Saviour of the Arts
The inside story of how one remarkable woman turned Canada’s most beautiful botanical garden into the United Nations of art
By James Mullinger
Photographs by Sean McGrath
When Lucinda Flemer first visited her grandparents’ summer house in St. Andrews by-the-Sea in the 1940s she was instantly smitten. But she could not have known that, 80 years later, she would have turned it into one of the most important artistic ventures in Canadian history.
Born in Montreal, Flemer spent every summer of her childhood at this beautiful spot, but after her parents died, Flemer was undecided about what to do with this majestic property of cedar hedges, orchards and rose gardens. For many years the land lay unattended. Then one day it hit her: she would create a new garden but for everyone — a world-class destination for locals to embrace and tourists around the globe to visit that would also create employment opportunities.
In the spring of 1998, Flemer opened Kingsbrae Garden, now one of Canada’s top tourist destinations. Rightly ranked the top “Thing to Do” in the region by TripAdvisor, Kingsbrae now boasts over 50,000 perennials in themed gardens, ponds, streams, old-growth Acadian forest and various animals and birds. The 27-acre garden is frequently called a masterpiece. Which is the correct way to define what Flemer has created. As well as preserving nature and heritage, the garden is unmistakably a piece of art in its own right. A piece of art that also houses two internationally renowned restaurants.
Not one to rest on her laurels, two decades later she opened KIRA (Kingsbrae International Residency for the Arts) to support artists from around the world. It houses up to six artists at one time and gives them the space to create, produce and refine their work
And then photographs started circulating of a large performing-arts amphitheatre in a glorious setting. When it transpired that this majestic venue was in Saint Andrews, people were perplexed.
After all, it shouldn’t be possible.
But Flemer believes that anything is possible anywhere, that you shouldn’t be restricted by your geography, that you should embrace what you have. She is a visionary, a lover of the arts and, most important, a doer. She says she is going to do something, and she does it. Her support for local charities is well known even though she does it quietly. And her support of people is what really stands out. A perfect example is Chef Alex Haun. He started at the garden café as a dishwasher and, under Flemer’s tutelage, has become one of Canada’s most admired chefs.
At the helm of all this day to day is the father and son team of Tim and Brad Henderson. Brad, Kingsbrae Garden’s director of operations, grew up in Saint Andrews, studied at the University of New Brunswick and his career with Labatt Breweries took him to many exciting places and events. But when he and wife Christina had their second child on the way, they knew they wanted to settle in one place.
“I was fortunate enough to know Mrs. Flemer, and she had talked about an employment opportunity in the past so one day I just picked up the phone. She said, ‘Just quit your job and we will figure things out when you get here.’ Even though I had a second child on the way, a mortgage, car payments, I said yes. To have the opportunity to raise kids in my hometown is what sold me. I love Kingsbrae Garden, but my true passion is community, and I knew Mrs. Flemer felt the same way. She is the founder and the holder of the vision, and to this day the leader of the garden, but her first passion is community. It was a natural partnership, which was very exciting because we spend part of our time talking about gardening, but we spend a lot more time talking about how we can make this community better.”
Like many of us in Atlantic Canada, Henderson doesn’t limit himself to one job. He is also the deputy mayor of the town. “I am fortunate to work for an employer like Mrs. Flemer because she really does have the attitude that what’s great for the community is also good for Kingsbrae. She is fully supportive of anything that I can do on my free time to make Saint Andrews a better place. So it was a good fit from the start.”
The garden and the restaurant had always brought significant numbers of people to the town, but Henderson knew it wasn’t enough. “We still had capacity to bring in more revenue and welcome more guests,” he admits, “so we introduced a lot of new events. Last October, for instance, we held a pumpkin festival. It was the shoulder season in Saint Andrews, and we had almost a thousand people visit. There has always been a pairing with art at Kingsbrae. So we had talented artist Geoff Slater join us, and we started offering art classes. The most popular include Pinot and Palette, and Paint a Flower in an Hour. These have brought lots of people.”
The challenge in a small place is to keep reinventing yourself, and Henderson knows this better than anyone. “What we do is form partnerships with community groups,” he says. “We will meet with any community group that wants to do something special. We’ve formed partnerships with the St. Andrews Arts Council and Paddlefest NB; all these groups are coming here to do their events. Fortunately, every year our membership grows and so does our visitation. In 2017, we were recognized by USA Today as the top destination in Canada. We saw double-digit growth not just on the culinary side but also in visitation, and I’m not even including numbers for the amphitheater or our artist-in-residence program and all the visitors who come to meet with them in their studios.
“My role is constantly evolving. What I did here four years ago and what I do here today are entirely different. This off-season I am talking to world-class performers to try to get them to come to the amphitheatre. That is something that I wouldn’t have done two years ago. My role with the company is constantly changing because it really is about following Mrs. Flemer’s vision. It’s a pretty remarkable journey to play a tiny role in. Who knows what I will be doing next year…”
Indeed, when all of us in the [EDIT] office saw the photographs of the amphitheatre, we assumed it was in Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London. What is a venue with a larger seating capacity than the town’s population doing in Saint Andrews? Then we heard about the artist residencies , which quite literally gives artists Virginia Woolf’s ideal of a room of their own.
“Four years ago, I would have never said that we would have artists come for one month to a beautiful estate with an amphitheatre and overlooking the Bay of Fundy,” Henderson laughs. “Part of that journey is the willingness to change path if need be. We need to maintain that willingness as we expand our offering, and that is what we are doing. Every year we are hiring more seasonal and year-round, full-time staff. Mrs. Flemer’s vision when she started the garden was to protect the green space, offer another tourist attraction and create employment. She has 63 employees now, and we are a major employer in Saint Andrews.”
Supporting the local community, providing sustainable careers and embracing the arts are the imperatives for Flemer in everything she conceives. KIRA delivers on all fronts. “Artists come here to work, undisturbed,” she states matter-of-factly over tea and coffee in KIRA’s main living room. “I always used to hear the same complaints from artists, which is that they never have time to work. I decided to change that. We have had artists from India, from China, Poland, all over the globe.”
“And they are spending 25 percent of their time in the community while they are here, sharing their story,” Henderson adds. “Part of that interaction is to share about where they come from, but it’s also about them bringing back our story to the communities in which they live. They all tell a story in their artwork about what Saint Andrews is.”
The selection process is rigorous, but Flemer refuses to make it complicated. “We have a small jury, and that simplifies the process,” she states. “Last year we received over 300 applications and had to pick just 15. We all look at each request separately and carefully, and each application might be 20 pages long. Some are looking for a free trip, let’s face it. But where it really gets tough is having to narrow down the ones we love. We bring our favourites and meet for final selection. And then slowly, slowly, we whittle it down. And it’s tough because you don’t want to disappoint people. They can work morning, noon and night. We provide them with food, lodging and a studio. And how they spend their time is up to them. With this time, they can take their art into new angles that they hadn’t thought of before.”
The relationships that form during the residency are unique. Henderson says, “For our first KIRA last summer, we had two Americans, a Canadian, a Russian, and someone from England. They were all within a few feet of each other in the studios. And with all the turmoil in the world, these people had dinner every night, and they concentrated on what they have in common, which is a passion for art, instead of what their differences are. It’s interesting from a global perspective when you see people who have all these differences come together and have such a positive relationship.”
The secret to Saint Andrews’ success is its community and the support locals have for everything that is happening. “It’s our community’s culture,” Henderson says. “People in Saint Andrews generally love telling the story of Saint Andrews. They love being tour guides. We have a population of 1800, but we actually have a community built for 5000 people. If we didn’t have those visitors in the summer, we wouldn’t have the need for the infrastructure, and Saint Andrews wouldn’t be as special as it is. How often do you have such a small community, not even accounting for the history or the heritage, that also has top-notch shops downtown? And we have all these attractions, not just Kingsbrae, but also Ministers Island where you can drive across the ocean floor at low tide to tour Sir William Van Horne’s home. We have the Fundy Discovery Aquarium. All of this within a small radius. You can go to big cities, and you won’t find nearly as much to do: whale watching, sea kayaking, deep-sea fishing. We have had all these great things for some time, but we haven’t done the best job of telling our story. The secret is getting out there now thanks to media like [EDIT] magazine. We are getting more coverage and not just in New Brunswick but across Canada.”
Another of Kingsbrae’s secret weapons is Chelsea Belyea, the director of events and catering. When I was performing at the premiers’ conference at the garden last summer, I saw her handle that colossal task with a unique calm. “The best thing about working here is being in the gardens all day, which are beautiful. I love doing these huge events with people from all over the world. Politicians, comedians, we are always doing different things. I love the creative freedom that we have here.” She is always hearing from people who are astounded that New Brunswick has all of this: “New Yorkers and Londoners are completely astounded that they are sitting in New Brunswick, in a place that has such beautiful gardens, that has such a world-class culinary scene. And that we put on these huge events in such a tiny little town. Now with the amphitheater, they just cannot believe that this is in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick.”
“Each day can be challenging, but it is very rewarding,” Belyea explains. We spend a lot of time together. We work hard. We take time outside of work to go whale watching. We have barbecues. It’s just a great place to work, and Mrs. Flemer certainly creates that atmosphere by being the matriarch of the family that we have here.”
Henderson agrees. “We don’t just grow flowers; what we truly grow is people. We look at people who may not have been dealt the best hand of cards in life, people with challenging circumstances. Kingsbrae Garden and Mrs. Flemer have taken a chance on them. There are people who have been with us since the garden opened in 1998. We are also seeing their children work for us. So it is very much a family thing, with Mrs Flemer investing in her people. When I came on the scene, one of her first initiatives was that, even though a lot of the employees were seasonal, they have year-round benefits. That is extremely rare in today’s workforce, wherever you are in the world.”
Flemer’s love affair with St Andrews by-the-Sea began in the 1930s. “The original house was called Kingsbrae, and it belonged to my grandparents,” she says. “It was torn down in 1969, after my grandmother died, and I was always petrified that nasty houses might go up. I racked my brain, trying to figure out how to put it to good use and make it part of the community. I was talking to somebody who employed youth at risk, and I thought perhaps we could have an entity that could give people a profession in horticulture. Give them a trade so they could go out in the world and make a living in New Brunswick. How to do it was the big problem. Frank McKenna (former premier of New Brunswick) suggested we make it a tourist entity, which would create those jobs.
“Saint Andrews was put on the map by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which purchased the Algonquin Hotel in 1903. And this house and some of the large cottages were built for directors of the railway. After the war the town became touristy, but before the war it was summer cottages and lots of families from Montréal came. The husbands commuted back and forth on the train. They would come down and spend the weekend with their families and have a boozy trip back on Sunday night.”
Her vision of creating trades and providing education for people has carried on to this day. “It was locals who built this, and we are now on to the third generation. We still have some grandchildren of the original staff working here. We have set it up in perpetuity so if I drop dead tomorrow it will go on. Fortunately, my children and grandchildren are interested in it. We still have horticultural classes. I think many of the boys have gone on to college, or they’ve become carpenters. Some have gone on as private gardeners.”
Art, commerce and philanthropy are not easy things to blend. But Flemer has mastered the art of balancing them. But let’s get down to it: Why an amphitheatre? “The artists’ retreat came first because I knew this house, and I thought it would be wonderful for artists. Simple as that,” Flemer explains. “Then when I went down the lawn, the humongous lawn, there is a sort of dip at the bottom. I thought, ‘Well, this is the shape of an amphitheatre!’ And with great difficulty and a lot of odds against us, it became an amphitheatre in under a year. It was literally built over winter. I looked at quite a few amphitheatres, and we came across a picture of one in Australia that I liked very much. It seemed to fit everything we were looking for. We designed it; then we had to find an engineer who would build it. Then Tim (Henderson, managing director of Kingsbrae) and I went off to Saint John and looked at what they call Redi-Rock. I wanted the stone to reflect the sandstone on this coast; I didn’t want it to look like a football stadium. We opened on June 8 last year just by the skin of our teeth. We had one week to put all the planting in. Then we bought hundreds of ponchos in case of rain. I had some serious conversations with the man upstairs, I can tell you…
“This vision continues to blow me away,” says Henderson. “But four out of the five shows were completely sold out last year. This speaks to the demand for an outdoor performance centre in the region.”
No one thought this was possible. “Frank didn’t think it was possible. Even my husband didn’t think it was possible. And that made me even more determined. Because we are really trying to persuade people to come and start new businesses here. Our shop is full of things made locally, and we want more. We always keep our ears open. Saint Andrews has wonderful vibes, wonderful people. It has tremendous potential. It has everything going for it. We just need more people — but we don’t want to spoil it with too many. It has a good education system. To bring up a family here is ideal. It is just a question of getting rid of bureaucracy and giving people the encouragement to stick to their convictions.
Kingsbrae has become one large family. We have over 60 people working here in various capacities and I would say, and I am not being sanctimonious, they are like my children.” There is another very good reason why it feels so much like a family; many employees are actually related. For instance, Tim Henderson is father to Brad Henderson, and Alex Haun is partner to Chelsea Belyea.
The creation of Kingsbrae was of course born out of love for nature, but the socio-economic motivation is what makes it unique. Lucinda and John Flemer wanted to create something that would give employment to locals and keep families in the area. As she puts it: “Even more important to us than growing plants is helping our community and the people of this area grow.”
And she encourages others to build on that and grow the community: “We should be more self-sufficient,” she states. “I’ve encouraged people to open a bakery. We used to have one. I remember a time that everything we needed you could find in the town. I would love to have a bakery, a laundry, a really nice, cozy fish restaurant. We used to have one by the lighthouse. A good family place that is simple and not too expensive. We are on the sea, and people expect to eat seafood. These are big opportunities here and someone could come and do it and thrive.
The Hendersons and Flemer are a force to be reckoned with, and it always comes back to helping people and boosting tourism and quality of life: “We are always looking at ways to help the community,” Brad Henderson tells me as I take my leave. “Affordable housing, not just for seniors looking to downsize their homes but also for young workers and professionals looking to get established in our community. Mrs. Flemer doesn’t see it this way or do it for this reason, but the bottom line is that she is leaving an incredible legacy that so many of us can learn from. And I have a feeling that there are still quite a few chapters left…”
Indeed, Flemer shows no sign of slowing down. Even as I climb in to my car to head to the evening’s show, she is still talking, sharing, conspiring, conceiving: “Something that we are working on for 2020 is an international youth music festival. These things snowball, and that will probably give growth to another idea. And I will never stop coming up with ideas, and I will never stop acting on them. It’s the only way to live.”
And with that she turns and walks toward the KIRA house, her scarf fluttering wildly in the wind.
Kingsbrae Garden, Savour in the Garden and The Garden Café
220 King Street, St.Andrews by-the-Sea, NB
130 Prince of Wales Street
St. Andrews by-the-Sea, NB
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here