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Where green and education merge

Where green and education merge

Wintergreen Studios is no ordinary educational retreat, but then founder Rena Upitis is no ordinary educator.

It was April 10, 2007, and Prof. Rena Upitis, Artsci’81, Law’81, MEd’82, was standing on a busy street corner in downtown Chicago. That is when the mindnumbing reality of being one of 17,000 delegates at the international educators’ conference hit her. She had spent four days entombed in air-tight skyscrapers. It had been raining incessantly. She had watched spring being delivered to the Windy City by large trucks that carried loads of mulch and the fully grown tulips that were planted in city’s concrete-box flower beds

Rena Upitis at Wintergreen StudiosFormer Dean of Education Rena Upitis designed and built Wintergreen Studios as an eco-friendly, off-the-grid educational retreat north of Kingston.

The former dean of the Faculty of Education still recalls the moment of epiphany she had as she thought about all of this. She knew what she had – and wanted – to do: build an off-the-grid, environmentally focused, educational retreat,
a year-round facility that would connect the land and its inhabitants. A week after returning home, Upitis had come up with a name for her rural
eco-retreat: “Wintergreen.” It was an appropriate
moniker. After all, wintergreen grows on her land, and as Upitis explains, “Educational, sustainable, green, off-grid connected to the
land – these were the things that mattered
to me.”

By June of 2007, she had contracted with a local farmer to grow the straw she planned to bale and use to build her retreat. By September, she had hired a lawyer and had recruited a five-member board of
directors that included herself, Serena Manson, Ed’02; Ann Patteson, Med’00, PhD’05; Helen Turnbull, Artsci’76, Ed’77; and Katharine Smithrim, Ed’80. Next Upitis drew up plans for the building and
had her 205-acre parcel of land rezoned from rural to community institutional.

She had purchased the property back in 1990. This rock-ribbed chunk of the Canadian Shield was originally farmed by an Irish settler named Patrick Nolan. ­Upitis built adjacent to the footprint of the old Nolan homestead, which she wished to preserve and honour. She knew that Nolan had done his homework in his choice of a house location, and she wanted to take advantage of his knowledge in her choice of a building site.

When construction of Wintergreen Studios began in 2008, Upitis involved herself in every aspect of the project – from design through construction. She truly is a Renaissance woman.

A mother of three, Upitis is also an artist, a musician, a Harvard PhD graduate, an accomplished builder and renovator, a cheerful optimist, and an arts educator who believes no education is complete unless you have put your hand to building something meaningful, such as a cabin in the woods.

By the time she dreamt up her eco-retreat, Upitis had renovated a stone house in Yarker, Ontario, and she had designed and built three guest cabins on the Wintergreen property. She carried many of the construction supplies, including timber and 135 of the bags of concrete and mortar used in the construction, on her shoulders a mile through the woods to the building site. “I’ve been building for the better part of 20 years,” Upitis says, “I’ve got carpenter’s arms!”

Building Wintergreen without a conventional on-line power source, required ingenuity. The post-and-beam construction with its straw-bale insulation necessitated plastered walls. The labour costs in plastering by hand, without the use of power tools, were exorbitant. And the dirt road leading into the site meant that seven small trucks, rather than one big one, had to be used to deliver concrete for the floors. The list of possible problems seemed insurmountable.

Upitis enlisted an army of volunteers ages seven to 83 – including, most notably, The Anglin Group and Camel’s Back Construction – and she did as much of the work herself as she could. By December 2008, her vision had become reality. Wintergreen is today a going concern, playing host to a wide variety of educational events, retreats, and workshops. Upitis has even branched out and has started a small print-on-demand publishing house, Wintergreen Studios Press.

Every effort has been made to respect the environment at the centre while maintaining the highest standards of comfort and aesthetics. Says Upitis, “Here at ­Wintergreen, everyone’s actions have an impact, and the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.”


For more information about Wintergreen Studios, please visit www.wintergreenstudios.com/

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-4 cover]