Tim Wisener on eschewing labels, the demise of good politics, and finding our common humanity
Lunch with Roderick Benns: Conversations with interesting people in Kawartha Lakes
It’s a cool spring afternoon at Fenelon Falls Brewing Company. The garage-style door is thrown up, allowing for insistent sunbeams to press light onto our table, just as Tim Wisener strolls in.
Wisener gives off a Nordic vibe – fair haired, tall and lean. He likes my Scandinavian assessment of him but confesses he only has “Nordic aspirations.” In fact, it’s a blended background with dominantly Scottish-Irish ancestry. He also appears to be one of those rare people who looks perpetually amicable, which is, literally, a nice quality to have.
It’s a reliable pint of Vienna lager for me and a Yuzu citrus seltzer for Wisener. The seltzer pretty much looks like summer in a glass, so I had beverage envy within three seconds.
The 44-year-old Wisener didn’t have far to walk. He’s one half of Home by Tim + Chris, the design and renovation company on Colborne Street in the heart of Fenelon Falls which he runs with his partner – and life partner – Chris Van Lierop.
The dynamic duo also own the gorgeous Colborne Street Gallery (same building), a contemporary art space blessed with abundant natural light and a primo downtown location.
Wisener and Van Lierop have been a permanent fixture in Fenelon Falls for the past six years.
Born and raised in Calgary, Wisener spent every summer of his life here, owing to the family’s local roots. “My family goes back to the 1820s in Lindsay. My great great grandfather was an early mayor of Lindsay. This has always been part of my life. It’s a community I adore,” he says.
Wisener and Van Lierop started spending two-week vacations here, then four weeks, and then longer. “The draw became stronger,” he says.
Years ago, Wisener was the young company manager for Alberta Ballet. Van Lierop was a post-secondary accounting student in Victoria. They met at a bar one night after Wisener had a show in Victoria. Wisener’s ballet company position would soon take him to China for a tour but they maintained a long distance relationship for a few months. Eventually, Van Lierop would move out to Calgary where Wisener was based.
“Eighteen years together now. He’s my best friend. We’re two peas in a pod all the way.”
The server interrupts to take our orders and Wisener homes in on a Quinoa bowl and I choose their deluxe grilled cheese.
While some couples may have difficulty working as a team, Wisener says they have always just done life really well together. “We’ve always had projects on the go together, even with separate careers and we’ve always been supporters of one another.”
The China trip was not anomalous in Wisener’s stint with the ballet. Alberta Ballet would also take him all over Canada, the U.S. and Egypt, among other places. “I loved that work. But it’s a young person’s job because you’re away for half the year.”
After that, Wisener went to a large concert hall in Calgary as director of client and patron services and then it was on to Toronto to Canadian Stage as an associate producer.
It was then that Wisener and Van Lierop first started doing their home business work, first on the side. Then they quickly realized it was time to fully take on this next adventure.
“We put so much importance on a home,” as a society, Wisener says, noting that perhaps HGTV is partially responsible for that.
“Our living space and our lived experience in those spaces is so important, and it’s great fun to be a part of that with people.”
Home by Tim + Chris is often hired to help create a second home for a family, or a shared vacation property. “How you use that kind of space is very different from how you use a home,” he says, acknowledging this is the bulk of their work. Conversely, they sometimes take vacation properties and help people turn these into homes.
While they used to envision, conceptualize and even coordinate the hammers and nails part of the business, more and more Wisener says they are focused on the planning stages.
“We try to take people through the conceptualization and vision of what they want. Helping them see what their space can be. Understanding what they want. We want to know how the client wants to use the space. Beautiful, yes, but it must be functional.”
One of their signature projects they’re working on now is Pinnguaq’s recent acquisition of 12 Peel St. near downtown Lindsay, where a world-class STEAM education and entrepreneurship centre is envisioned.
“We’re so excited to work with them because of what they do. There’s a real opportunity for that to be a flagship building that can turn some heads and engage people.”
Of course, there’s also their own unique space that has just opened. Called Room by Tim + Chris, it’s essentially the south part of the old Kawartha Store, which they had already taken over last year. Wisener calls it a “design forward” space, with home accessories, textiles, furniture and “beautiful things.”
There will be a focus on Canadian makers, brands, small crafters, and artisans as much as possible.
“Fenelon’s growing. People are going to need things for these spaces. People looking for a nice set of sheets will want a place to go,” without leaving the village.
The business owners are also exploring becoming a B Corporation, which are companies that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
“It’s about purpose and profit,” said Wisener. “It’s an acknowledgment the economy has to work for everyone, not just the people at the top.”
He cites living wages, treating the environment well, sourcing ethically-made goods, and just generally doing business in a way that benefits everyone.
While Wisener may have left the arts world to embark on a home design career, he says he now believes he’s come “full circle” as he gestures toward the wooded area containing the Grove Theatre, of which he was a co-founder, along with Christina Yael and Sean Cox, artistic directors.
When asked what the relationship is like between Grove Theatre and other theatres in the city, such as Globus or the Academy, Wisener says he thinks that “art begets art.”
“We’re all doing quite different things. And it doesn’t take a theatre person to be able to identify that.”
Wisener says a great community is one where there’s a vibrant arts scene and one can see multiple plays in different venues.
“We’re the new guy on the turf but I think the hope is we’ll all benefit from each other and grow together.”
The theatre lover notes that Grove may be one of the biggest employers in town within 10 years, the way it’s going. “There’s no reason our trajectory can’t be like this. Time will tell.”
However, housing is a big concern for the Grove, as it is for Globus and most other theatres across Canada, given this country’s continuing housing supply issues.
“For the theatre, there are limited selections for patrons who want to come and stay. For actors and for crew to be able to run the shows, it’s really difficult if you can’t find a place to stay. It’s happening all over. So, it then becomes more and more expensive to produce theatre when you can’t find places to put people up.”
That gets Wisener talking about policy in general. “In Kawartha Lakes we need housing at all levels. Affordable housing. Geared to income housing. More housing for families and seniors. I mean, we have million-dollar condos in Fenelon Falls – my mind explodes that there’s demand for this!”
Democracy is also on Wisener’s mind these days, specifically the threats to it. “I worry for the UN, for Ukraine, for what’s going in Taiwan.”
He says he’s also dismayed that the ability to disagree with someone’s viewpoint on politics and yet still appreciate that person “seems to have evaporated.”
He’s not talking about Fenelon Falls though. “I am consistently impressed how open and welcoming this village is.”
“I have a very good friend here in town who is on the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself, and we can get along and debate and have good conversations. We can do that, but overall, in society it seems to be in short supply. I feel like we’ve lost something.”
When I ask why that seems to be the case, he says, “echo chambers that only reinforce our own views” and “too much access to shitty information.”
Wisener says politics has become this place of “getting the next sucker punch in.”
“And that’s really sad.”
It’s particularly disheartening, he says, considering how similar everyone is when it comes down to the basics.
“Fundamentally, we all want damn close to the same thing, right? Safety, security, good communities, a decent job…”
His voice trails off as he thinks more deeply about our common humanity. I point out it sounds like he’s candidate material himself.
“Chris and I considered me running for a good period of time. But I am just resolved in thinking that we can have much more effect in our community by volunteering and doing the things we love without putting up with all that,” he says, referencing the political polarization.
It’s the political parties that are a big part of the problem, he says. “I’d run if we could get rid of parties. Municipal is theoretically supposed to be like that, but it’s not,” meaning there’s usually unspoken alliances with existing parties.
“I’m from the LGBTQ2S+LMNOP group,” he says. “I know the label game. But I don’t feel that need. We have to admit that we as humans can be more complex than just whatever the first letter of the acronym is that we subscribe to. You can have divergent views and even have competing views within yourself.”
He warms up to his topic.
“Labels are for soup cans. I’d sure like to live in a world with no political parties. Maybe that would solve things. Then maybe you’d get people in there who just want to do the right thing.”