Saskatoon Stories: Picasso Birdhouses & Gory Puppets 

Everywhere we go, it’s “eyes wide open!”  We are always on the lookout for something different, something off-the-beaten path, something you won’t find (at least not easily) online. Saskatoon didn’t disappoint. 

  You will find these two colourful birdhouses outside of JR's birdhouse workshop at the corner of Spadina Cr. and 20th St. E.

You will find these two colourful birdhouses outside of JR's birdhouse workshop at the corner of Spadina Cr. and 20th St. E.

  The Stumped Productions workshop on the UofS campus was a fun even if somewhat gory surprise.  

The Stumped Productions workshop on the UofS campus was a fun even if somewhat gory surprise. 

Picasso Birdhouses

On our first evening, we were invited to a friends’ house for dinner where we enjoyed a great evening, highlighted by their quirky art collection and great backyard.  Yes, the one with the amazing pavilion! But what impressed us most were the Picasso-inspired birdhouses.  We had to have one. Well, maybe two.

Turns out we could – and did. And so can you!

They are made by John Remai (if the surname sounds familiar, it could be because his brother’s wife donated big bucks for Saskatoon’s controversial new Remai Art Museum, but that is another story) and he makes them in his parking garage studio in the downtown Saskatoon riverside residential tower where he lives.  

  John Remai's (JR to his friends) garage/workshop.

John Remai's (JR to his friends) garage/workshop.

Once a builder always a builder?

Remai, now in his ‘80s, was one Saskatoon’s biggest developers before retiring a few years ago. As a philanthropist, Remai has been a big supporter of various Saskatoon charities, as well as the local Children’s Hospital.  However, he wanted to not only make personal donations but help encourage others to also give back to their community.  As a result, he decided in retirement to design and build birdhouses to sell to the public with all proceeds going to the Saskatoon’s Children’s Hospital.  Who could resist buying one or perhaps four (our host now has four) birdhouses, three at home and one at work?   

The public can buy a Remai birdhouse Monday through Thursday in the basement of the office building at the corner of Spadina and 20thStreet.  Depending on design, the birdhouses sell for $75 to $100, which is great value given the craftsmanship and complexity of designs.  

Given we were in town on a weekend, we were fortunate our host knew Remai and was able to arrange a downtown studio visit to see the birdhouses actually being built and meet Mr. Remai, a very cordial host and unassuming gentleman.

Indeed, the Remai’s huge workshop (probably the size of quadruple car garage) is located in the underground parkade of a residential tower.  It is neatly divided up into three spaces, one with all the While we were there, two volunteers from the building were painting pieces of his latest design, a “parrot birdhouse” in preparation for assembly.

A lovely sense of order and calmness filled this windowless, grotto-like studio.  Here are some photos, which I hope will convey the scale of the operations and the diversity of the birdhouses being produced.  

  JR with three of his most popular birdhouses.

JR with three of his most popular birdhouses.

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  Volunteers from the building help JR with the painting and assembling. Note other birdhouse designs on the shelves in the background.

Volunteers from the building help JR with the painting and assembling. Note other birdhouse designs on the shelves in the background.

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  The Assante building is where you can get your own birdhouse. 

The Assante building is where you can get your own birdhouse. 

  JR has a binder with the different birdhouses and other items for sale. 

JR has a binder with the different birdhouses and other items for sale. 

For more information: JR's Designer Birdhouses 

U of S: Timeless

  The Douglas Cardinal designed Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre is just one of many new buildings that are synergistic to the older buildings on campus. 

The Douglas Cardinal designed Gordon Oakes-Red Bear Student Centre is just one of many new buildings that are synergistic to the older buildings on campus. 

Whenever we are in a new city we make a point of exploring the postsecondary campuses.  They are often full of interesting, under-the-radar places.

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) is no exception as it is home to an Antiquities Museum, a Natural History Museum and three art galleries.  

The campus is an architectural gem as the facades of almost all of the buildings have been built with sandstone or Tyndall stone facades giving it a timeless quality I have not experienced anywhere else. 

From a design perspective, it may well be the best campus in Canada! 

  The Bowl is the heart of the campus. 

The Bowl is the heart of the campus. 

A-Mazing Campus

The U of S, like most campuses, is a maze of seemingly randomly placed buildings.  Note: I often wonder why postsecondary campuses never used the grid street system, which is so much easier to navigate. The grid street design has been around since before Christ for heaven’s sake, you’d think one or more universities would have used it. However, the good thing about the maze system is you often get lost and in doing so, you see things you might not have if you knew where you were going.  For us, getting lost lead to finding artisans making puppets for this summer’s Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan (River). 

  The U of S a-mazing campus is huge at almost 3,000 acres or 12 square kilometres. It is home to 25,000 students. 

The U of S a-mazing campus is huge at almost 3,000 acres or 12 square kilometres. It is home to 25,000 students. 

Gory Puppets 

While trying to find our bearings, we noticed some quirky-looking objects in the basement windows of a building we had no intention of going into. However, they became the impetus for us to head in. Once inside, we immediately peeked into a large studio with three people working away making puppets. We were invited in come in dozens of puppets at various stages of completion.  Turns out they were making all of the 44 puppets for this summer’s production of TITUS A. Puppet Revenge, July 12 to August 19th.

Backstory: TITUS A. Puppet Revenge will tell the story of the most violent and bloody tragedy ever performed at the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival.  Dismemberment, disembowelment and cannibalism will all play out with an amazing set of carefully crafted rod puppets in a small tent tucked into a corner of the site.  It is billed as a delightfully disturbing romp for mature audiences. Due to the detailed nature of puppets, I recommend attendees bring opera glasses or binoculars. 

Turns out we were welcomed by Kristi Friday of Stumped Productions who along with some hired hands were building all of the puppets. After looking around and chatting a bit, she asked if we wanted to come with her to the basement where they had set up a small rehearsal stage to test out the puppets and we could see the finished puppets.  We said “Hell Yes!” It was fun to get a behind the scene tour and an up close and personal look at the puppets.  

  Puppets in various stages of completion.  

Puppets in various stages of completion. 

  An up close and personal view of the inner workings of the puppets. 

An up close and personal view of the inner workings of the puppets. 

  The handmade puppet are glued, stitched and clamped together. 

The handmade puppet are glued, stitched and clamped together. 

  Taking a break....

Taking a break....

  Hanging out....

Hanging out....

  The rehearsal stage...

The rehearsal stage...

Secret UofS Museum

Next door to the rehearsal stage, was the basement room that attracted us to go inside the building in the first place. Here we were rewarded with the opportunity to see some of the fun stage costumes other production from bubble wrap dresses to vintage hat boxes.

It was like finding a buried treasure or an unknown museum. 

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Lessons Learned

#1 Always travel with your eyes and mind wide open.  

#2 Always leave extra time to explore unexpected opportunities. 

#3 Don't be shy!

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Birdhouse vs Nest Box

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University of New Mexico: A-Mazing