Photography by Alan Gratias
I have been invited for lunch to celebrate 25 years of Blizzmax, the gallery, studio, and workshop Peter and Alice Mennacher founded in 1993. I set out at noon for the Mennacher residence on a shimmering summer day, this one less sultry than the previous weeks of heat and humidity. I always look forward to the drive to South Bay on Country Road 13, through the forest plunge I call La France, but is actually Grimmond Woods. With bucolic fields and water views along the way, manicured in its sweeping layers of crops and hedges, the route reminds me of genteel English countryside.
It is hard to miss the Mennacher property. It jumps out at you at the road, an imposing dark-stained barn reinvented as Blizzmax, announced by a stylized bird stencilled on its side. The big pointy bird, painted yellow, is based on one of Peter’s carvings. It can be thought of as the original barn quilt that adorn so many of the County outbuildings today.
Twenty-five years as an art space, in the early days as one of the only galleries in Prince Edward, is an accomplishment. A minimum of four shows a summer represents more than 100 exhibits showcasing artists from across Canada and Europe. Peter and Alice have played hosts to some of the most exciting contemporary shows between Montreal and Toronto.
“Why Blizzmax?” I enquire of the singular name. “’Blizz’ because of the blizzards I first encountered when I came to Montreal to article with a law firm,” replies Peter who is German and practiced law in Munich for 20 years. “And ‘max’ because I was a fan of Max Ernst.” The German artist who was a pioneer of the Dada movement and Surrealism has inspired Peter’s art and his approach to life. Peter’s own work encompasses etchings, prints, and most famously, whittling or wood carving. He favours monumental works like the three oversized pieces, Plein Soleil, Ironwood, and Driftwood Curtain that dominate the rear of the Blizzmax barn.
“Quite a shift from law to full time artist,” I observe.
“Not so much,” Peter counters. “My field was tax, law, and the arts, so I met many artists. One of my clients taught me the most difficult of printing techniques, etching.”
Alice, who is dressed in shorts and a blue patterned blouse, beckons us to a veranda overlooking South Bay where a table has been set for lunch. I comment on the offshore wind which delivers a cooling breeze to the covered loggia.
“That’s the reason we bought this place,” Peter says, relaxing in green cargo shorts and a white T-shirt. “I was into surfing and I could ride in front at our shoreline.” I detect an eyeroll from Alice who adds that Peter brought many surf boards from Germany with him when they moved here permanently in 1992. He is not related to the German Hessians who came to the County as Loyalists in the late 18th century, or the Minakers from South Marysburgh, “although my kids were always called Minaker when they were at school in Picton.”
Alice is a Montrealer by birth and education, a Goodfellow whose forebears are Irish and Protestant, and whose family is well known in the lumber business. She graduated from McGill in psychology, and then UBC with a post grad degree in architecture. Before she could register as an architect, Peter lured her to live in Munich. They had met on a blind date in Montreal in 1970 and then again in Verona after Peter’s first wife died in a car accident. There was something about the wide-open spaces of Canada they couldn’t resist, and they decided to look for property on a trip back to Montreal. “Germany is too crowded, too bureaucratic, and too expensive,” Peter pronounces. One weekend they found themselves at Adolphustown.
“What’s over there?” Alice asked waiting for the ferry, pointing to the island land mass on the horizon. A few days later they purchased a three-acre waterfront site on South Bay with an abandoned dairy barn. Alice designed a large A-frame style home swimming in light and views and clad it in wide barn-board style wood planks, now gone deep Nantucket grey.
Twenty-five years, and four children later, the house seems too big and they are planning to downsize, but not just yet. More Blizzmax shows to curate, artwork to execute, moose to hunt. Ever hands-on, Alice has designed a smaller abode on land they own on the Lighthall Road, adjacent to the vineyard they pioneered and sold to Lighthall Winery. Insulated concrete form in construction with a small footprint, it is well on its way to completion as a single level home. Maybe a tennis court this time. Both Alice and Peter are keen players. Alice thrives on her forehand and ground strokes while Peter is her aggressive volley-crazy partner.
Peter opens a bottle of a Lighthall sparkling Progression made from Vidal grapes with a second fermentation using the Charmat Method. Lighthall is the only winery in the County using a cement fermentation vessel which allows oxygen to penetrate the tank. The nose is loaded with grapefruit and green apple peel. We toast the fine summer weather and the exhilaration of living in Prince Edward. Two home-made pizzas oozing cheese and vegetables are served with a mixed green salad.
I had been warned Peter had picked up the habit as a lawyer in Munich of sketching his clients as they talked, but I saw no sketchbook at his side, so carried on with my generous pours of wine.
“For me, art is an effort to justify our lives,” Peter says. “To work out the enigma of human existence.”
A telephone call interrupts our conversation. It is Michael Potters whose first restaurant, Harvest, was located in the nearby village of Milford. He is in the County for a few days and is hoping he and Peter can go fishing later in the afternoon.
Handsome Patrick, a son from Peter’s first marriage, joins us at the table. He is visiting from Toronto where he is reinventing himself in the hospitality and beer business. He is moving on from his past career as a dog walker on the upper East Side in Manhattan. His sister Milli, with a background in human kinetics, also works in Toronto in the medical administration field.
We linger over our wine marvelling at the changes in the Quinte since the Mennachers first moved here. “Darling, I smell the coffee burning,” Alice says. Peter jumps to his feet. “She can be bossy,” he laughs as he goes to the kitchen to check.
After the last drop of the sparkling Lighthall, we take a stroll in the garden. I am struck by how well this couple have navigated their lives and their relationship. I ask what secret of a successful marriage they would like to share. “Have fun,” Alice jumps in. Peter stops in front of the towering hollyhocks. “Don’t make big problems,” he says. “In the scheme of things, it’s all manageable.”