Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Darlene Sweetman who runs Muskoka Mermaids in Parry Sound, Ont.
What is Muskoka Mermaids?
I make customized, weather-resistant, life-sized mermaids. For me, it’s a piece that you can put down by the lake because they look so real sitting beside the water. You can put them beside a pool too, but on the lake other people can come to visit and look at them.
How did the business get started?
I’ve been on Manitouwabing Lake for almost 50 years now. My kids grew up here. Somebody on the lake had made a mermaid and put it on their island. Every time we were out in the boat, the kids would go: ‘let me see the mermaid, let me see the mermaid.’ So, we’d go visit it. But it was made out of cement and it was on the shore, and over the years, it crumbled.
I wanted to make another one for the lake, but I didn’t know how. I researched how to make one and I found out that you could do it with fabric sculpting. I took a class and I made this little, tiny fairy, and I thought, okay, yeah, I can do this life-sized. So, that’s what I did. I made a mermaid, I put it on the shore, and people started coming out of nowhere. People were bringing their boats and looking at it, and then I saw on social media pages, people had put pictures and created a map on how to get to it. Every summer there were thousands of people coming out to look at the mermaid.
And then people started asking me if I could make them and sell them. At first, I said no because it’s a lot of work. But then the first lockdown happened and I had nothing else to do, so I started making them.
What’s the inspiration behind the name?
Nobody really knows Manitouwabing. If I used Manitouwabing Mermaids, I think people wouldn’t know how to spell it. So, I chose Muskoka—we’re 15 minutes away. I thought Muskoka Mermaids, like the Muskoka Moose, would be a name that people could remember. People aren’t going to remember Manitouwabing.
How do you make the mermaids?
It’s fabric sculpting, so it’s kind of like paper mache. You make your armature (the framework of the sculpture) and you dunk the fabric in this hardener, and it turns to like—cement. You let it harden and then you paint it. I paint the scales silvers, golds, blues, and greens so that it looks like a fishtail. When it’s dried, I let it cure for a few weeks, and then I put three coats of UV varnish on it so that they can be kept outside. It can rain on it and everything else. However, I’d bring them in during the winter just because the freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw—it can ruin them the same way it ruins cement.
If I work hard at them, they do take a couple of weeks each. The first one took me a month of going at it every day because I didn’t know how to make the scales, how to do the hair, or how to make the tail. So, through trial and error, if I worked at it like a full-time job, I could make one in two weeks.
Do you make any other figures?
At my cottage right now I have a mermaid and a merman. Everyone was asking if they were going to have a baby, so this year there is a baby coming. For now, I just want to stick to mermaids. But at some point, I’d like to do life-sized fairies because they have the same kind of magical element.
I told my daughter as a joke that I was going to make one of Bernie Sanders sitting in his chair. She goes: ‘Mom, no one will want that.’ But it would just be so fun having a life-sized Bernie Sanders sitting in your garden.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
I had planned on selling the mermaids at the art shows in Muskoka, but last year they all shut down because of COVID, and they’ve shut down again this year for COVID. So, right now the only way I have for people to find my mermaids is through social media. I mean, I’m selling a few, but it’s pretty tough to get the word out there.
What does the future look like for Muskoka Mermaids?
I really have to get into the art shows. I’m also thinking that maybe I have to find some of the bigger Muskoka retailers, like Muskoka Living, and see if I can get them in there. I just need more exposure, specifically in-person exposure because you can’t appreciate them in pictures. When people actually see them, they go: ‘Oh my god, that looks just like a mermaid.’
It’d be nice if they turned into something like the Toronto moose statues, where you have the Muskoka Mermaids everywhere.
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