By early 2020, artist Keiran Brennan Hinton had been living in New York for the better part of a decade, sharing an apartment in the Bronx with three roommates. He spent much of his time painting at a small studio nearby, a 320-square-foot commercial space on the sixth floor of a brick industrial building.
Born in Toronto and educated at Yale, Brennan Hinton’s quiet 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 became increasingly drawn to the rural tableaux of Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd—a far cry from the city’s concrete environs. He found himself dreaming of a retreat in the country where he could work outside, a practice known as plein air painting.
Around the same time, his mom, 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 both art studio and eventual retirement abode. With a budget of $230,000, which would include renovations costs, Brennan Hinton began scouring listings across Ontario and upstate New York. His mode of transportation was a red Vespa, on which he’d zip down pebbly 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, which had been built in 1918 and then shuttered in 1967. It had the original wainscoting, a bell tower, and hardwood floors that were dotted with holes where the desks had been screwed in. “I had never been in a space that felt so handmade,” says Brennan Hinton. “There were no traditional partition walls. Almost everything was built with solid wood—nothing was veneered.”
Brennan Hinton knew the property would be perfect for plein air painting. The windows had been updated for energy-saving purposes, but the originals, flecked with pink and blue paint—Brennan Hinton believes they once indicated gendered entrances—were stowed in a shed on the property. The home’s previous owner was a set builder at the Shaw Festival who had restored the building to habitability. When Brennan Hinton took possession in April of 2020, the owner had stripped away the original tin ceiling to open up the space and installed two wooden mezzanines.
Before becoming a teacher, Melanie had studied architecture. She created the renovation plans, which included removing the mezzanine stairs that unfurled into the middle of the house and rebuilding them on the side to create a more expansive space. They also moved the bathroom, which required a plumbing overhaul. Brennan Hinton handled the framing and drywalling himself. In a nod to the building’s history, he installed milk glass light fixtures from a nearby antique store, culled from a different schoolhouse.
“I’m trying to make a space where people can daydream”
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 lightness that comes with making work in the schoolhouse that I find refreshing,” he says. Its size, too, has benefited Brennan Hinton’s practice, giving him the space to stretch and prime canvas at home—not a task he could easily manage in his small Bronx studio. The schoolhouse has also 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 from 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 schoolhouse paintings will appear in a solo show at Tokyo’s Maki Gallery.
At the schoolhouse, Brennan Hinton says, he’s able to blend timelessness with immediacy. “I’m interested in finding the nuance in it, and making paintings that feel true to a specific moment,” he explains. Neighbours and strangers often pull over on the dirt road to tell Brennan Hinton about its history. One former student recently showed Brennan Hinton where she and her classmates used to play, near a wood shed that’s still standing. Another sent him an old newspaper clipping with a photo of kids lined up outside what is now Brennan Hinton’s front door.
“I’m trying to make a space where people can daydream,” says Brennan Hinton, “and linger for a prolonged amount of time.”