery they have done a remarkable job of marketing and getting the word out there.”
So, she’s happy to have been pursued?
“It’s been wonderful. I’m thrilled with it,” Woodburn said.
This is not the first, or only gallery rodeo for Hamilton artist Julia Veenstra; she’s been part of Cloud Gallery since day one. Her exhibition starts November 4.
“I was invited by Mark. He found me and phoned me and asked if I’d like to participate,” she said. Initially I didn’t know if I did need another gallery. But in talking with Mark and the building he was in; my work is very well collected by people who are up in that area, it really suits the Orillia crowd.”
She said it was a good decision to have her art at Cloud.
“It’s been a great journey and I just love Orillia. I have to hit Mariposa (Market) every time I’m up there, it’s a really great little town,” she said. “All the galleries I’m presently in I love, and Mark has done extremely well for me.”
Patricia Clemmens’s exhibit starts November 25. It’s her second solo show at Cloud. She is one of the newest artists to be represented by the gallery, having come on board only in June 2022. It’s clear speaking with her, she’s till comprehending the turn her art career has taken.
“I was just happily painting on my own, just commissions for people as they wanted them. Then Mark and Blake found my paintings on Instagram and they called and asked if I would like to start with Cloud Gallery. I was like, “are you sure?” They had a lot faith in how the public would respond to my work, so I just trusted them and it’s been quite a whirlwind since,” Clemmens said.
“When I started with Cloud, I was only about a month in and other galleries started approaching me. I was just so overwhelmed with how Cloud wanted me to be there and I didn’t know if I could paint fast enough to branch out, so I stuck with Cloud. They had me do my own show last year, which was also like a whirlwind for me. It’s been a little bit of a process for me to just catch up,”
It sounds like she is still digesting the luck she’s had becoming a Cloud Gallery artist.
“One of the reasons why I have hesitated to branch out with other galleries is because they keep me so busy. I don’t know if I could take on a gallery. The guys at Cloud are so great I don’t want to have my experience tainted by a different approach other gallery owners may have,” she said. “They have sold many of my paintings. They have done an incredible job. They’re so great to work with. It’s been a wonderful experience with them.”
From There To Here
Returning to Mark and Blake; from the beginning they were confident they had a winning formula. They have been shipping paintings to buyers all over Canada, and just last month Mark was happy to report they made their first shipment of paintings to Europe, three to France.
They also are very clear, without saying so directly, it’s not about them, it’s their artists and art which has vaulted them to the top of the art gallery world.
“We’re one of the top selling. We have 35 artists and all of them are in other galleries across Ontario,” Mark said. “I have other galleries calling us, saying, we want you to come and consult with us, tell us what you are doing, how are you doing this?”
He’s not keen on sharing what they do. Both are keen on sharing their enthusiasm for art, and fostering artists. There are some local artists represented at the gallery, many of whom he found by throwing open the gate to his property north of Orillia once a year to all area artists to come and send a few days making new art of their scenic plot of land. Rancho Relaxo they called it and over the 4 or 5 days of the retreat, one could find a couple dozen artists or more painting or photographing in various spots of the acreage.
One would be hard pressed to find any of those artists saying the Fletcher’s weren’t great hosts, great cheerleaders, and prone to buying a few of the pieces created. It’s an enthusiasm which is maybe the key ingredient, and the thing they can’t export to other galleries.
It’s not just the artists above who found success making careers, or improving their careers at Cloud Gallery.
“They always say to me, “you’re selling more art than any of my other galleries,” and we’ve been hearing that for almost 2 ½ years. That’s’ why they give us so much great art. And then the momentum just builds, so they give us more of their best stuff, and they give us more (of it). You wouldn’t believe big the cheques are we cut for these artists. There’s been a lot of good things happening for these artists, and us, it’s a partnership,” Mark said.
It’s Blake who fills the room. He turned his accumulated digital marketing skills into maintaining a mailing list, and creating newsletters and promotions which bring people to Orillia for exhibit opening events. Both use the word destination to describe how they view the gallery and atmosphere they created.
“There’s people that travel from an hour, two hours away all the time to come and meet these artist and talk to them. I think that’s a cool thing,” said Mark.
To Blake, it’s the best job he could have.
“It’s being surrounded by all these inspiring paintings and going in and connecting with people over those paintings,” Blake said.
In addition to the three biweekly shows above, a fourth exhibit will feature a group show from other Cloud Gallery artists starting December 9. Each has an reception on opening day from 6 to 9 p.m. They are free to attend, and you can register your attendance online (which helps them gauge how many people to prepare to accommodate).
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia and Images Supplied) Main: Mark and Blake Fletcher are preparing for their annual Fall Showcase Series of Exhibitions at Cloud Gallery.