[Joie De Vivre]

Sheree Rasmussen

Weaving the fabric of the community

It’s often long and winding roads that lead people to the homes within the communities that encourage them to shine. For textile artist Sheree Rasmussen, Northumberland County has provided the setting for a life of creativity; her rural lifestyle has not only nourished her passions, but has helped her strike the kind of exquisite balance that so many restless spirits long for.

Growing up in the suburban wilds of Toronto, Sheree was bitten by the art bug at a young age: her dad was the creative director of an ad agency who dabbled in sculpting and drawing, and her mom, a hobby ceramicist, was a talented seamstress. Sheree fell in love with dance at the age of three, and as the years went by, she grew very serious about her dance studies. Her summers were spent at Camp Naivelt, a family-oriented, Jewish community summer camp on the banks of the Credit River in Brampton. It was there that she developed her profound love of nature. “At Naivelt, all the kids could just run free over the hills and in the woods – everybody took care of everybody,” she reflects. “When I look back at my life, the thread that always runs through it is my love of gardens and nature, my love of art and my love of dance. And I’ve continued to try to combine those three things.”

Still, it certainly wasn’t any kind of direct path that brought Sheree to her current stable state. As the social zeitgeist of the late 1960s set in, this rebel spirit became a self-described hippie, dropped out of high school, and briefly lived in Israel to experience kibbutz life. On one of her European jaunts through France, while travelling with a Buddhist group, Sheree met her first husband, a Dane, with whom she moved to Denmark. She was 20 at the time, and because her husband built looms, she became intrigued with weaving and began to study textile art. A decade later, Sheree and her husband separated and she moved back to Toronto – with her little girl in tow.

Sheree returned to school as a mature student, studying textile art at OCAD. To help put herself through school, she started a small gardening business, putting to use the many skills she’d learned while living in Denmark. She graduated from OCAD at the age of 39, and it was around that time that she met a new partner – Clive Russell, the true love of her life. “I met Clive at a Buddhist centre in Vermont. He was from Toronto, but born on the Isle of Wight,” Sheree explains. “I’d just graduated and I was making these large-scale wall rugs, because I was a weaver then. He was a successful architect at the time and in charge of art installations at the centre. So I made an appointment with him to see if they would show my work.” Sheree and Clive were kindred spirits from the get-go. “He was a wandering hippie too. He’d always wanted to be a visual artist and kept that going. He didn’t throw himself wholeheartedly into architecture, because he found it very constricting.”

Sheree’s gardening business appealed to Clive, and the two soon became professional partners as well. “He hated being in an office … but he loved nature and wanted to be outside. So he embraced the idea of working with me. Once we joined forces our business really took off. We went from taking care of gardens to running a successful landscaping company.”

A few years later, the creative couple decided to pursue their long-held dream of country living. Sheree knew Northumberland because she’d briefly lived near Campbellford in an old schoolhouse back in her hippie days. As soon as she and Clive came across Warkworth, they were immediately struck by the unique little village. They soon found 92 acres for sale just outside town, with two rundown former school portables on it. They thought developing the site would be the perfect creative project for Clive.

“Originally we were just going to renovate the portables but we ended up using the original basic footprint and totally rebuilt them.”

The land was also derelict. It had been used for grazing, but was left fallow for many years. Sheree and Clive were determined to bring the property back to ecological health and spent a small fortune reseeding it with Prairie Blues Little Bluestem, a native grass. “But in order to do that, we first had to bulldoze the whole area, because it was filled with invasive species,” she explains. They wanted to sculpt the land while retaining its true beauty.

In 2012, Clive designed an addition to the couple’s property: The Red Tower – a modern, visually striking, “tiny home” structure. “The inspiration was to create something on this barren land that would be interesting to look at, almost like a ‘folly’ – a structure that doesn’t necessarily have a purpose,” says Sheree. “So it was initially conceived as a kind of sculpture – a red structure set on the hillside – something you could see from the road.”

Clive used The Red Tower as a writing and painting studio. But sadly, he succumbed to cancer in 2016, and Sheree was in a quandary as to what to do with it. “And then it hit me one day that this would make a great little Airbnb,” she says. “I always felt that he set it up for me.” The Red Tower has since become one of the most popular and beloved Airbnbs in Trent Hills.

A leader in the Warkworth arts community, Clive made some significant contributions. One of his proudest accomplishments was the founding of “AH!”, Warkworth’s Art and Heritage Centre, in an old municipal building that was about to be shut down and used as a storage facility. As Sheree explains, Clive always possessed a sense of place and was fascinated with the history of the area. He spent a lot of time researching the contributions of local pioneer artist J.D. Kelly, who illustrated many of the textbooks used in Canadian schools. Clive wrote extensively about Kelly and his influence, which helped shape our vision of Canada.

Clive raised funds for renovating the “AH!” building. “He was very good at bringing community and art together in a way that inspired people,” says Sheree.

I asked her if she had considered moving back to Toronto after Clive’s death. “When Clive was alive, if anyone had ever suggested I live in the country alone, it would have been my greatest fear,” confides Sheree. “But after he died … well, I’d just come to love this area so much. And it’s such a great community. So yeah, I’ve definitely become a full-fledged country girl.”

“When I look back at my life, the thread that always runs through it is my love of gardens and nature, my love of art and my love of dance.” SHEREE RASMUSSEN

Sheree has also blossomed into one of the community’s brightest lights, not only by continuing to create her colourful, collage-style textile art and operating a small gallery out of her home (by appointment only), but also by continuing her landscape design consultancy. The petite powerhouse also teaches dancercise classes at the Warkworth Town Hall, keeping us all toned and on our toes. “One of the beautiful things about living in a small community is that you really do want to be part of it,” maintains Sheree. “When you live in a rural community, you realize that people need each other in a different way than they do in the city. The other great thing is that you get to be a big fish in a small pond. And whatever skills you have are going to be appreciated.” Now, at the age of 70, the spirited Sheree feels she has so much to share, based on her wealth of life experiences. She also manages to travel to Strasbourg, France a few times a year, to visit her daughter, son-in- law and young granddaughter. “I love this area,” says Sheree, “but as an artist, you need to go places and get re-nourished. I’d like to go to New York or some of the world’s other great cities, but France is pretty good. It’s only a skip and a jump from Paris, where they have the best fabrics in the world. So yeah, I feel lucky that I’m able to do that.”

But it may be the enigmatic Red Tower on the beautiful 30 acres that has brought Sheree the most compelling sense of pride, joy and even peace of mind. “At first I thought, “Oh, I don’t want people on my land!” But I actually find it very comforting to just look up at night and see the lights on there. I feel it’s very protected… and what’s so nice about The Red Tower is that it’s so very romantic. Many people get engaged there, or they go for their anniversary. It plays a vital part in people’s lives.” The structure also serves as a memorial to her late partner, Clive, and a testament to the creativity and love that this neck of the woods never fails to inspire. “I feel taken care of,” Sheree muses.

And what could be better than that?

Story by:
Jeanne Beker

Photography by:
Peg McCarthy

[Fall 2023 departments]