Alumni Profile: Sarah Irwin

In a quaint, former general store on twisty-turny Peggy’s Cove Road, you’ll find The Finer Diner. About a 40-minute’s drive from Halifax, the diner offers a restful view of Hackett’s Cove, with weathered fishing sheds, bright buoys and long narrow piers jutting out into the ocean.

Sarah Irwin on the front porch of The Finer Diner in Hackett’s Cove

The pretty, blue-painted restaurant itself is just as head-turning. On the patio, there are antique Coca-Cola signs, bright paintings and a mermaid promoting “The Wee Gallery.” Then, when you push open the front door you’re greeted with a burst of colour. Artworks of all different shapes and sizes fill the walls.

This old school diner has a definite artsy aesthetic. No surprise then that it’s run by a NSCAD alumna.

Sarah Irwin, who owns The Finer Diner with her husband, knew if she wanted to continue doing art on the East Coast, and doing it every day, she had to combine her practice with something else she loved. She and her husband have always worked in the service industry and in 2007, the real-estate market was right and The Finer Diner was created.

The sign for The Wee Gallery on the patio; the art-filled interior of The Finer Diner.

Rewind to 2001. From Orillia, Ont., Irwin graduated from nearby Georgian College with a Fine Art diploma. After graduation, she didn’t feel finished and was eager to learn more about art history, philosophy and the thought process behind art. That’s where NSCAD came in. At NSCAD, Irwin focused on art history, philosophy and sculpting, graduating in 2003 with a BFA Interdisciplinary.

The Finer Diner aims to act as a place where local artists, Sarah included, can show art and even sell a bit to tourists, locals and whoever else walks through the door. If the art isn’t enough to pull you in, they also have a mean cup of coffee, pie to die for and a lobster club sandwich that keeps growing in popularity.

Sense of wonder

“It’s about creating a sense of wonder,” says Irwin. “To be able to support people in such a small, innocent way, and to be able to say to people ‘Hey, guess what! A piece of your art was sold.’ It gives off such amazing energy.”

Sarah is passionate about promoting local art, so the restaurant is sprinkled with business cards and information on other artists, and this is how The Wee Wall began.

The Wee Wall was created five years ago and is specific to the Finer Diner. It acts as a little gallery , taking up one part of a wall within the diner. Each month, a local artist’s work is featured. Irwin says she is already booked up for the rest of the year.

“I wanted to make it easy for artists who have never shown their work before to apply. Applying for art shows can be very difficult. I wanted it to be as simple as possible,” she says. “The idea of being involved in the community was also something really important to us.”

She remembers full well what it was like post graduation, wondering how she could continue to afford supplies and continue making art. She knew she had to adapt if she would be successful in keeping art part of her life. The Finer Diner turned out to be the answer.

Art everyday

“I have to make art. If not, I get physically and noticeably agitated and restless,” she says. After working at the diner all day, doing whatever needs to be done, it’s nice to go home and be able to disconnect from the hustle of everyday life.

Not only does Sarah suggest all artists learn to adapt to their surroundings, she also stresses the importance of building a website, keeping your momentum as an artist and knowing how to budget and spend money.

“Anyone can be taught to succeed at their creative act. It’s those who stick their neck out that much more who tend to be ‘successful’ or get noticed,” she says. “It’s important to join think tanks, get a mentor and ask the questions you want to ask and make your art.

“I think you’ll find people who work their ass’ off tend to be the more ‘talented.’”

Sarah Irwin has a solo exhibition of her work now on view at Lee Contemporary Art in Orillia, Ont. To see the exhibition online, please view: