Everyone knows about the art scenes in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver — but what about Calgary, Yellowknife or Thunder Bay? In CBC Arts’s continuing series “I He(art) My City,” a local artist offers an insider’s guide to the city they call home. Here, filmmaker Matthew Brown shows you his Saint John.
Saint John (or #SaintAwesome, as the locals refer to it) has been undergoing a kind of cultural renaissance as of late. It’s an industrial city, but an industrial city with soul…and a kind of poetry to it that’s hard to put into words. Personally I love all of the Atlantic Canadian cities, but Saint John has always held a special place in my heart. I love the historic buildings, the city market, the night life — I love that the city parks, the ocean, and trails, are all a short walk or drive away. Most of all I love the people, and the other artists here!
First Things First: Coffee.
If you’re like me you need a coffee before you can do anything else, and then you need it in timed intervals throughout the day. So lets get our coffee first. For coffee there are three local spots I gravitate towards. The first on my list is Rogue Coffee. Situated just off of Grannan Alley, (my favourite alley in the city) The cafe offers a variety of coffees, espressos, kombucha and prosecco on tap, and nitro-infused cold brew. The next on my list of places to grab coffee from is Catapult Coffee and Studio. The cafe functions as both a coffee shop and a place to buy handcrafted furniture and fibre arts. It’s a social enterprise, providing work for people who might otherwise be prevented from joining the workforce — so not only are you getting great coffee, you’re giving back. The coffee is brewed from beans sourced from local roasters in Hampton, New Brunswick and North Mountain Coffee in Berwick, Nova Scotia. They also have a toast bar! The third spot I like to visit is Java Moose. Java Moose has been a staple of the Saint John coffee scene since 1996. If I’m having a Java Moose coffee I like to pick it up at the city market…
The city market in downtown Saint John is one of the first places anyone arriving in Saint John needs to visit. It’s the oldest continuing farmer’s market in Canada and is rich with history, quality local produce, baked goods, and art! Designated a National Historic Site in 1986, the original market was built between 1874 and 1876. In 1877, the great Saint John fire swept through the city, but fortunately the market narrowly escaped and remained intact. The building was designed in the Second Empire Loyalist style by New Brunswick architects McKean and Fairweather. One of the more interesting architectural details to be noted while visiting the market is that the roof of the City Market resembles the inverted keel of a ship — a reminder of the city’s history of once being one of the leading shipbuilding centers in the world.
There’s a lot of great food options to choose from at the market. For breakfast, I would suggest getting a breakfast bagel from Slocum & Ferris to go along with your coffee. If you’re there for lunch you might want to try one of their DLT’s (toasted dulse, lettuce and tomato). My other favourite spots to grab lunch from at the market are: Kim’s Korean, Shawarma Hut, Taco Pica, Jeremiah’s, Sagrati’s, and the Wild Carrot Café. After I have my coffee, and my belly is satisfied I like to…
Shop Music, Books & Art
So you’ve had your coffee and breakfast, and your now in search of music, books and art to buy and see. One of my favourite places to search out music locally is Backstreet Records.
The store has been located at 124 Germain Street now for 36 years. As bigger record stores have fallen by the wayside, Backstreet Records has continued to thrive despite all odds. It’s the kind of place you end up staying longer than planned and socializing, while flipping through their impressive assortment of vinyl.
If it’s books your after I recommend dropping in to Scheherazade Books which is not far from Backstreet Records. After I buy a couple of used books (personally, I love buying old, used, classics that have been on my list for years), I might head to one of Saint John’s city parks — either Kings Square or Queens Square — and have a read! Or I might continue on my quest in search of art to experience.
If it’s art your after, there are no shortage of galleries to visit in Saint John. The best way to experience them is on one of the city’s popular gallery hops because it’s a chance to take in several galleries on one tour. If you don’t have the good fortune of being in town when one the hops is happening, here are some of the galleries that participate, and that are all within walking distance! There is: Buckland Merrifield Gallery, Cobalt Art Gallery, Handworks, Jones Gallery and Trinity Galleries to check out.
You should always be creating something, but there’s certainly no better time then when your in a new place. If you’re a writer, maybe you’ll just want to sit on a park bench, or find a cafe, or crowded bar and just eavesdrop. If you’re a photographer, hit the streets and document city life…write that script! Plan that exhibition! Perform! And the list goes on. In short, I believe that the best way to become embedded in a place — to get in touch with it’s soul — is to create something in that place! Maybe you want to sign up for an art class. I would recommend visiting the Saint John Art Centre and seeing what they have to offer. They do classes in: painting, sculpture, pottery, printmaking, photography — just to name a few art mediums you can explore there. They also have fantastic exhibition openings that are always packed. If you want to meet local artists and art lovers from around the city, and have great conversations about art, life, and the city at large, the Saint John Art Centre is your best bet!
While out on your aimless wander the odds are good that you’ll encounter some of these public art pieces, but if not, here’s some cool public art worth seeking out. All over the downtown core you can find work by sculptor John Hooper. One of my personal favourites is “People Apart Coming Together,” which can be found in Market Square. Many of John Hooper’s pieces can be found outdoors in the vicinity of that one, so check them all out!
Not far away from “People Apart Coming Together,” on your way through the pedway that connects Market Square to Brunswick Square, you can see a cool mural on the ceiling of the pedway done by Saint John visual artist Deanna Musgrave titled “Nest“ . The mural has a strong spiritual dimension to it, and incorporates symbolism as a means to express a sense of the city, its history, and the people who live here now.
If you’re out walking around and you’re wondering what’s up with the colourful salmon positioned around town — it’s a public art installation called “Salmon Run,” that’s also commissioned by Discover Saint John. Casts of Atlantic salmon were created by New Brunswick artist John Morgan, and each salmon was then painted by a local artist. The participating artists this year were: Amy Ash, Corinne Monique Long, Deanna Musgrave, Fabiola Martinez Rodriguez, Geordan Moore, Holly McKay, Jack and Jean Hudson, Kelley Joyce- Floyd, Matt Shields, Steve Chanyi, and Tammy Capstick.
Last summer mural artist Sean Yoro (also known as Hula) came to Saint John to create a mural commissioned by Discover Saint John. This summer he’s back, but this time around to create a permanent mural at Market Slip. Also this summer, Saint John saw the creation of a new mural by Montreal mural artist Dodo Ose, unveiled at this year’s Moonlight Bazaar. That mural can be seen on the corner of Canterbury and Princess Street.
One of my favourite Pixar films is Ratatouille. One of the reasons I loved it so much was because it got me thinking about the creation of a meal as being an art form, and the chef as an artist. When I’m looking for a good restaurant I try to think in those terms, and these five restaurants never disappoint!
The first on my list is East Coast Bistro. Fittingly, like Ratatouille, it too is inspired by french cuisine. Using east coast ingredients, the menu is always fresh, creative and delicious!
The next on my list is Vegolution, the city’s first real vegetarian/vegan restaurant. I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, and I absolutely loved it — the burger I had there recently was one of the best I’ve had in Saint John ever. Ever.
Finally, there’s Port City Royal. The food is great, and I really love the ambiance there — a common theme, as of late in Saint John, is to combine old architectural elements such as exposed beams and brick, and give it a modern spin. Port City Royal is one of the best examples of this, and is one of the reasons I like it there so much.
If you want to experience Saint John cuisine in all of its glory visit during one of the city’s Chop Chop weeks. That’s when all of the restaurants bust out their A game to try and outdo one another.
Another one of the spots you need to check out while in town is the beautiful and historic Imperial Theatre. The Imperial Theatre first opened its doors in 1913. Between the years of 1957 and 1982 it was owned by a church group, but in the mid-eighties interest arose in reopening it as a public theatre. The city rallied together, and money was raised to restore it to its’ former glory. Today the theatre is one of the classiest places to spend an evening. As a filmmaker I’ve had the chance to film some stuff in the theatre, and I’ve spoken to a few musicians who have travelled all over the country, and who told me the Imperial is their favourite theatre to perform in. It’s my favourite place to catch a live show in the city for sure.
Another theatre to mention is the BMO Theatre, home to the Saint John Theatre Company. The Saint John Theatre company does over forty creative works each year, and is the place to go if you’re interested in the local theatre scene. You can also catch music, film, standup comedy and other acts there. In the summer it’s one of the spots where you can go to catch your fix of fringe theatre — it’s one of the main stages used by the Fundy Fringe Festival…
With the upswing in quality dining in the city, there has also been quite a few nice additions to the bar scene. If you prefer wine there’s Happinez Wine Bar. If whisky is your thing there’s Hopscotch. If your looking to listen to some vinyl or live music and enjoy a local craft beer Five and Dime is the place to be. Irish Pub? Head to O’Leary’s, which has been a staple of the Saint John bar scene since 1987.
Another bar that is a central gathering place downtown that I like to meet up with others is Picaroons General Store. It’s a particularly happening spot at the end of every work day when locals converge to catch a pint before heading out for supper, and on weekends. It’s a dog friendly spot too, so you’re always welcome to bring your furry companion along with you. It also seems to be a popular place for creatives to go to have a pint while “working”. It’s not uncommon to run into an artist tapping away on their laptop, while downing a frothy, cold, local brewsky for courage and sustenance.
One of my favourite locations to hang out in Saint John for drinks, but also just generally speaking, is down on the boardwalk. There’s several spots to find food and a drink, and in the summer there’s almost always music to catch there. On New Years Eve it’s a happening place to be, as well as on Canada day, when you can catch the fireworks display over the scenic Saint John harbourfront.
The boardwalk connects with the Saint John Harbour Passage, so it’s also a great place to end (or begin) a bike ride, a walk, or a tour of the scenic harbourfront. You can find more public art along the harbour passage, as well as parks, and heritage and recreation sites.
If you’re like me, you need some nature and a quiet place to go and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city as well. There’s two parks in particular that have beautiful trails, and waterfront to spend time on. The Irving Nature Park is top of my list. At the park you’ll find forest, marsh, beaches and trails. In evenings, in the summer, you can also take in some stargazing — last summer I was at the park at sundown and ran into some local astronomers out for a night of stargazing. The park has been designated as an Urban Star Park, and I was told by the local astronomers that ocean front in the park is one of the best places to go stargaze in the region. The park hosts stargazing events with the Saint John Astronomy Club, and a popular Facebook page to find out about local stargazing events is Astronomy by the Bay.
Another nature retreat that’s popular in the city is Rockwood Park. Rockwood Park also has beautiful trails, as well as two lakes that are perfect for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding, etc. In the winter, Rockwood Park is the place to be outdoors with lots of winter activities like skating, sleigh rides, and cross country skiing.
Finally, if your a fan of coastal views there are a ton of local hidden gems and charming nooks that are worth researching and seeking out. Recently a spot that I discovered that I really loved, is a spot called Seaside Park. It was a bit treacherous to get down to the beach, so proceed with caution if that’s your goal, and take a look at the tide schedule, so you don’t end up getting washed out to sea!
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