In early 2020, artist Keiran Brennan Hinton had lived in New York for the better part of a decade, sharing an apartment in the Bronx with three roommates. He spent most of his time painting in a small studio nearby, a 320 square meter commercial space on the sixth floor of a brick industrial building.
Born in Toronto and educated at Yale, Brennan Hinton’s serene renderings of domestic interiors have appeared at the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as galleries in the United States and Europe. In New York, he was increasingly drawn to the rural paintings of Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd—far removed from the concrete environs of the city. He found himself dreaming of a retreat to a place where he could work outside, a practice known as plein air painting.
At the same time, his mother, Melanie Brennan, an elementary school teacher, announced that she wanted to retire in the next few years. And so the pair set out to find a place that could serve as an art studio and ultimate retirement home. With a budget of $230,000, which would include renovation costs, Brennan Hinton began scouring listings across Ontario and upstate New York. His mode of transportation was a red Vespa, on which he zipped down cobblestone country roads lined with fields of grazing cows.
Eventually he discovered a one-room schoolhouse in Elgin, Ontario, about an hour and a half’s drive south of Ottawa, that had been built in 1918 and then closed in 1967. It had the original parin, a bell tower. and wooden floors that were riddled with holes where the tables had been screwed. “I had never been in a space that felt so handcrafted,” says Brennan Hinton. “There were no traditional dividing walls. Almost everything was built of solid wood – nothing was veneer.
Brennan Hinton knew the property would be perfect plein air painting. The windows had been updated for energy-saving purposes, but the originals, painted pink and blue—Brennan Hinton believes they once indicated gendered entrances—were placed in a shed on the property. The home’s previous owner was a Shaw Festival set builder who restored the building to habitable condition. When Brennan Hinton took possession in April 2020, the owner had removed the original tin ceiling to open up the space and installed two wooden mezzanines.
Before becoming a teacher, Melanie studied architecture. She created the renovation plans, which included removing the mezzanine staircase that ran down the middle of the house and rebuilding it to the side to create a wider space. They also moved the bathroom, which required a plumbing repair. Brennan Hinton handled the framing and drywall himself. Referring to the building’s history, he installed milk glass lamps from a nearby antique shop, taken from another school.
“I’m trying to create a space where people can dream with their eyes open”
These days, Brennan Hinton splits his time between Elgin and Toronto, where he shares an apartment with his partner, curator and art critic Tatum Dooley. “There’s a freedom and gentleness that comes with doing school work that I find refreshing,” he says. Its size has also benefited Brennan Hinton’s practice, giving him the space to stretch and prepare the canvas at home—not a task he could easily manage in his small studio in the Bronx. Even the schoolhouse has provided inspiration for his work. A recent piece, titled “A Week in November,” captures the main floor with light streaming in. Another, called “Sun Shower,” features clothes hanging on a line outside. “You can date my paintings by the way the foliage changes outside the windows,” he says. “In October, everything is golden, in July it’s super green, and in January, when the sun is setting, the snow becomes a blanket of blue.” This fall, his school paintings will be featured in a solo show at Tokyo’s Maki Gallery.
At school, Brennan Hinton says, he is able to blend the eternal with the immediate. “I’m interested in finding the nuances in it and making paintings that feel true to a specific moment,” he explains. Neighbors and strangers often come down the dirt road to tell Brennan Hinton about her story. A former student recently showed Brennan Hinton where she and her classmates used to play, next to a log cabin that’s still standing. Another sent him a piece of old newspaper with a picture of children lined up outside what is now Brennan Hinton’s front door.
“I’m trying to create a space where people can daydream,” says Brennan Hinton, “and stay for a long time.”
This article appears in print in the September 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $29.99.