A quilt of sunlight covers along the craggy reef as blobs of colourful fish zip by in military formation. A bold cuttlefish dances in time with the soothing orchestral soundtrack playing over the computer's tiny speakers, which battle to be heard against the screech of the Yonge subway drifting in through an open window.
A foot away from the screen is an enormous, factory-like window, and, on the other side of the glass, a shiny new National Historic Site of Canada plaque, unveiled May 15, that celebrates the history of the Studio Building: "In 1913-1914, painter Lawren Harris and art patron Dr. James MacCallum financed the construction of the first purpose-built artists' studios and residence in Canada. …"
Home to members of the Group of Seven, the Canadian Group of Painters and Harold Town of Painters Eleven, the Studio Building, in the Rosedale Ravine, looms large in the collective imagination of art aficionados. It's a place where any artist, today, would love to set up an easel, breathe in the musty air and let brushstrokes begin.
"We don't live and breathe for the building because we have a life," says building owner James Mathias, 67, who also created the underwater film that just finished playing on the computer. "And I know some people who would love to get their hands on this building and they'd put their heart and soul into it." Despite how it sounds, Mr. Mathias means no disrespect; he understands all too well the significance of the building he inherited when his adoptive father, artist Gordon MacNamara, passed away in 2006 at the age of 95 (Mr. MacNamara purchased the building from Lawren Harris in 1948).
In fact, a few minutes earlier he was pointing to a photograph of A.Y. Jackson painting by the ample light of architect Eden Smith's factory-like windows ("That one, right over there," he indicates with a wave of the hand) and he understands that, psychologically, the Studio Building belongs to all of Canada. But while Mr. Mathias long ago accepted that camera-wielding gawkers would be an almost daily front-lawn occurrence - he's lived here since 1962 - he wouldn't mind if we remembered that behind the plaque there are private people living private lives.
"How else would we be?" he asks, rhetorically.
When buildings are 'branded' as historic sites by government agencies, it's easy for the general public - and I most certainly include myself in that category - to take ownership of them and, further, to think nothing of knocking on doors to demand a look inside, or to throw around questions as to why they aren't in better repair. Under the cloak of heritage appreciation, we do things we'd never dream of doing to our neighbours.
At least I have. So, I've been teaching myself that in this business of promoting heritage architecture, there are times and places to mind one's own business. That's not to suggest owners of heritage buildings are just like the rest of us - they aren't - but their responsibility isn't to me as much as it is to future generations.
It's a fine line for Mr. Mathias and his two live-in companion/assistants (affectionately dubbed his "left hand" and his "right hand") to walk and, understandably, it can be frustrating. This may explain why he teases that he's still considering selling the building (reporting on Mr. MacNamara's death in 2006, The Globe's Deirdre Kelly suggested that billionaire Ken Thomson was ready with his chequebook, to which Mr. Mathias said "I can't think of anyone better") or turning it into a commercial property and then, a few minutes later, reassures that he has every intention of growing old here.
Things get even more confusing when one considers Mr. Mathias's lifestyle: A deep-sea photographer, he spends so much time in his beloved Fiji and, alternately, his country house in Ontario's Scugog Township, that he's only at the Studio Building a few months of the year. The rest of the time, it's his assistants or his sole tenant, veteran art critic and author Paul Duval, who keep the lights burning.
So what? So nothing: Whether I think it a shame the building isn't occupied by at least one young, cutting-edge artist is irrelevant. And if, at times during our conversation, Mr. Mathias sounds like he considers the building a liability rather than a blessing to own, I remind myself that, to him, it's an almost-century-old house that needs constant maintenance in addition to being a mythical place in the minds of Canadians.
And he has done a great deal of maintenance, including door and window replacement, new floors, appliances, washroom fixtures and the patching of countless holes in the walls, all while preserving things such as original canvas-clad walls throughout, a paint-spattered floor - "This is an original Harold Town," he jokes as he lifts the corner of an area rug, "and we think it's a hoot!" - and hand-painted lettering by J.E.H. MacDonald on a wall. "It's in pretty good nick," he says of the building, and I believe him.
So, if we ask Mr. Mathias to open his private doors for public fundraisers, celebrations of Canadian art or to the next generation of painting superstars, what's in it for him? Tax breaks? Help with maintenance? Government grants?
Those are questions as deep as the ocean.