Monforte Dairy takes on the look of a giant art gallery

Click on the image for a larger view of the mural that adorns one wall of Monforte Dairy in Stratford in Southwestern Ontario.

A cheesemaking plant is a practical, utilitarian thing. To see one showcasing large pieces of both high and street art is unexpected, to say the least. But Ruth Klahsen, the cheesemaker responsible for the new Monforte Dairy plant’s artsy makeover, seems to enjoy keeping the public guessing.

The idea of a dairy-as-art-gallery began five years ago, when Ruth purchased a billboard-sized piece of art from an exhibit in Stratford. The billboard, created by Toronto-based artist Corinne Carlson, features a single word in a black font set against a silver background. The one word: “Baa?”

Ruth says she always knew she would display the billboard one day, but didn’t have the proper space for it at the old dairy. The unadorned walls of the new cheese plant seemed like a perfect spot for the billboard.

For the next art project, Ruth decided on an edgier direction. She commissioned an art piece from a group of Toronto graffiti artists affiliated with Life Opportunities Food and Technology, or LOFT, an organization devoted to inspiring youth involvement in community development projects.

For 10 years LOFT has run a graffiti art program that mainly produces murals in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighbourhood. After hearing about LOFT’s artists from CBC’s Jane Farrow and learning about the community work done by the organization, Ruth invited LOFT’s artists to come to Stratford and paint the new plant.

For an entire weekend in June the artists, under the direction of Javid Alibhai, worked on a graffiti mural that covers the west side of the plant and a silo. Ruth left the content of the murals completely up to the artists.

“I gave them free rein. I didn’t want to interfere or put any restrictions on them,” Ruth says.

The result is a colourful mural featuring traditional farm images of cows and pastures, with a funky, urban feel. Large graffiti script covers the silo, including the words “Monforte Dairy.”

Ruth has no concerns that visitors to the dairy may find the plant’s artwork odd or unsightly. She says so far, both the mural and the billboard have been well-received.

“The response has been huge. I’ve heard nothing negative. Maybe the people with negative opinions aren’t saying anything, and that’s just fine. I think for the most part people enjoy seeing something innovative and exciting.”

Corinne Carlson finishes the installation of her billboard creation made of sequin-like reflective disks that sparkle as they twist in the wind.

Monforte began producing cheese at the new plant a month ago. So far, Ruth and her apprentices have made fresh sheep and goat varieties. By the end of July, Monforte will move on to cow’s milk cheese, and also begin working with buffalo milk when supply is sufficient.

All the cheeses produced are available at Monforte Dairy’s in-house store or at a number of farmer’s markets in Ontario.

Ruth and Monforte made news earlier in the year when they raised $400,000 toward the cost of the new plant via a unique business model called Community-Supported Agriculture.

—Phoebe Powell

A journalism graduate and budding turophile, Phoebe Powell last wrote for about where to get educated for a career in cheese.

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