This artist turned a 1918 school into the art studio of his dreams

As of early 2020, artist Kieran Brennan Hinton has lived in New York for the better part of a decade, sharing a Bronx apartment with three roommates. He spent much of his time painting in a small studio nearby, a 320-square-meter commercial space on the sixth floor of a brick industrial building.

Born in Toronto and educated at Yale, Brennan Hinton’s quiet interpretations of domestic interiors have appeared at the Art Gallery of Ontario, as well as galleries in the United States and Europe. In New York, he became increasingly drawn to the rural paintings of Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd – far from the concrete environs of the city. He found himself dreaming of solitude in the country where he could work outside, a practice known as plein air painting.

Around the same time, his mother, Melanie Brennan, an elementary school teacher, announced that she wanted to retire in the next few years. And so the couple set out to find a place that could serve as both an art studio and a possible retirement home. With a budget of $230,000, which would include renovation costs, Brennan Hinton began scouring listings in Ontario and upstate New York. His mode of transport was a red Vespa, which he drove down stony country roads bordered by fields of grazing cows.

LIGHT MY FIRE | The wood stove in the living room is the main source of heat in the building.

He eventually found a one-room schoolhouse in Elgin, Ontario, about an hour and a half’s drive south of Ottawa, that had been built in 1918 and then closed in 1967. It had the original paneling, steeple and wood floors. which were riddled with holes where the desks had been screwed. “I’ve never been in a space that felt so handcrafted,” says Brennan Hinton. “There were no traditional partition walls. Almost everything was built of solid wood – nothing was veneered.

Brennan Hinton knew the property would be perfect for plein air painting. The windows were updated to save energy, but the originals, streaked with pink and blue paint — Brennan Hinton believes they once featured gendered entrances — were tucked away in a shed on the property. The home’s previous owner was a Shaw Festival set builder who had restored the building to habitability. When Brennan Hinton took possession in April 2020, the owner had removed the original tin ceiling to open up the space and installed two wooden mezzanines.

SET |  The previous owner, a builder of sets for the Shaw Festival, built an annex at the back of the school building, which now serves as Brennan Hinton's art studio.

SET | The previous owner, a builder of sets for the Shaw Festival, built an annex at the back of the school building, which now serves as Brennan Hinton’s art studio.

OLD AND NEW |  The windows had already been updated to save energy, but the originals were stored in a shed on the property.

OLD AND NEW | The windows had already been updated to save energy, but the originals were stored in a shed on the property.

Before becoming a teacher, Melanie studied architecture. She created the renovation plans, which included removing the mezzanine stairs that ran down the middle of the house and rearranging them to the sides to create a more expansive space. They also moved the bathroom, which necessitated an overhaul of the plumbing. Brennan Hinton did the framing and drywall himself. In a nod to the building’s history, he installed milk glass light fixtures from a nearby antique shop taken from another school building.

“I try to make a space where people can dream”

These days, Brennan Hinton splits her time between Elgin and Toronto, where she shares an apartment with her partner, curator and art critic Tatum Dooley. “There’s a freedom and ease that comes with working in a school, which I find refreshing,” he says. Its size also benefits Brennan Hinton’s practice, giving him space to stretch and prime canvas at home—a task he couldn’t easily accomplish in his small Bronx studio. The school building also provides inspiration for his work. A recent piece titled “A Week in November” captures the main floor with light streaming in. Another, called “Sun Shower,” features clothes hanging on a rope outside. “You can date my paintings by the way the foliage changes outside the windows,” he says. “In October, everything is golden, in July it’s super green, and in January, when the sun goes down, the snow turns into a blanket of blue.” This fall, his school paintings will appear in a solo exhibition at Tokyo’s Maki Gallery.

LIFE IMITATES ART |  Brennan Hinton became more attached to the school building by painting it.

LIFE IMITATES ART | Brennan Hinton became more attached to the school building by painting it.

“Each piece becomes a record of what was there and allows me to stay in a space that is constantly changing,” he says.

Brennan Hinton says that at school he manages to combine timelessness with immediacy. “I’m interested in finding the nuance in it and making paintings that feel true to a particular moment,” he explains. Neighbors and strangers often stop along the dirt road to tell Brennan Hinton about his story. A former student recently showed Brennan Hinton where she and her classmates used to play, near a woodshed that still stands. Another sent him an old newspaper clipping with a photo of children lined up outside what is now Brennan Hinton’s front door.

“I’m trying to make a space where people can dream,” says Brennan Hinton, “and linger for a long time.”


This article was published in the September 2022 issue of McLean magazine. Buy the issue for $8.99 or better yet, subscribe to the monthly print magazine for just $29.99.

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