By TAYLOR PACE
The owner of a new art studio in Galt believes providing customers with a positive and memorable experience is the most important part of her job.
“I put people first; it’s more important for me to treat people with respect than whether I sell something or not,” said Susan Benton, a mother of two with a friendly face, who opened the doors of Cedar Lake Studios on Ainslie Street in the first week of November.
The studio offers more than just the usual run-of-the- mill paintings. It features a variety of Canadian art and artisanal products ranging from large, expensive fine art pieces and sculptures, to reasonably priced artisanal jewelry, tea and chocolate.
For Benton, it’s a dream come true.
“I’ve probably been toying with the idea of opening my own gallery for 15 years, maybe,” she said. “So really this is a dream that is a reality now.”
Her love of art was ignited at a young age, as she grew up with her father’s own collection of original art hanging on the walls.
“I loved art, but I’m not artistic myself in that way,” she said.
For years she has played different roles in the arts, working at the Stratford Festival while studying English at university, and later went on to other top institutions and festivals such as the Shaw Festival and, finally, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Toronto – the only major art gallery that exclusively displays Canadian art.
Wanting to work closer to home, Benton left the McMichael in 2015, uncertain of what she would do next, but confident something would work out if she took a chance.
Soon after, she opened Cedar Lake, the online store, with her former business partner, carrying many of the same artisan products featured in the studio, but with fewer large pieces.
After two years of growing success online and vending at art festivals, Benton decided it was time to set up shop.
“It was hard doing the art shows, because I’m packing up everything, taking it, displaying it. I was always the last person left at the art show taking it all down,” she said. “I figured I’d rather be here where I can display things properly.”
Working at the studio on weekends is Jennifer Wilson, who can otherwise be found at McMaster Gallery and Custom Framing in Dundas, Ont., where she does custom framing and art appraisals.
The two met roughly four years ago when Benton first went to the McMaster Gallery for some custom framing.
“I was so impressed with her skill and her customer service, she’s just warm and genuine and dedicated, compassionate and caring about what she does,” Benton said.
So, of course she was delighted when Wilson agreed to help her with the studio.
“When she’s here, she sets the same atmosphere that I would set,” she said.
For Wilson, the admiration is mutual. “I’ve always been a big fan of hers. She and I just got along really well and always have since the moment we met,” she said.
Wilson believes Cedar Lake Studios is different from other art galleries where customers might feel pressured to buy things or not to touch anything: customers are always welcome to browse and chat about art or anything else.
“How she talks to people about art, how she welcomes clients in, I think makes a huge difference,” Wilson said. “Her enthusiasm is genuine and infectious and she just has a warmth that works for a business owner.”
For Benton, it’s simple: she just loves people.
“That’s what’s been so fun about opening the gallery, is that I actually get to interact with people one on one. Whereas online, sure you do by email or whatever, but it’s not the same as when people walk in the door.”
Even the wide range of artists she works with are chosen based not only on their expertise, but on their personality.
“Not only are these people incredibly talented in their chosen medium, they’re just remarkably genuine people,” said Wilson. “That’s what makes Cedar Lake so welcoming to come in to, energetically there’s just a really good feeling that makes it accessible.”
For example, a fine art photographer Benton has known for years through the McMaster Gallery is one of the artists featured in her studio. Customers often relate to the images with their raw Canadian theme.
Wilson said, “I find that people really have an emotional connection to it because he doesn’t use Photoshop, he doesn’t digitally manipulate his images.”
Working closely with Canadian art over the years inspired Benton to make that her focus. The theme is certainly there, from the northern photography to the tree sculptures and jewelry with beaver charms.
Although this makes the store a great place for gifts, she believes it’s all in good taste, and doesn’t come close to resembling typical souvenirs.
“I love the selection in the store, I think it’s very Canadian in a really spiritual way, who we are as Canadians is reflected,” Benton said.
Benton prides herself in the wide range of pricing and merchandise, making the arts accessible to everyone; a rare concept in the art realm.
With the accessible prices, the variety of the art and the service, customers have been responding well to the store so far, leaving Benton confident that the studio will succeed in the coming months.
“I think there’s a need for art. You can buy a couch, you can buy a chair, but it’s what you actually put on your walls that reflects who you are. So I think I’m offering people a nice selection of things that may touch them, in a way. Something that they’ll have for a long time.”