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Looking Back: Roxy Revival Violin Fundraiser


John Kinnear

Apr 17, 2024

How is it that the creations of Ovila St. Jean came to be the center piece of the Roxy Revival’s latest funding event?

How is it that the creations of Ovila St. Jean came to be the center piece of the Roxy Revival’s latest funding event? Well therein lays a story. A story of a remark-able man who lived to the age of 102 and who mastered the art of violin making and violin playing.

Ovila St. Jean was no ordinary man, one who lived in the small hamlet of Ames-bury, just south of Wandering River in Northeastern Alberta. Born into a family of musicians, he worked at the family’s generational sawmill there and learned to play the violin by ear, as did other family members. Ovila, along with his father and brother, played at dances and community events for many years. At the age of 68, in 1985, he decided to try his hand at creating a violin.

His first effort took over 200 hours and was an exercise in trial and error. Thus inspired it became a life-long passion and his work became an assembly line. The wood he used for them came from the forests the family had access to with their mill. Ovila cruised them looking for specific birch trees and branches. He named each batch of violins based on their colour and called them either blondes, brunettes or redheads.

His basement was his workshop and he used a microwave as a kiln and hung cut and treated violin pieces off of the bathtub curtain rod to dry. His passion for creating violins seemed limitless and in the end he created over 180 of them.

Ovila St. Jean, who his grandchildren called Pepere, passed in July 2019 and four years later his granddaughter Stacey decided to find a home for some of the myriad of fiddles that hung on his walls. She contacted, through an old facebook post, Caroline Parke, daughter of Tim and Sheila Juhlin. Caroline who is herself an accomplished musician and violin player and collector, jumped at the chance. She travelled to Ovila’s house, along with her mother and father, where they were astounded to find a collection of 135 violins, 9 mandolins and two guitars. They wound up bringing back 60 or so and that is when the Juhlins hatched the idea of using 40 or so of them as mediums for music lovers and artists alike to paint them and auction them off for the Roxy Revival.

Enter then Pat Rypien who took the concept of a painted violin auction to the Crowsnest Pass Allied Arts Association. The call went out from there for interested parties and the result was a spectacular array of themed violins that were on display at the art gallery from January until last Saturday when they were beautifully set up at Country Encounters. That afternoon the public was invited to view the collection there and later that evening a semi-formal soiree was held to give attendees a taste of some fine musicians, extra ordinary hors d’oeuvres and an opportunity to view the collection and get a jump on the bidding.

Ovila’s two granddaughters Jennifer Batiuk and Stacey St. Jean travelled all the way from the Amesbury area to be here for the special kickoff and auction. Jennifer related Ovila’s journey for the gathering and both were clearly overwhelmed and humbled by the significance of the violin creative effort that lay before them.

A feature of the evening was a presentation by Leslie Gurney and Colin Scott. Leslie is a retired speech therapist and Colin is also retired from a long standing business of building log houses. Both spoke about the century long history of vio-lins that goes back to the 1500’s. Colin was drawn into the world of violins at age 40 and became fascinated by their construction. He disassembled and reassembled a violin which led to him follow Ovila in that he has learned how to source maple and spruce for construction and the repairing of violins.

The event was, to my mind, a miniature version of what is to come. I can see clearly the restored Roxy, combined with the building next door, hosting special cultural events and concerts. It is exciting to contemplate the Roxy coming back as another functioning cultural element in the Pass, rounding out entertainment opportunities here. And with it, one more step in the move to revitalize downtown Coleman.

The Painted Violin Auction is now on-line through the Crowsnest Cando – Crowsnest Cultural and Recreation Society at the link: - That link can be found on their facebook site and the auction will end on May 13th. The auction site has pictures of each offering and a brief history of the approach of the artist or student that created them. All violins have specific numbers that were attached to them by Ovila as he made them.

Number 37 is intriguing and was done by Grade 9 student Eva Aubin who stated simply, “For my violin piece I based it off the passage of sleep and its relations. Imagination, stars, constellations and their stories.”

Sheila Juhlin, well known for her material talents, created an evocative piece on violin number 101. Of this she said, “Because of my long standing use of upcycled fabrics, it seemed a natural thing to use denim jeans reimagined as a bouquet of flowers.”

It is a wonderful legacy of Ovila’s creations that some of his violins have been used as folk art pieces and have provided a medium for music lovers and artists alike, to share their talents and zest for creativity.

And so the fundraising continues, always with an eye to that day when the ribbon is cut and the Roxy rises once again, like a phoenix, back into the theater world. We would all do well to support their efforts in whatever way we can, including the seat sale and their latest opportunity. It seems that the Roxy has been selected as one of 12 finalist contestants across this country for the “National Trust Great Save” competition. Long story short is that this is a voting contest and the heritage site that receives the most votes will win $50,000. You can vote once a day and voting starts April 18th and is done online by going to So spread the word and vote daily for the Roxy. Sooner or later the Roxy WILL be revived!

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