Before they met, Gayle Dempsey lived above a coach house on Lake Muskoka and her now-husband, Gary Froude, lived in a treehouse in Costa Rica. A festival organized by his friend brought them together in Dempsey’s native Canada, and they quickly realized they shared a goal: to establish what Dempsey described as a “Chautauqua- esque community.”
The couple searched for a place “based on arts and lifelong learning,” Dempsey said, that could serve as a model for their own community. They struck out everywhere — including northern Scotland — until they found Chautauqua Institution 10 years ago.
“That’s when we said, ‘Oh my god, this is it,’ ” Dempsey said. “‘This is utopia. And this is the model we’ve been dreaming about.”
Initially, they did not know anything about the Institution or similar communities in the United States and Canada. Dempsey and Froude simply had a strong desire to develop a community in Muskoka that was centered around education and the arts.
A couple years after visiting the Institution for the first time, Dempsey and Froude attended their first Meeting of the Trails. North American Chautauquan communities convene at the meeting once a year, and the couple’s first happened to be at the Institution. There, Dempsey said, she was embraced as a “longlost Canadian daughter.”
Dempsey estimated she’s now been to the original Chautauqua Institution eight times. Most recently, she attended the 61st Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art at Fowler-Kellogg Art Center, where her painting of a wintry scene outside her studio’s window, part of a series called “Winter Totem,” is featured.
“It’s very exciting coming back,” she said. “In a way, it feels like home.”
Back in 1997, even before the couple decided that the Institution would serve as the model for their own community, Dempsey and Froude put together a classical music festival in Muskoka. They wanted to know if it was feasible to try to establish their own Chautauqua community and were pleased with the results.
“Over the course of the next 10 years, we evolved into Muskoka Chautauqua,” Dempsey said, then corrected herself. “We evolved back into Muskoka Chautauqua.”
Although it had been “dormant,” Dempsey said, for 80 years, she and Froude soon learned that Muskoka had, indeed, once been home to a Chautauqua-esque community. Originally called Canada’s Literary Summer Capital, the area hosted conferences in 1916 and 1917 “to provide study, sport and spiritual uplift,” according to Muskoka Chautauqua’s website.
Dempsey and Froude were determined to revitalize the community and took the initiative “one baby step at a time,” Dempsey said. They expanded their music festival, then incorporated different arts and united with other arts organizations in the area, like theater companies and choirs. The couple has also worked with a board of directors to achieve their dream.
Now, Muskoka Chautauqua, located about five hours north of the Institution, operates based on four pillars: arts, recreation, education and spirituality.
Dempsey is a fourth-generation Muskokan. Although not particularly arts- or music- oriented, she said the environment in which she was raised was still “very creative.”
“If we wanted something, we just made it,” Dempsey said.
That includes the family’s houses, one of which she and Froude are still living in today. When their grandkids — sixth-generation Muskokans — visit them, the first thing they want to do is get out their sketchbooks and paint.
Dempsey said she “immersed (herself) intensely” at the start of her own painting career. She began studying with Muskoka-based artist Pat Fairhead in the late 1990s and wanted to learn “everything (she) could about the art world.”
Five years ago, Froude was stricken with a virus and became almost fully paralyzed. Because he could initially only blink, and was unable to speak for a year, Dempsey hung a new painting of hers for Froude to look at each week. Their grandchildren and friends visited often, bringing along musical instruments like the violin and cello.
Once Froude regained the ability to speak, he and Dempsey memorized and recited poems together. Dempsey said they probably spent the most time working on “Our Lady of the Snows” by Rudyard Kipling. Dempsey said they liked that particular poem because, while Kipling was American, that particular poem is about her home country.
After five years in the hospital, two of which were spent in the intensive care unit, Froude is now home. He uses a power chair he controls with his thumb and a computer that allows him to text, write and make phone calls. Froude hasn’t stopped working with Dempsey.
“I think that was one of the key things, as well as the paintings and everything else, that got us through that time, was our commitment to Muskoka Chautauqua,” Dempsey said. “As much as we fed it, it fed us, and it got us through a tough five years.”
Dempsey said some aspects of their lives are still difficult, but they are “more used to living and working this way now.”
Dempsey and Froude hope the Muskoka community ultimately resembles the “Mother of Chautauquas.”
“It may not look exactly like that because our geography is so different,” Dempsey said. “But our essence and our heart are the same.”