Moving from viewing to doing

Globe and Mail
8 October 2019

People from all walks of life explore their creative sides by learning to make their own art

More people are exploring ways to channel their creativity through art and Canadian galleries, museums and theatres are responding in innovative and exciting ways.

Renowned artist Daniel Hughes teaches life drawing at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queens University in Kingston. His students learn to sketch a live model using graphite pencil, ink and charcoal.

“Art is a lot more accessible now,” Hughes says. “With all the technology available to people they still want to take a piece of paper and charcoal and get it messy in their hands. I think it’s therapeutic and meditative to express yourself creatively. It’s silent in my class when the model is posing. People are so into their work and when we finish everyone just breathes.”

His students come from all ages and backgrounds, from an emergency room physician to an 80-year-old working painter named Grace.

“Rob Baxter of The Tragically Hip has taken a several courses and has developed a real interest in painting,” he says.

Una D’Elia, a professional artist, author and associate professor of art history and art conservation at Queen’s University, sees a growing interest in people wanting to learn and experiment with different materials and artistic techniques.

“Historically, art wasn’t something confined to museums. It was part of people’s everyday lives,” she says. “I actually took the life drawing workshop and it was great to see such a diverse group of people from working artists to those just wanting to try something new. The instructor was so supportive. It’s a fascinating process and, in the end, we were all so pleased with what we had accomplished!”

Healing art

Art and wellness is the focus of a weekly drop-in program for young adults at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre with educator and certified art therapist Harper Johnston.

Johnston says her “Art Hive@Agnes offers a safe, nurturing, fun, energetic and creative home away from home. Some might call it a ‘brain break’.”

Johnston says that producing art reduces cortisol levels and, as a result, lessens stress in the body. Her students come from all walks of life and each has a unique story about why they are there.

“They come alone, with a friend or sometimes in groups. They talk, share, meet new people and are always grateful to be in a well-equipped studio in an amazing gallery where they can explore the Agnes’s collections for inspiration and work with a wide range of materials to create art they never dreamed they were capable of producing. Best of all they love that it’s free, inclusive and accepting and they get to take their art home!”

Edmund Chan of Toronto found healing and a community of support at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre after he suffered a devastating stroke. He registered for a playwriting workshop at the theatre to help with his recovery. The Tarragon is a leading company for the encouragement of new work and Canada’s home for groundbreaking contemporary playwriting under the direction of artistic director Richard Rose.

Chan speaks slowly and carefully as he describes the warm welcome and supportive community he found at Tarragon. “The instructors and students are fantastic. I’ve worked hard and I’m making progress. Thanks to my teachers Richard Rose and Paula White and all the students who’ve helped me I’m writing lots of scripts and I’m talking easier now. I want to talk,” Chan says.

Paula White has been a playwright for more than 30 years. She says she loves the Tarragon’s commitment to new writers and what it takes to create and communicate a really good play.

“It’s very hard to do and Tarragon is committed to the hard work and patience to develop new writers,” she says.

White has been part of an exciting evolution in the art of writing for the stage. “The opportunity to learn is available to anyone now. Our students are actors, filmmakers and screenwriters. There are people who are simply curious about the world of theatre and what happens behind the scenes. And there is Edmund who brought something profound to our classes — the gift of communication. He reminded us all how we long to be able to communicate and tell stories.”

Art Inspired by tradition

Inspiring curiosity, connection and new understanding is the foundation of The Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough. With its impressive holdings of 600 canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft, the museum offers a series of artisan workshops. Participants spend an exciting and rewarding one or two days exploring their creative side by learning how to make a coiled basket, trail toboggan, snowshoes, wool and leather mittens or anorak.

Beth Stanley is the museum’s associate curator and has been integral in growing the workshops.

“It’s so accessible here … the tools, the instructor … people do things they don’t think they can do. It’s magical. We offer up to 40 workshops a year and we’re seeing such a mix of people who come to us not knowing each other and leaving as friends.”

Workshop intructors include an Indigenous canoe builder who teaches a birch-bark basket workshop to a young couple who live off the grid in Northern Canada and specialize in winter treks on the land using traditional toboggans, canvas anoraks and handmade gear.

The Canadian Canoe Museum has also invited Ottawa artist Vanessa Coplan to lead a unique community art project where members of the public weave, tie, pull, knit and sew textiles to create a 14-foot canoe that will be temporarily displayed at the museum.

“I want art to be able to speak to people in a way that isn’t just looking and seeing and nodding their heads. I want it to be about feeling and participating in something,” Coplan says.

The Textile Canoe grew out of Coplan’s first large-scale project called I, Canada, a series of hand-sewn patchwork blankets that marked Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

“I worked on half of these blankets with hundreds of school agers from Grades 4 to 12,” she says.

“It fuelled my passion for working with many hands on deck and for experiencing the act of thinking and making together. The museum’s canoe project is the culmination of this new and exciting opportunity we have to move from viewing to doing.”

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