Home is Where the Art is
When entrepreneurs and artists Jocelyn Burke and James Webster renovated Jocelyn’s childhood home in Horning’s Mills, they laid the perfect groundwork for a well-curated life.
As Jocelyn Claire Burke and James Carlton Webster imagined transforming her childhood home into their permanent perch, it made sense to repair, modernize and update the space, just as many next-gen owners would.
But this was not just any home. It came with a heaping serving of local and family history. The former Horning’s Mills general store was established when a schoolhouse was relocated and attached to the town’s 1840 grist mill at the turn of the 20th century. It has been a private home since the 1970s, and Jocelyn’s family moved here in 1987 when she was five.
For Jocelyn, an artist and curator, the home evokes memories of her late father, Michael Burke, who died in 2004. After Jocelyn’s mother, Janet, moved next door to care for her own father until his death at 92, a series of tenants and vacancies had left the property in disrepair. In 2012 Jocelyn and James decided to take on the property while living together in Orangeville, knowing it needed major repairs and upgrades. As a testament to how well they worked together through the renovation, the pair, who met at high school in Shelburne, eventually hosted their wedding reception here in 2015, a year after moving in.
“We never had a plan,” says Jocelyn, sitting with James in their sunshine-bathed kitchen. The couple, who have been together for 14 years, did much of the work themselves, hiring trades as needed – all while working full time, he in building maintenance and management for Dufferin County, she as a server at Mono Cliffs Inn and Terra Nova Public House.
“I’d do a night shift at Terra Nova, then come here and work all day,” says Jocelyn. They transformed eight rooms on the main floor into a loft-like space, with an art studio and office on the north side, where Jocelyn paints and James works on design projects, photography and music. (The polymath pair used to be heavily involved in the Harmony Rainbow Group, an Orangeville music collective.) The couple also manages two businesses here: the local problem-solving service, My Country Concierge, and The Wild Residency, which has an arts focus.
The living, dining and kitchen areas open to the south. Upstairs are two bedrooms and a bathroom. On the lower level, which opens onto the garden and pond in the back, there’s another series of rooms, including a galley kitchen. In all, the home occupies about 2,700 square feet.
“It took one year to tear it apart and one year to put it back together,” says James.
As the son of Primrose antiques dealer Glen Webster (James took his first steps as a baby at an antique auction) and as a member of a local family whose roots date back to the 1830s, James’ background came in handy as he hunted for architectural salvage and vintage furniture that fit the renovation’s aesthetic.
Trained in sustainable building construction and design, James is the one with the “wood chi,” as Jocelyn calls it. He oversaw sourcing the perfectly matching hardwood from Buffalo to replace damaged flooring, as well as the red cedar telephone poles, which were planed and stained by Orangeville woodworker Don Rose to create the thick floating shelves in the kitchen. The dining chairs are part of a set of 18 from the Mansfield Orange Lodge.
Throughout, Jocelyn’s paintings layer in a contemporary voice. Her most recent canvases are painted with iridescent oils, all dreamy washes of pastels punctuated by vertical trickles and soft curves, some with hits of gold leaf or glitter blown onto damp paint “like fairy dust,” she says. Jocelyn admits the white wall shade that makes these works pop isn’t a fancy pick. As a painter attuned to colour, she found the undertones too stark. “With the quality of light in here, every white I tried looked either grey or yellow,” she says. “So I stuck with straight white from the can.”
It’s a fitting choice, a literal blank slate to match the figurative one this couple is busy filling. “I feel like we healed this house,” says Jocelyn.
Along the way, the couple curated a world for themselves that balances a sense of serenity with enough personal touchpoints to jog memories and conversations. Some are bona fide treasures, like a Lalique daisy bowl from Jocelyn’s Great-Aunt Margaret, which sits on freestanding shelves allowing light to pass through it. A pair of crystal sconces, also from Margaret, add sparkle to the dining area.
A typical serendipity: A favourite mirror that Jocelyn bought at a yard sale in her teens has the name Beryl Webster scrawled on the back. It turns out she was James’ great-aunt, and James can pull out an old photograph as proof. Beryl’s brother, Grandpa Carlton, stars in the oval portrait above the piano.
Upstairs, Jocelyn scans the master bedroom. “Everything in here is inherited or comes from an auction,” she says. The quilt, which matches the painting and the bed linens in an offhand way, comes from a Waterloo auction. Her wedding gown, which fills one panel of a glass-fronted cabinet, was originally a vintage ruffled lace dress made in the 1800s and refashioned in the 1930s. “It fit perfectly,” says Jocelyn.
Some of her most treasured pieces, though, are the thousands of books and records of her dad’s which she is still sifting through. “I feel like I’m getting to know him better each time I find something new.”
Indeed, where others might feel the weight of all this history around them, Jocelyn and James seem energized by it. The reimagined home has deepened their roots in the community. James spent four years as a Melancthon councillor from 2014 to 2018, and remains on the local cemetery and hall boards, among other commitments. And the house has also been a sturdy launch pad for the couple’s two businesses. “Succeeding at reinventing this house has made us feel like we can do anything,” Jocelyn says. It has, James adds, “given us a life by design far surpassing what we deemed was possible.”
My Country Concierge, which they started in 2016, was inspired by their renovation experience and offers renovation help, project and property management, catering, and weekend house prep. The Wild Residency came into being last year, with added inspiration from curatorial studies Jocelyn undertook in 2017 at the European Cultural Academy in Venice.
As part of an international artist residency network, The Wild Residency hosts artists for trips abroad (this summer Venice beckons) and retreats at their home, which they call Wild Mill Studios, as well as two other properties they own. One is a rustic pink cabin in Newfoundland and the other is a renovated 1969 Airstream trailer parked on 300 spectacular acres on Lake Superior. “When you can go to a place so special, you feel compelled to share it,” Jocelyn says.
The pair will be tying it all together in an upcoming salon-style evening at home, named in honour of Michael Burke’s unrealized dream of opening a first-edition bookstore and café here called the Rainy Day Café. Funds raised at the event will be earmarked to sponsor artist residencies.
One of the perks those artists – and Rainy Day Café guests, if they’re lucky – will get to enjoy here is the view of ducks puttering around on the pond. In their research, Jocelyn and James learned that a Horning’s Mills resident and naturalist, Mac Marshall, used to track the migration habits of the ducks who lived here – the Museum of Dufferin holds a selection of his duck tags.
Looking out the studio window at two web-footed visitors, Jocelyn smiles, admitting she feels more than a little kinship with them. “I like to think these are Mac Marshall’s ducks coming home to roost,” she says.
In the Waldemar store, pop was five cents in the 1940s (seven cents if you took it outside, but there was a two-cent bottle return).