Spotlight on Two Whales Coffee Shop

St. John’s musicians Sherry Ryan (L) and Alison Corbett perform at Two Whales Coffee Shop in Port Rexton.

If you’ve ever visited Port Rexton on the beautiful Bonavista Peninsula, you are likely familiar with Two Whales Coffee Shop. The family-run coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant has been a fixture in the area, and a popular spot for locals and visitors to grab a bite, for a decade now.

Pieces from June Walker-Wilson’s “Long Pond Light” series, on display at Two Whales.

In addition to their coffee, locally-sourced fresh foods and homemade sweet treats, Two Whales has earned a reputation as a hot spot for the arts as well. Each month, the cafe offers up wall space to an artist or artist group to showcase their work, giving local artists access to an audience they might not have otherwise. From now until June 30, guests can enjoy the work of visual artist June Walker-Wilson (with an official opening and meet-the-artist event scheduled for May 19). During July, Two Whales will feature the work of wildlife photographer Paul Dolk (with an artist reception set for July 1). Sue Asquith, who co-owns/operates the business along with her husband, David Ellis, says an appreciation for the arts runs in the family.

“Our daughter has a BA in Fine Arts. When we were setting up the business, she suggested that we offer our walls to artists, rather than have a static display of our own collection. Artists often have a hard time getting space to show their work in the public domain. We felt it would add variety and stimulate debate in the coffee shop – which it does,” she says.

“She set up the system we use now, changing the show every month and trying to mix up abstract with realism and different mediums.”

Australian musician Daniel Champagne performing at Two Whales last August.

Asquith says while the coffee shop takes a 25 per cent commission, the real benefit lies in the variety of work and the change in atmosphere it brings, “that keeps the place interesting for our regular customers.”

“We decided very early on that the remit for exhibiting would be that the art should either be by an artist working in Newfoundland and Labrador or about Newfoundland and Labrador,” she adds.

In addition to their visual art exhibits and display of stained glass works and sculpture, Two Whales also hosts poetry readings, as well as short film screenings as part of the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival’s “Films On the Go” program. During the summer months, Asquith adds, they also host performances with a diverse range of local and visiting musicians. Some of this season’s performers include Rube & Rake, Sherry Ryan, Mark Bragg, Toronto’s Shawna Caspi and Peterborough’s Mayhemingways, just to name a few.

Sculpture by John Hofstetter (a Toronto artist with a home in Keels) exhibited outside of Two Whales.

“Many of our musical acts are emerging musicians touring the province and will come to us en route to St John’s. Other musicians are from St John’s – so we see this as a way to get great music in our area that we, our staff and many of our regular customers would not otherwise get to see,” Asquith says.

Incorporating the arts into their business model has proven to be a recipe for success, Asquith says, while helping to keep things fresh and exciting.

“I would say that over the years we have lots of positive comments about our art shows and music evenings, but we don’t keep records…we just trust our informal feedback and, I suppose, our own judgement as to what works,” she says.

“We don’t play it safe – we don’t shy away from abstract art and actually love the debate which is guaranteed to come with those shows. Likewise, we don’t play it safe on the music side, with musicians from all genres playing.”