The Group of Seven. It is a beloved Canadian institution, the influence of which permeates our national consciousness. Not only did its members leave behind world-renowned works of art, they left behind legacies that continue to inspire artists, visionaries and arts lovers to this day. The Varley Art Gallery of Markham, which honours the works of founding member Frederick Horsman Varley, is one of several galleries dedicated to keeping the Group of Seven alive in Canadian hearts—and it’s right here in York Durham Headwaters.
The Varley Art Gallery of Markham, which opened its doors in 1997, features both historical and contemporary art by regional and national artists, and is located on Main Street in Historic Unionville. “We have a special focus on the artist Frederick Varley who was a founding member of the Group of Seven and lived in Markham towards the end of his life,” says the gallery’s Public Programs Coordinator Rachel D’Oliviera Fell. “The locally prominent McKay family collected his works and donated them to the gallery, so we’re proud to be able to offer his work on a permanent basis.”
Beyond exhibitions, the Varley Gallery offers engaging public programs to the community. These include live performances and family activities like fortune telling and hands-on art making. “Our most popular program is called PechaKucha Night Markham,” Rachel says. “It’s in partnership with the Markham Village Library. We invite the community to come out and present on their favourite topics. They have about twenty seconds, so it’s really fast-paced and a lot of fun. And just recently, we celebrated the Chinese New Year with the Asian-Canadian Special Events Association by hosting LunarFest 2019.”
Because Frederick Varley was an open-air painter and spent much of his time working outdoors, the gallery’s summer programming is centered around encouraging the public to experience and engage in that outdoor culture. There is even an open-air competition which will take place in September, in which participants’ work will be displayed at the nearby MacKay Arts Centre, where Frederick Varley lived for the last twelve years of his life.
Canadian heritage is essential to the gallery’s programming, as it is to the Varley Gallery itself. “We have such a strong connection to Fred Varley,” Rachel says. “He lived in Unionville, after all. We like to keep this close connection.” The Varley Gallery also explores what Canadian heritage means to different people. Because Markham is so culturally diverse, staff are enthusiastic about the different understandings of what it means to be Canadian, and what Canadian art actually looks like.
Rachel, who has worked in the public programs arena for over ten years, has found the Varley Gallery to be a wonderful experience. “The people who come out and participate in these events are genuinely interested in getting to know one another, networking, and making a family within their community,” she says. “I’m so honoured to be a part of that. Public programming has always been a passion of mine, and any way that we can make the arts more accessible is a good thing.”
You may not know this, but Unionville is a popular filming location for movies, television shows and commercials. It is probably most notable as the site of Stars Hollow, the fictional setting of the hit television show Gilmore Girls. As a result, Unionville often attracts visitors who want to come and see the recognizable features of their beloved television show’s town, including the Varley gallery. “It’s an exciting opportunity when people get to recognize the Varley in shows and commercials,” Rachel states. “But we’re also excited to feature artists who work in film, and that’s an upcoming exhibition in 2020. The BIA does a great job of hosting events to bring these interest groups out.”
“What I think is really great, though, is that they come for one thing, and they realize that main Street and the Varley Art Gallery in particularly has so much more to offer,” she adds. “It’s a community-based hub for activity. It’s warm, inviting, and a genuinely great place to spend your afternoon.” To learn more about what the Varley Art Gallery of Markham has in store for you, visit online at www.markham.ca/wps/portal/home/arts/varley-art-gallery. For additional information, call (905) 477-7000. The gallery is located in Historic Unionville, 216 Main Street.
Story by Katherine Ryalen