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House Beautiful: Cowichan estuary cottage an artist's haven

Being a city dweller is the furthest thing from the mind and heart of Catherine Fraser.

Being a city dweller is the furthest thing from the mind and heart of Catherine Fraser.

The artist, who used to call Salt Spring Island home, now lives in a 900-square-foot cabin on the shores of the Cowichan Estuary, surrounded by giant trees, water vistas, wildflowers and tangles of wilderness.

The cottage was built in 1952 by a father-and-son team, and Fraser purchased it from the original owner in the mid-1980s.

“I rented it for a while first and enjoyed it so much, I decided to buy the property,” she said.

She likes the simplicity of her country cottage, as well as being so close to nature and able to spend time outside in an unsullied environment.

“I wish I had a bit more storage room, but apart from that, the size is perfect for me … and I like the level entry.”

The scenery is picturesque and ever-changing, perfect for inspiring an artist.

“From the porch, I can see the estuary and when the tide is out, I have a view of mudflats and rivers. Then when the ocean comes in, it’s all ocean. I love the reflective quality and the water patterns. Sometimes it’s tranquil, relaxing, soulful, moody and beautiful, and other times it’s stormy and dangerous, or still, misty and grey.”

The ever-shifting tidal patterns and fluctuating moods of the ecosystem have long absorbed her esthetic senses. She recently captured the estuary’s rich flux through a photographic work of art.

“I have spent a lot of time noticing the light and taken hundreds of photos over the years on an old Canon camera, then an iPhone and now on my iPad.”

She winnowed them down to just 35 and created one mosaic for a wall and a second for a tabletop.

The pieces represent every season of the estuary and were recently exhibited at Arbutus Gallery in Duncan. They will also be on display at her studio next weekend during the Cowichan artisans studio tour

Fraser’s 600-square-foot studio, in what used to be a garage, was built in 1958 with timbers from Hillcrest Mill at Mesache Lake.

Her home is a simple, rustic place, but she loves the property and refers to it as her Golden Pond, after the movie of the same name. “I don’t have loons, but there are herons and lots of swans — in fact, we have two different kinds. The mute kind are here year-round and the trumpeter swans arrive in late fall. Each season has different sounds. At one time of the year, I can hear the sea lions off in the distance ….”

The artist, who has a degree in nursing and art therapy, grew up on Salt Spring Island. She won several art scholarships as a child and studied with Plato Ustinov and Murray MacDonald in California.

“Originally, I thought artwork was egocentric and very pleasurable, but I felt I had to do something for mankind first, so I became a nurse and used to paint after work from 6 p.m. till 2 a.m.”

She worked at Lady Minto Hospital on Salt Spring, but after a divorce, her life plans changed and she moved to Cowichan, often called the Provence of Canada.

The countryside charms her. “There are so many spaces and places you’d never know about unless you explored, fabulous landscapes.”

Then there is Mount Tzouhalem, which is virtually in her backyard and features a large ecological reserve.

At this time of year, her own one-third acre, previously speckled with snowdrops, is giving way to large swaths of lilies. “It is a beautiful spring garden, with lots of bulbs and minimum maintenance, although mowing the lawn is tricky on the sloping water side.”

She keeps her inner décor to a natural colour palette to blend into the landscape, and brings the indoors out with colourful carpets, pillows and a daybed on the deck where she often spends the night.

Fraser hangs paintings on the outside wall under the overhang: “I like the vibrancy and have created a long gallery there … I really enjoy the deck.”

Cowichan Artisans Spring Tour

Where: Artist studios throughout Cowichan Valley

When: From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., April 13 to 15

Maps and information at

Twice a year, more than a dozen professional artisans gather and organize open tours of their studios.

While their studios and art spaces are open all year by appointment, this is a chance for visitors to tour them all over a long weekend, without calling ahead.

The artists and craftspeople work in a cornucopia of pursuits, from fine-custom-furniture making and automotive woodwork to portraiture, pottery, painting, ceramic and glass art, metal sculpture, stone mosaic and wooden bowl turning.