Homes

Inside the Dazzling, Art-Filled Home of Cindy Stelmackowich and Jonathan Browns

This story first appeared in our 2017 Interiors issue, which is on newsstands until the end of 2017. Copies can also be purchased on our e-store.

To discover the astonishing art, start from the outside and work your way in. Begin by walking through the Zen-like pebble garden in front of the 10-year-old industrial-looking house in Vanier’s Beechwood Village. From here, steel beams — painted blue after they were rescued from a commercial building that used to sit on the double lot — form an arch leading to a semi-private courtyard behind a detached garage. Pass the small cement pond, and you’ll find the entrance to the house, an L-shaped one-storey home that’s made up of a series of connected slanted-roof trapezoids mainly clad in corrugated metal sheeting. Once inside, make a swift U-turn through the open-concept kitchen and dining room and come face to face with the startling, mysteriously beautiful art in the living room.

The view from the street shows the entrance to that courtyard just behind the three cedars, which enhances privacy. Landscape architect Mary Faught worked with the owners to design the low-maintenance front yard and courtyard. Photo by Christian Lalonde
The view from the street shows the entrance to that courtyard just behind the three cedars, which enhances privacy. Landscape architect Mary Faught worked with the owners to design the low-maintenance front yard and courtyard. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Straight ahead, mounted on the west wall, is an artwork doubling as a Victorian-looking light fixture with a long fringe. It hangs above a turntable (vinyl is appreciated in this house). The fringe is real human hair. On the right, by the gas fireplace, stand two large stacked, built-in cubes hiding part of an almost secret staircase to the basement. These cubes make an excellent display surface for sculptures. So what sculptures are on show?

When not shipped off to out-of-town exhibitions, the display of choice is an art piece created from rolled-up pages culled from old medical texts, then encased, mummy-like, in white bandages. The exposed edges of the red-shaded pages look like tendons and muscles. Could it be that these conceptual sculptures are meant to make you think of severed chunks of a human thigh? Welcome to Cindy and Jonathan’s art house.

Cindy Stelmackowich and Jonathan Browns are one of the leading power couples in Ottawa’s contemporary art scene. Cindy is a curator and a professor, as well as a multi-media artist who has exhibited widely in Canada, the United States, and Europe. She specializes in medically themed creations and loves natural materials — including human hair. Much of her work has a definite creep factor. But her art also has wondrous aesthetic appeal, even more so in this minimalistic domestic setting than in the clutter of her Enriched Bread Artists studio.

Jonathan Browns and Cindy Stelmackowich bought the house two years ago from Ottawa architects Guillermo Ceppi and Veronica Silva. Photo by Christian Lalonde
Jonathan Browns and Cindy Stelmackowich bought the house two years ago from Ottawa architects Guillermo Ceppi and Veronica Silva. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Jonathan manages the City of Ottawa’s art collection, supervises the acquisition of new works, and makes sure just the right painting or sculpture is displayed in every municipal building from city hall to the VD clinic. He also spent years creating two-dimensional objets d’art from textured handmade paper.

The two artists are a decorator’s dream: Cindy creates art and Jonathan hangs it. “We complement each other all the time,” says Cindy. “We’re constantly in the same world, but sometimes we are so diverse within that art world that when we come together, it is great.”

Over the gas fireplace in the living room is a diptych, Mourning I, that Cindy created by enlarging images harvested from a medical text. To the right of the fireplace on the built-in is Fingers and Knees, Cindy’s sculpture made of stacked mannequin body parts. Photo by Christian Lalonde
Over the gas fireplace in the living room is a diptych, Mourning I, that Cindy created by enlarging images harvested from a medical text. To the right of the fireplace on the built-in is Fingers and Knees, Cindy’s sculpture made of stacked mannequin body parts. Photo by Christian Lalonde

The 2,700-square-foot house they share was designed by Ottawa architects Guillermo Ceppi and Veronica Silva for their own use. Two years ago the architects sold the house to the artists. It was love at first sight when the house hunters viewed an online video advertisement. “I remember thinking, it is so unique, so well done, it’s not a typical Ottawa home in any sense,” recalls Cindy. “I could also see immediately that there was so much room for art.”

Unique features in the house include niches in the walls of almost every room — cut-outs that are perfect for displaying sculptures and ceramics. In addition to the couple’s own art, they have acquired works by many others, including such locals as Adrian Gollner, Peter Shmelzer, Dennis Tourbin, Lisa Creskey, and Jeff Thomas, as well as such Canadian superstars as Ed Pien (Toronto), Victor Cicansky (Regina), and Marcel Dzama (Winnipeg).

Through a combination of the original architecture and the current owners’ decorating acumen, the overall feel of the interior is uncluttered, bright, and airy. The walls tend to be shades of pale grey or off-white, although most rooms, including the two bedrooms and a spacious office, feature one wall painted in a strong colour — lime green, fuchsia, and robust shades of yellow all make an appearance.

 

The master bedroom and the adjoining ensuite. In the bedroom, we see some of Jonathan’s works on paper from the 1990s competing for attention with a Marc Chagall lithograph above the tall bureau. Photo by Christian Lalonde
The master bedroom and the adjoining ensuite. In the bedroom, we see some of Jonathan’s works on paper from the 1990s competing for attention with a Marc Chagall lithograph above the tall bureau. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Those bright contrast walls, along with a scattering of throw rugs, are among the few bold colours in the house. The floors are mainly blond birch, while the furniture is dark in tone. Most of the art on display is small prints in subtle colours. Even a numbered print by the audacious Salvador Dalí melts into the tranquil environment. “I’ve always felt, whenever I’ve installed artwork, that you need a place to rest your eyes,” explains Jonathan. “Open space is very important. You need that in this space, too, to enjoy the architecture.” There are so many things to look at, he notes, that you don’t need to have art on every surface.

Cindy agrees, saying they each view art all day in their jobs. “So we need to come home and get a break from so much art. Having that basement storage is so good for us because we can rotate things and put them away.”

Yes, the basement. It is a full, unfinished space with ceilings 13½ feet high. There are storage racks for the prints and paintings not hanging on the walls upstairs. One large subterranean room is a work-in-progress, destined to become Cindy’s studio. But for now, the empty space is used for tricycle races. You heard right. There are three tricycles here, large enough for adults to ride. They are apparently great at parties, when the couple’s artist friends jump on and race around after a few glasses of wine. Man, after all, cannot live by art alone.