Our History

KWSA Lifetime Members

The History Of The Kitchener-Waterloo Society Of Artists...

The formation of this art society was the inspiration of one man, Ralph Conner (1895-1951) who came to Canada from England with his parents at the age of 18.  He became President and General Manager of the Deluxe Upholstering Company in Waterloo.  He painted for 30 years, was considered one of the best artists in Western Ontario and was President of the local Art Society for many years.  In June 1931 following an advertisement placed in the Kitchener Record, a group of artists held their first meeting in the Oak Room at Schreiters Furniture Store in Kitchener. During the winter, the activities of the Art Society of Kitchener (as it was called then) consisted of self-critiqued group painting in the winter, and during the summer, sketching trips.  These were Depression years and expeditions were mostly on foot or by street car to places like Bridgeport, Conestoga and Three Bridges. 

    The Art Society rented a studio and in their first show in April 1932, surprised the public with a large number of paintings.  This was affectionately known as the “million dollar” exhibition as not a single painting was priced under $100.  Some were even priced at $500.  The quantity of the paintings far exceeded their quality and only one was sold. However, the next show produced excellent reviews and by 1941 they were exhibiting regularly, largely due to the efforts of Mabel Dunham at the old Kitchener Public Library on Queen St.   Later with declining membership, they could no longer pay the rent and lost their studio. The original group, nicknamed the “League of Nations” because it was comprised of artists from many ethnic backgrounds, eventually dwindled to a mere 8 members.

    In 1949, the Doon School of Fine Arts was started by Ross Hamilton and the Society met there.  He did much to obtain recognition for the group outside the local community.  He organized many events and arranged for one major show at the Art Gallery in Vancouver.  In retrospect, he had an outstanding influence on the Society.

    Between 1955 and 1956, the K-W Art Gallery Association was formed and KWSA members served on various committees.  It was through the efforts of the Gallery Association that the bicycle shed next to K-W Collegiate was obtained and renovated for visiting art shows and KWSA exhibitions.  A number of art “marts” were held over the years to help finance the bicycle shed gallery, but obtaining money was always a problem. 

    When the new Kitchener Public Library opened in 1962, the Society was able to use the facilities for exhibits and art rental.  A great deal of controversy preceded the commissioning of a large mural in the new library with many artists competing for the honour.  The commission finally went to KWSA member Jack Bechtel (1923-1966) who had studied at  OCA.  This  560 sq. ft. mural completed with a special rough textured surface of lime plaster may be seen today on the southwest wall of the main library.  The title is Enlightenment—“truth (light) becomes knowledge”.
In 1968 the Society with the help of a service club, purchased the property on the corner of Benton and Charles Streets at the site of the vacant Pentecostal Church.  This was opened as the Kitchener Art Gallery.  The lower level gave the Society more space for painting, and teaching, and exhibiting took place on the upper floor.
When the Centre in the Square officially opened on September 29, 1980 KWSA began to hold regular meetings and workshops in various rooms in the Gallery.  The Eastman Gallery in the main KW Art Gallery was formerly known as “The Cycle Gallery” to commemorate the old bicycle shed.  KWSA members were very active in supporting the Gallery.  Our annual juried shows were showcased there and for many years sponsored by Budd Canada.   In 1999, under a new executive, changes were made at the Gallery.  KWSA began meeting in the Conestoga Room at Kitchener City Hall.  Later they were offered a place at the Waterloo Community Arts Centre (the Button Factory), our present location.  Since 2003  we have been associated with a major biennial five county exhibition at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery.
In 2011 we celebrated our 80th Anniversary.  At present, KWSA is  going strong-- meeting regularly from September to June,  hosting many leading fine artists as presenters during the year, and keeping our members abreast of activities in the local art scene.  The minutes of our meetings and the treasurer’s report are sent out by e-mail as are announcements between meetings.  Membership information, applications and examples of members’ work are found on our website.  Our annual juried show at Homer Watson House and Gallery is very well attended and KWSA organizes a members’ show each year.  We support the Waterloo Community Arts Centre and various members participate in their juried shows and shows at other galleries.  Over the years we have supported many art initiatives in the community and continue to welcome and mentor artists at all levels.  We look back on a proud heritage and work toward a promising future.