In Search of Ottawa’s most creative postal code

August 20, 2005
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Alex Munter
The Ottawa Citizen
August 20, 2005

Is it the Glebe, the only neighbourhood in recent memory to elect a poet to city council? Or maybe it’s a rural village like

John Mlacak in his studio

CREDIT: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen Unlike many Ottawa artists, John Mlacak of Kanata, a retired engineer and politician, is in the lucky position of not having to worry about finances. He has his pension, and his wife, Beth, looks after selling his work. 'I have a unique advantage over other artists. We have two people-years, seven days a week.' Though Ottawa arts incomes are a little higher than the Canadian norm, they're still one-quarter less than the overall labour force average.

Manotick, which has a highly-visible artists’ association? Or could it be a tree-lined suburb like Rothwell Heights or Qualicum, where numerous retirees and stay-at-home parents pursue their vocation? Or how about Vanier, its lower rents and affordable homes perhaps attractive to starving-artist types?

Kelly Hill knows the answer to that question. But he’s not telling. At least not until late September.

That’s the date he’ll be revealing the answer to a national quiz his arts consulting company has launched.

Mr. Hill has crunched the numbers, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, province by province, to see which Canadian postal codes have the greatest concentration of full-time artists or, as he puts it, “people who work at an arts occupation more than any other occupation.”

Peter Honeywell, executive director of the Council for the Arts in Ottawa, is putting his money on the Hintonburg/Westboro area.

He points to the virtual overnight success of Westfest, the spunky, funky, arts festival that has gone from mere idea to community sensation in just two years. “The business community there is getting behind it. They see the benefit of paying artists to come in and do festivals.”

“People visit Westfest one weekend, notice some of the shops that are in the area, don’t have time to go to them, and then go back another week.

“It’s what could happen in every community.”

Mr. Honeywell says the West Wellington area has a critical mass of artists, drawn in part by a broad range of housing types. A popular annual walking tour of artists’ studios is slated for mid-September.

Christine Tremblay predicts that if her part of the city — the suburban east end — doesn’t win the crown yet, it will soon.

“We’re at that point where it’s busting out, everyone wants to go to the next level and that energy is there,” says Ms. Tremblay, who runs Arts Ottawa East.

“We’re encouraging people to take the next step — helping them go a bit more professional.”

Probably nothing illustrates that better than the enthusiasm over the east-end arts facility, which the city plans to open in Orleans in 2008. Arts groups were joined by businesspeople and community leaders in pushing for the project.

Mr. Hill’s contest comes just as the City of Ottawa has released a discussion paper about its arts investment strategy. There is to be extensive consultation about the document this fall.

The discussion paper confirms local artists’ long-standing complaint that Ottawa’s municipal government invests far less in arts and culture than do most Canadian big cities. We come seventh out of seven.

But the document’s most dramatic revelation is actually how poorly we fare in terms of provincial and federal funding, too.

That supposedly nasty right-wing government in Alberta puts seven times as much into Calgary’s and Edmonton’s local arts scenes as the Ontario Arts Council contributes to Ottawa.

Closer to home, Toronto gets three times as much from Queen’s Park as does Ottawa.

The Ottawa Citizen Dance choreographer Anik Bouvret

CREDIT: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen Dance choreographer Anik Bouvret makes ends meet by working part-time in administration at the National Gallery.

It’s the same story at the federal level. We’re essentially tied for dead last with Calgary, which at least has Ralph Klein looking out for it. Vancouver is the big winner in federal local arts investment.

Add up the support for the arts from all three levels of government and Montreal and Vancouver respectively rake in $46 and $44 per capita. The other cities are in the mid-$20 range.

In Ottawa, dead last, it comes out to $10 per person per year — basically, one cent per day from each level of government.

City statistics show that, for each dollar the City of Ottawa puts into the arts, more than $10 comes from other sources, including fundraising and private investment.

And, there again, we are at the back of the class. That multiplier effect is much bigger elsewhere.

During the city’s last round of extensive consultations on the arts, leading to the 2003 adoption of the arts and heritage plan, American academic Richard Florida made quite a splash when he visited Ottawa.

Mr. Florida, a professor of regional economic development at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, has looked at U.S. cities that are prospering and those that are falling behind.

He says the key to economic success is the presence of a “creative class” that includes scientists and engineers, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers and architects.

Their presence, he argues, is a harbinger of economic success. In this post-industrial era, his research shows that the greater the concentration of such people, the better a city will do economically.

“Creativity has replaced raw materials or natural harbours as the crucial wellspring of economic growth,” he says.

Canadian arts expert Kelly Hill agrees that “the presence of artists and a lively artistic sector builds community cohesion, creates an opportunity to interact and generates economic benefits.”

And he shares Mr. Florida’s conviction: cities that neglect arts and culture won’t just be sadder places to live, they will also hurt their future prospects for prosperity.

Statistics Mr. Hill compiled for the Canada Council for the Arts show that Ottawa has a much lower share of its workforce engaged in the arts than most large Canadian cities and, in fact, is rivalled by many smaller centres.

Places like St. John’s, Halifax and Victoria have, proportionately, many more artists. Ottawa is comparable to Winnipeg and Kingston, but even that stat is misleading. Those cities don’t have major federal arts institutions like the National Arts Centre bumping up the number.

The problem is, local artists generally don’t have access to those venues. They don’t belong to Ottawa the town, they belong to Ottawa the capital.

After all, if you’re a local artist, you can’t wander over to the National Gallery and hang your work there.

Mr. Hill says your mother was right when she warned you there wasn’t much money in the arts. Though Ottawa arts incomes are a little higher than the Canadian norm, they’re still one-quarter less than the overall labour force average.

And that means many artists, like contemporary dance choreographer Anik Bouvret, get other jobs to make ends meet.

“Being an artist is very difficult financially. At 36 years old, I’m hopeful at some point I’ll be able to do it full-time, but I’m also realistic. It hasn’t happened so far.”

But Ms. Bouvret, who grew up in Orleans and returned there after completing a dance degree in British Columbia, considers herself lucky to have found part-time employment at the National Gallery.

“At least my administrative job is quite inspiring because I am in an artistic environment.”

Ms. Bouvret mostly practices her craft downtown at venues like La Nouvelle Scene or at dance festivals in other cities. But she too has noticed the burgeoning arts scene in the east end.

“A window has opened,” she says. “Now is the time to bring the arts into the community.”

Peter Honeywell, of the Council for the Arts, says Ottawa’s lack of venues for performing arts has chased many of the city’s best and brightest away.

Our strength has tended to be in sectors where artists can work independently out of their homes, like writing or the visual arts, he says.

He’s talking about people like John Mlacak of Kanata.

An engineer by training, Mr. Mlacak originally got into art for therapeutic reasons. “After my heart attack in 1978, I took an art class and I found I enjoyed it.”

“It took me about five years to find out there aren’t any rules to art,” he said.

“I discovered the difference between an artist and an engineer. If you give a problem to 100 engineers, you’ll get one answer and it’ll be right. If you give a problem to 100 artists, you’ll get a hundred different answers and they’ll all be right.”

After his retirement in 1994, Mr. Mlacak delved into art full-time. He now spends five hours a day painting, mainly in oils but occasionally in watercolours and pastels. His paintings, generally landscapes, are widely exhibited locally. He sells about 50 per year.

Mr. Mlacak, 69, says his third career bears a lot of similarities to his first two jobs, in engineering and local politics. “It’s all been design work. I haven’t fundamentally changed what my nature is.”

Mr. Mlacak admits his pension gives him the freedom to pursue his art full-time. He attributes much of his success to his wife, Beth, who handles the marketing and promotion of his work. “I have a unique advantage over other artists.

“We have two people-years, seven days a week.”

As more and more energetic, educated baby boomers are liberated from their careers, one wonders how many will follow Mr. Mlacak’s example and unleash the artist within.

Who knows?

Maybe Ottawa’s most creative neighbourhoods will become the ones with the highest concentration of young seniors.

But, for now, Mr. Hill drops a small hint about the kind of postal codes that will make his top-10 list: “they’ll be funky neighbourhoods that a lot of people are drawn to.”

To enter the contest, go to

And just a note to my regular readers — I am still researching the subject originally slated for today’s ‘Neighbourhood Faces’ column, divisions within rural Ottawa. That piece has been delayed to the fall, closer to the date of the rural summit.

Alex Munter is a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa and former Ottawa city councilor.  E-mail him at

Next Week: A visit to Ottawa’s emerging gaybourhood.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005

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Magazin’Art hiver/Winter 2004/2005

December 1, 2004
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john mlacak

Une sensation des lieux

Ses paysages faits à l’huile sont assurément la force de John Mlacak, un artiste qui se plaît à peindre chacune des saisons de notre pays changeant. Ses toiles réalisées en plein air vous amènent à ressentir la grande beauté du parc de la Gatineau, de la rivière Rouge, des splendides régions des Cantons de l’Est et de Charlevoix, au Québec. D’autres de ses œuvres reflètent les couleurs brillantes des scènes d’Ottawa-Carleton et nous font
voyager jusque dans les Maritimes, la Nouvelle Angleterre et l’Europe.

Adorant peindre à l’extérieur, Mlacak traduit sur toiles ou panneaux les couleurs vives et dramatiques propres aux saisons canadiennes, les rouges et les verts vibrants des toitures des bâtiments de ferme et des petits villages environnants. Il est littéralement fasciné par le jeu de l’ombre et de la lumière traversant les arbres et se déployant au dessus de l’écume blanche des cascades d’eau et des rapides. Artiste à plein temps, Mlacak profite d’une demande constante pour ses toiles.

Au sujet de son travail, il confie que ses œuvres sont habituellement figuratives tout en laissant percer un haut degré d’expressionnisme personnel. Parfois, elles peuvent aussi ètre impressionnistes et l’accent se trouve alors mis sur le tracé des formes et sur la couleur. « J’utilise des formes naturelles et tente de produire des effets dramatiques d’ombre et de lumière avec des couleurs chaudes et froides qui peuvent ètre intenses ou atténuées avec un modelé prononcé afin de créer la profondeur. J’utilise des contrastes les plus soutenus possibles afin de concentrer l’attention sur le sujet et ai recours à des transitions dynamiques pour soutenir l’engagement avec le tableau. »

Ses peintures sont exposées dans des galeries locales au Québec et en Ontario, en plus d’ètre représentées dans des collections corporatives privées au Canada, aux Etats-Unis, en Europe, en Australie, en Corée, en Indonésie et en Amérique du sud.

Mlacak a étudié avec quantité d’artistes locaux et internationaux réputés. Il a été grandement influencé par les regrettés Brodie Shearer et Bruce Heggtveit, deux artistes canadiens, et admire immensément Tom Thompson du fameux Groupe des Sept ainsi que les impressionnistes français.

« Mon but est de capter la sensation du lieu et je suis fortement influencé par l’émotion que la nature peut faire naître. Je peins selon des techniques qui produisent des coups de pinceaux visibles caractérisés par le humide sur humide, le humide sur sec, les angles durs et doux et le vernissage et utilise des peintures tant transparentes qu’opaques. Je sais que j’ai réussi quand le tableau final ravive mes sentiments de départ. »

Avec l’art, Mlacak, en est à sa troisième carrière. Il a d’abord travaillé trente-cinq ans comme ingénieur en recherche et développement en télécommunications pour Nortel Networks, prenant sa retraite en 1994. Il a également été politiquement actif dans les municipalités locales et de la région d’Ottawa durant onze années.

Sa carrière de peintre a commencé après qu’il ait fait un arrèt cardiaque en 1978. Au fil du temps, il a constamment suivi des cours en arts pour s’assurer de continuer à peindre. Ce n’est qu’après avoir pris sa retraite qu’il a finalement pu devenir peintre à plein temps. « Je me suis aperçu que je pouvais peindre toute une journée sans me sentir fatigué et à mesure que je m’améliorais, je suis devenu plus à l’aise avec mes progrès. Peindre était une extension naturelle à la conception artistique et aux processus de développement déjà au centre de mes intérêts et fondamentaux tant pour ma carrière en télécommunication qu’à celle en politique. »

« La première portion de la moitié de mes peintures est faite en plein air et je m’occupe à terminer l’autre moitié dans mes studios, utilisant du matériel photographique ou des créations basées sur des impressions mémorables. Lorsque je peins, je réalise environ quatre-vingt pour cent de la toile en une seule séance de deux à trois heures mais la balance me prend jusqu’à quatre-vingt pour cent du temps que j’y mets en tout parce que c’est à ce moment que l’essentiel de la conception a lieu. »

Annuellement, John Mlacak participe à plusieurs expositions tant en solo qu’en groupe et a remporté de nombreux prix lors de concours d’art évalués par des juges. Il contribue également à un nombre considérable d’évènements de charité en y donnant de ses œuvres.

En 2002, il a subi sa seconde intervention au cœur. Par conséquent, il fait la sieste l’après-midi presque à tous les jours et ne commence à peindre que vers la fin de la journée mais continue tard dans la nuit, souvent jusqu’au petit matin. « Je travaille toujours sur quinze à vingt tableaux en mème temps et ceux-ci sont tous visibles dans mon atelier. Lorsque je pense savoir comment continuer l’un d’eux, je le choisis pour travailler à fond le défi de conception qui évolue constamment. » Sa femme Beth est sa gérante d’affaires ce qui lui laisse davantage de temps pour peindre.

Son fils Bill est un programmeur en informatique et demeure au New Hampshire avec sa femme, Joanna Whitcomb et leurs deux filles, Sophia et Helena. Leur troisième fille, Kirsten, travaille pour sa part à l’Agence canadienne de développement international à Ottawa tandis que Siobhan demeure à Paris où elle enseigne l’anglais comme langue seconde tout en étant une photographe d’oeuvres en noir et blanc accomplie.

Les tableaux de John Mlacak sont vendus en permanence aux galeries Koyman d’Ottawa et de Toronto. Il est également représenté par Avenue Art à Westmount, au Québec. Il est de plus inscrit dans le Répertoire des artistes canadiens en galeries publié par MAGAZIN’ART.

Noel Meyer

Magazin’Art automne/Fall 2004

October 1, 2004
Posted in

John Mlacak

a sense of place

Painting the landscape in oils is John Mlacak’s forté. Mlacak is an artist for all seasons and his open air paintings take you on a journey through the magnificent Gatineau Park, Rivière Rouge, Eastern Townships and Charlevoix areas of Québec. Other paintings reflect scenes in the brilliant colours of Ottawa-Carleton and travel in the Maritimes, New England and Europe.

As a passionate outdoor painter, Mlacak picks up the bold, dramatic colours of the Canadian seasons and the vibrant red and green roofs of Québec farm buildings and towns. He is fascinated by the play of light and shade weaving through the trees and over the white torrent of waterfalls and rapids. A full-time artist Mlacak enjoys a steady demand for his work.

Mlacak says this about his work: “My paintings are generally representational with a high degree of personal expressionism. At times they may be impressionistic with a strong emphasis on design form and colour. I use natural shapes, dramatic light and shadow, cool and warm colours that may be intense or subdued and strong modelling to achieve depth and effect. I use the highest value contrast to focus attention on the centre of interest and dynamic transitions to sustain engagement with the painting.”

His paintings are exhibited in local Ontario and Québec galleries and are represented in private and corporate collections in Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia, Korea, Indonesia and South America.

Mlacak has studied with a number of renowned local and international artists. He has been greatly influenced by the late Canadian artists Brodie Shearer and Bruce Heggtveit and greatly admires Canada’s own Group of Seven, Tom Thompson and the French Impressionists.

“My goal is to capture a sense of place and I am influenced greatly by the emotion that can be inspired by nature. I paint using techniques that yield identifiable brush strokes characterized by wet-in-wet, wet-on-dry, hard and soft edges, glazing, and with both transparent and opaque paints. I know I have been successful when the finished painting rekindles my inotial feelings.”

Art is now Mlacak’s third career. He worked for thirty-five years as an engineer with Nortel Networks in telecommunications research and development, retiring in 1994. For eleven years he was active in local and regional municipal politics in Ottawa.

Mlacak’s painting career started after a heart attack in 1978. Over the years he took art instruction to keep him painting. It wasn’t until his retirement in1994 that he has be-en able to paint full-time. “I found that I could paint all day and not get tired, and as I progressed, I became more comfortable with my progress as a painter. Painting was a natural extension of the creative design and development processes of most interest to me and which were so central to my careers in telecommunications design and local politics”.

“I create the first pass of half my paintings en plein air and the other half in my studios using photographic material or creations based on memorable impressions. When I paint, I usually get about eighty percent of the painting done in two to three hours at one sitting, but the last twenty percent takes eighty percent of the time as this is where most of the design takes place.”

John participates in numerous group and solo shows annually, has won many awards for his art in juried exhibitions and supports a considerable number of charities by donating paintings.

In 2002, John had his second heart operation. He naps most afternoons and doesn’t start painting until later in the day, but goes on well into the night and early morning. “I always work on fifteen to twenty paintings at a time, and these are all visible in my studio. I only select one to work on when I think I know what I want to try next. It’s an evolving design challenge.” John’s wife, Beth, is the business manager, leaving John more time to paint.

John’s son Bill, is a freelance computer programmer and lives in New Hampshire with his wife, Joanna Whitcomb, and their two daughters, Sophia and Helena. Daughter, Kirsten works at the Canadian International Development Agency in Ottawa and Siobhan, lives in Paris, France where she teaches English as a Foreign Language and is also a successful photographer in black and white.

John’s work is selling steadily at Koyman Galleries in Ottawa and Toronto. He is also represented by Avenue Art in Westmount, Québec.

Noel Meyer

He is listed in the Biennial Guide to Canadian Artists in Galleries published by MAGAZIN’ART.

Kanata artist showing at Croatian Embassy

February 6, 2004
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Kanata Kourier-Standard, February 6, 2004

First Snow, Laurentian Chalet

First Snow, Laurentian Chalet by John Mlacak

Kanata artist showing at Croatian Embassy

Kanata’s John Mlacak has been invited to have a solo exhibition of 30 oil paintings at the Embassy of Croatia from Feb. 12 to March 12, 2004. The embassy is launching the show in conjunction with welcoming the new Croatian Ambassador to Canada, Zeljko Bosnjak.

The diplomatic community is invited to view the exhibition called, “Celebrating Colour” and to meet the ambassador at a reception to be held on Feb. 11.

The show is open to the public from Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting on Feb. 12. The embassy is in Sandy Hill at 229 Chapel Street (off Laurier Avenue East). It is the former Toller House built in 1875 and beautifully refurbished by the Croatian Canadian community and the Croatian government.

Mlacak’s dramatic use of brilliant colours is immediately apparent in the paintings he has created for this oil exhibition. The canvases range in size from 11″ x 14″ to 48″ x 60″ and depict the vivid hues of fall and early snow in the Laurentians and the Gatineau. The torrent of rivers and streams in Algonquin Park beckon spring and the soft summer breeze can be felt in scenes of vineyards and courtyards in France.

Mlacak’s parents emigrated from Croatia to settle in Windsor, Ontario. His father found work with the Ford Motor Company and, of the six children in the family, three were born in Croatia and John was the first of three to be born in Canada. John has always remained closely tied to his Croatian heritage and is honored to show his work in this magnificent setting.

For information/appointment, call the embassy at 562-7820, ext. 11 or John Mlacak at 592-1620.

For information call John at 592-1620.

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Due West Spring/Summer 2003

May 1, 2003
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