At the end of the labyrinth: Martello Alley

By Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Sometimes you must lose yourself to truly find yourself in the heart of Kingston.

This city of labyrinths – a place of intrigue, curiosities, and astonishment – is home to intimate little nooks, slowly revealing their secrets to the adventurer. This is the case of Martello Alley, a small, bright, colourful gallery – as well as a Kingstonian artists’ cooperative – at 203B Wellington Street.

“A turn here, a stone wall there. Small, graceful balconies, secret courtyards. A sculpture quietly suspended above your head. A work of art exhibited on the walls of an alley. These are all jewels that are unique in Kingston!” says David Dossett, artist and owner of Martello Alley.

“This city is an adventure with a wonderfully artistic ending,” he continues.

Martello Alley is inspired by the rue du Trésor in Quebec’s old city, as well as those pretty French alleyways where artists exhibit and sell their works. To reach the gallery, one must pass under the ancient arches of a former carriageway, arriving in a small and charming alleyway whose walls are brightened with works of art. However, the charm of this little sanctuary of inspiration has not always been evident.

“It was once a neglected area. I asked myself, ‘Why doesn’t anyone do anything with these alleyways?’ Finally, I got tired of hearing myself wonder out loud,” says David. “I took this little ignored corner of Kingston and made it into something sublime.”

Wendy and David Dossett of Martello Alley
Wendy and David Dossett of Martello Alley

Martello Alley is an artist collective offering eclectic works that are sure to brighten any day. Offering original artwork as well as prints, this is an art shopping experience designed for any budget, any style, and size of space.

“The great thing about our art is that it is the creation of people who are from here,” says David. “I am always amazed and inspired by the creativity of the artists in our community.”

After the impact of the current pandemic on sales and visits at Martello Alley, David has resolved to focus on the gallery’s digital experience, including through a virtual tour of the gallery and by enabling online sales.

The Martello Alley virtual tour was a great success,” says David. “We need to change the way we deliver our gallery experience and bring art to our community in every way possible.”

Plague doctor ornaments made by artist Bonnie Humber
Plague doctor ornaments made by artist Bonnie Humber

It is, however, a worthy adventure to visit Martello Alley’s gallery in person. A haven of treasures, its alleys and the gallery invite the adventurer to search, dream, and escape into the genius of local artists and artisans. On a table, a plague doctor ornament, its beak long and eyes shaded by thick glasses (“People love it!” exclaims David). In a drawer teeming with small gems, a colouring book for children that highlights the most beautiful monuments and landscapes of Kingston. And on the limestone wall, a painting of Wendy, David’s wife, painted in a style reminiscent of the great Jean-Paul Lemieux, an immortal of québécois painting.

“One day I was inspired to paint Wendy’s portrait,” says David. “She comes from a small farm in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to paint her like that, on a farm, but also in a style that would pay homage to Quebec, where we first met.”

David’s portrait of Wendy, done in the style of Jean-Paul Lemieux

David and Wendy met at the Université Laval, he explains, where they were both young students in love with Quebec, its French, its art, and its spirit. This journey into Quebec was inspired by his father, a British Spitfire pilot during the Second World War, who learned French out of affection for la belle province.

“He loved Quebec. And so do I!”

French was a true family love story – David’s mother was determined that her son would learn the language.

“First, it was twenty minutes a day! But it was not enough to learn the nuances of the language. I had the chance to participate in an exchange in Baie Comeau,” recalls David. “I loved learning to speak French among Quebecers.”

Despite being kept busy by his gallery, David does not content himself solely with making art available to the dreamers who wander the labyrinths of Martello Alley. David is also the founder of Froid’Art, an exhibition of art displayed among the great winds of a Kingstonian winter. David democratizes art, allowing everyone to draw inspiration from the poetry and beauty of the city’s public spaces.

The inspiration for Art Froid’Art came when David noticed that Kingston’s landscapes of Kingston were often grey, dull, and sad in the depths of winter, especially after the Christmas lights that had lit up the city had gone dark. In the winter that is this country, he imagined works of art exposed under the stars, à la belle étoile, frosted with ice, illuminated with beams of light, and adorned with snow and cold.

“Froid’Art has become a Kingston winter tradition,” David says with pride.

Finally, David looks to the future; he has recently opened Martello on Brock, a second gallery at 66 Brock Street that also features local artists and artisans in a retro-Ontario atmosphere.

“Here at Martello Alley, the atmosphere is a retro Montreal. It is the old Lower Canada. Martello on Brock is typical of Upper Canada, a retro Ontario.”

Whether he is heading Martello Alley, Froid’Art, or Martello on Brock, David’s artistic philosophy reamains immutable.

“Art is everywhere in Kingston. It embodies the soul of the city and the community. It renews people and places. It’s transformative, wonderful, inspiring.”