Using Art to Work with Community Groups

Identity Art Project, part 1

Last year, I had a terrific artist in residence project, the best of its kind. It had a reasonable budget with an open-minded French Immersion Director who told me, “The budget is approved; do what you want!” It was, for me, a dream project.

The objective was to highlight the students in the Immersion Program, showcasing the French immersion kids in their predominantly English language school. And, ultimately, to create a piece of artwork that would commemorate their experiences throughout the lifespan of the project.

It was a project without set boundaries; absolutely my favourite way to work! But it’s always a leap of faith to trust in my ability to discover the link between the ‘big idea’ and the pathway forward. The first question is always,  “Where do I start?” And then, “How do I get the rest of us on that pathway imagining our common goal?” The first few steps are pretty obvious: introduce myself to all the students and staff and give them an idea of what a project like this entails, and how it might unfold. So in every immersion class I presented a video about my artistic practice and a power point about the community and public art projects I had done in the past that might resemble what we could experience together.

But how would I get to know them? And how could I encourage them to be curious about the project and involved in its creation? I built a rolling cart with sides made of chalkboards, two mailboxes, a folding tabletop, and inside… a mirror. It would serve as a prop any time I needed students to come to me and contribute in one way or another to the project and to share information and fun facts about the project.

Prop in hand, I was ready to get to know the kids. I started with asking them some personal questions.  When you wake up in the morning, are grumpy or happy? What’s your favourite colour? What are you most afraid of? Who’s your favourite band?

Those surveys eventually comprised about 30 questions and continued for six weeks or so until I compiled statistics on 120 students and their teachers. I got to know them, but at the same time they were learning to really know one another.  

Then, as community project often unfold, the French Immersion Director came to me and suggested that my project might assist the francophone Theatre, Inook Touzin in creating a visual environment for the Molière tid bits our students would be performing.

Well, I thought, why not? It certainly fell under the objectives of the project, and being paired with a visual platform that had a built in audience was an excellent idea. However, by this point I knew those 120 students were, for the most part, more academic than artistic, and I only had 50 minutes with each group to get something done. How could we best work with Moliere? And then it came to me in a flash: Moliere already had the answer. His literary brilliance is in the caricatures he creates of his characters. We could learn from the Master; portraits would be the way forward! And as quickly as I solved that problem, my hopes were dashed when I had to admit that portraits are excruciatingly difficult to draw or paint.  

Marvin Mattelson writes a blog he’s titled, “Portrait Painting is More Difficult Than Brain Surgery”. He says that From the moment we’re born, we learn to recognize faces; it’s a lifesaving skill for a young human. As a result, all of us can easily recognize a bad portrait. We instantly know if does or does not look like the model. Then, another flash: but we’re not aiming for realism here. It’s Moliere. We’re going to create caricatures!

So the students drew portraits of one another other. The model sat directly in front of the artist, a vertical sheet of Plexiglas between them covered with a clear film. The artist drew onto the clear film, basically following the outlines of the model as accurately as possible. The portraits, for the most part, took about 20 minutes to draw; then the roles reversed and the model became the artist and the artist became the model. In one 50 minute class every student was caricatured well enough to look like his or her not-so good-looking cousin.

Finally the portraits were projected in the theatre along with the students’ responses to questions I’d asked. “My eyes are blue,” or “I’m most afraid of spiders,” or “If I could, I would put an end to hunger in the world.” Then, parents visiting the event had an opportunity to make portraits using the same technique, realizing how difficult it was to do, yet reserving judgement and, best of all, having as much fun as the kids did.

Stay tuned for my next blog, and I’ll tell you all about the next six months of this project and the creation of our temporary art installation….

 


Teaching Art…. a journey of unexpected rewards

Years ago, when I was just starting my artist journey, a neighbour asked if I would teach her son how to paint. I had never considered becoming an art instructor; I wanted to be an artist, not a teacher. But life has a way of putting things on your path that bring unexpected rewards.

I said yes to this neighbour’s request thinking, I should at least try it. That decision opened a beautiful and fulfilling side of my career as an artist. It rapidly took proportions I didn’t expect. And, go figure, I turned out to be a really good instructor, largely because I love teaching art and I love my students. Today I teach four after school classes a week, one or two adult classes and the occasional community workshop. I limit the numbers of hours I teach to 10 or 12 a week so I can preserve my creative studio time and, so I can always be excited to welcome my students.

Many of the kids I have taught over the years started with me at the age of nine and left when they moved out of town to attend university. And, I feel proud to share that as I am writing this, seven of my former students are studying art in post-secondary school. I believe that my students stay with me for a few reasons other than what I teach them: they know how much I appreciate them, they feel at ease in my studio and they get to work on projects they choose. Most studios or art instructors assign projects to their students. In addition to the insane amount of preparation this requires from the instructor, that way of teaching art doesn’t promote continuous learning.

The only way to become a good painter or drawer or sculptor is to keep doing it. Students rapidly tire of assigned projects and just stop going to class. By allowing them to choose the focus of their creative work, be it the subject or the form, I ensure that they will continue to feel the motivation to come back every week, year after year. That’s how many of them develop strong skills. This way of teaching demands flexibility and availability on the instructor’s part. I never know what my students will want to work on, so I need to be ready for anything. I hate to say no to a project and always want to find a way to make it come together. So I only take six students at a time. That way, I can easily afford to personalize my teaching for each student’s skill level and chosen project.

One of the things I knew an artist should do in order to maintain a life-long career is to build a community of people who appreciate and recognize their work. What I didn’t realize when I took that first teaching contract was that my students and their families would constitute a large part of that community. Because of them, I’ve never felt isolated or ignored. And more importantly, I always feel like I am contributing to the world by making other lives better and more fulfilled. Over the years I’ve received many beautiful testimonials from my students and from their parents that speak of the difference I have made in their lives. They say that I’ve been a positive and enriching presence and contributed to their personal and artistic development.

Two weeks ago I was presented with the Linda Knight Award for my contribution to the Elbow Valley community through art. I am proud of that award and thrilled that my personal passion for art has had so much positive impact on the people around me.

But, as they say, ‘there’s no such thing as a completely selfless act’. Teaching brings me a lot of satisfaction and allows me to keep up to date with the world. My teen students are my social media and technology tutors.  The kids keep me young and they help me see the world as they do, full of possibilities and wonders.


The Status of the Artist:

Everyone can draw, some of us very well. Some not so well. Does that mean that everyone is an artist? No, it certainly does not.

Pulse 2, acrylic 24″ x 30″

I recently attended a discussion in Calgary about The Status of the Artist, along with professional artists from various art practices including dance, theater, writers and visual artists. We were all invited to contribute our views on ‘What is an Artist?’, ‘How do We Contribute to our Society?’ and ‘What is Our Place and Role in that Society?’ Our goal was to provide information to the Alberta Government so it can develop Status of the Artist Legislation. I was eager to attend because I saw it as a first step toward an official recognition of the artists’ contribution to society and a foundation for improving the living conditions of artists. Most are still living below, or very close to, the poverty level. And no, it’s not because they’re disorganized and lazy. Well, maybe some of us are, but not in larger numbers than what you will find in any other field of work.

So? What … and who… is an artist?

There was no problem getting the discussion started; artists are passionate and devoted to their practices and the conversation was animated and interesting since many of us have very similar challenges and concerns. Most of us feel that the term ‘artist’ is used pretty loosely in our society, and that the actual profession of being an artist is not viewed as a very serious endeavor. But I guarantee that for those of us who devote our lives to the practice and understanding of an art form, it is serious and meaningful work. Maybe we should call ourselves ‘Professional Artists’. But would we ask the same of doctors and lawyers? Of course not.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 40″

Perhaps the ‘Artist’ title encompasses too many ‘hobby artists’ – those who like to do a little creative dabbling on weekends to unwind from the work that supports them financially. They may dream of one day chucking the job that supports them and being called an artist, but my advice would be to read my blog titled Naively Optimistic. In that blog I write about the challenges of being a ‘Professional Artist’. It might put a damper on some of that daydreaming.

Anyone can be creative, but that’s not what makes an artist. We need to do a better job at recognizing the training, the work ethic, the experience and the professional presentation of the work that needs to happen before one can call himself a ‘Professional Artist’. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers has popularized the expression “10 thousand hours”, the average number of hours one needs to invest in something before becoming good at it. Anyone who has attempted to be an artist will confirm that it takes hard work and dedication to become a competent and confident artist. Painting two hours a week and selling pieces to neighbours and friends doesn’t make anyone a professional artist.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 24″

Daniel Grant, in his blog titled How do you Define ‘Artist declares, “As opposed to other occupations that require a license, permits, state testing or even reported income, the label artist seems more like a value judgment….” He goes on to list a number of things that can be considered criterias required for someone to be called an artist:

an artist makes art. Yes they do, as much as they possibly can.

– an artist declares artistic revenues as their main source of income. Not always. A lot of professional artists hold separate jobs that support their artistic practice. But they should at least take themselves seriously enough to declare all their art related revenus.

an artist professionally presents their work to the public. Yes, they do. And that’s a critical part of a professional process. As an artist you must be challenged by how people perceive your work. It helps further your development and reflection no matter what the public’s reaction might be. And even though most artists start by presenting their work in non-professional contexts, (the church art sale for instance), they should rapidly move to jury-selected or curated shows to validate their professional status.

– an artist requires a studio or a professional working space. I have yet to meet a professional artist who doesn’t have a space dedicated to the creation of their work.

an artist is someone whom funding agencies call an artist. And there it is: the ultimate validation. Is the person eligible to receive public funds to pursue their career as an artist? Hard earned money from the tax payer cannot be carelessly distributed and therefore requires some serious boundaries as to who is a professional artist and who is not. The Canada Council for the Arts defines a professional artist as follows:

  • has specialized training in the artistic field (not necessarily in academic institutions)
  • is recognized as a professional by his or her peers (artists working in the same artistic tradition)
  • is committed to devoting more time to artistic activity, if possible financially
  • has a history of public presentation or publication.

And Grant’s final criteria is:

an artist is someone who calls themselves artist.

If you have read this and still feel confident calling yourself an artist, then go for it. But keep in mind that ‘Professional’ artists in your town, province and country work tirelessly to maintain their status, do you?

For those of you who would like to contribute your thoughts on the Alberta Artist Status, you can do so till June 30th 2018 though this Alberta Foundation for the Arts survey.

 


When the creative brain needs a break: an Ode to My Friends

I spent last weekend with my closest friends in a lovely cedar cabin built in the ‘60s by my husband’s grandfather. Nestled in the trees at the foot of beautiful mountains, the cabin is an oasis of peace with magical powers of relaxation. But being there with my besties? It was all about giggles and sharing, and that was exactly what I needed.

You see, for several weeks I had been working with a community group to plan a permanent piece of art only to have it derailed at the last minute by unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances. Within 24 hours, I found myself rethinking the whole concept to make it feasible under the new parameters we were given. That meant going to a temporary art installation where we are to involve the 100 teenagers who are part of the community. Basically, it became a creative marathon! Although it all went very well, (and I think we are good to go), by Friday night, I was exhausted.

I needed to escape… and I needed my friends.

I hope your friends are as amazing as mine. They have an uncanny ability to make every occasion feel like both a celebration and the most relaxing thing any of us can be doing at that moment. No matter what the circumstance, these amazing women know how to create an ambiance that makes everyone feel at ease. And for me – who spends my workdays making decisions and leading projects almost always by myself – following their lead is truly a blessing.

When I talk to my mom about my friends, (even though she has very few real friends herself), she reminds me how lucky I am to have these witnesses to my life. And I absolutely agree. My friends make me a better person because they are honest, even when it hurts and, because they know me so well, they can bring clarity to every situation in my life. I hope I do the same for them.

With our aging population, researchers are looking into how to stay healthy as long as possible, and not so surprisingly, they’ve discovered that strong friendships become more important the older we get. In the blog titled Why Friends May Be More Important Than Family, the writers mention research in the journal Personal Relationships that explores the findings of studies about relationships. “In the first, involving more than 270,000 people in nearly 100 countries, author William Chopik found that “both family and friend relationships were associated with better health and happiness overall. But at advanced ages, the link remained only for people who reported strong friendships. By that stage of life, those friendships have stood the test of time. You have kept those people around because they have made you happy, or at least contributed to your wellbeing in some way.” says Chopik. “Across our lives, we let the more superficial friendships fade, and we’re left with the really influential ones.”

Saturday afternoon view

Of course you can also be besties with your husband and your sister, but friendships seem to come together magically and I’m not entirely sure how we chose one another. But I can promise we’ve never been as cold-blooded with one another as this BBC Future story blog suggests in How and Why Do We Pick Our Friends  “Friendships might serve as a strategic mechanism for maintaining a support system in advance of potential future conflicts. Human conflicts are usually decided by the number of supporters mobilized on each side (rather than strength or agility). So perhaps friendship only seems to be a riddle because if we were explicit about the transactional nature of our alliances, their strength would falter. In other words, we might like to make grand claims that friendships are without an agenda, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this is the case.”

Well, as they say, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’

I can guarantee that the only kinds of war my friends and I could team up to win would involves who-giggles-the-most. And yes there was a time not so long ago when we might have won the who-can-dance-the-longest contest. All I know for sure is that, once in a while, life puts someone on my path with a few shared interests and with whom things feel easy and transparent. If I’m very lucky and can be around them long enough, a friendship might form. And for each of those friendships, I’m grateful.


Fancy Art People, Fancy Talk

How do you reconcile your need to push the reflection onto the artwork with the need to stay connected to your society?

Rêves d’été/Summer dream, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Last night I had a strange dream. I was at a fancy art dinner, filled with fancy people wearing fancy cloths and talking fancy talk that made no sense. My sister was there with me and she was just as lost. “What is this dinner all about anyway?” she asked. The other people gathered around her and whispered nonsense answers about what they though we were all doing there. But once again, it made no sense to me and the whispering thing was just so weird.

I woke up with a smile, thinking that was a strange dream! But I know very well that dreams come from our subconscious brains trying to make sense of the things that are troubling us, the things we experience during our waking hours.

A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Your Sleeping Genius by Dr Gale Delanay. She explains, “Many dreams come in the form of sophisticated metaphorical thinking and problem solving. The dreamer wakes to remember powerful stories filled with symbols that seem to make little sense to the conscious mind and are often soon forgotten… but you can learn how to make good use of what your dreaming brain is trying to tell you.” At the time, I had followed her dream interpretation technique for a few months and it had been a very enlightening experience. It helped me to identify things that scared me and to recognize my own metaphors, most of them fished out of childhood experiences. In light of last night’s dream, though, I think I need to read that book again!

But let’s attempt to make sense of this: the fancy art people with the fancy nonsense talk. In real life, my experience of art people is not that at all. Okay, maybe there are a few snobs here and there, but for the most part art people are wonderful. They’re generous, welcoming, interesting and humble, so it seems like the dream wasn’t so much about the people. Maybe the dream is more about me. I might be worrying about getting lost as I try to explain the work I do. And maybe it’s also about my strong desire to stay connected to people.

$450.00

Repos/The rest, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Let’s start with ‘explaining what I do’. Today, artists have to write about their work in depth, and preparing an artist statement requires deep reflection on ‘why I do the work I do’. This has never been a problem for me. In fact I quite enjoy the process when I think and write about the meaning of my work. But I often wonder how far I want to push this reflection. Too often that process becomes so abstract that it only makes sense to the artist who writes it. When does it become ‘art speak’

In the blog called What The ??? is Art Speak?, there is mention of an essay titled “International Art English” by David Levine and Alix Rule where they attempt to scientifically prove that the internationalized art world relies on a unique language which “…has everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English.” One of their conclusions is that International Art English, (which is what they call art speak), is used by proponents to both identify each other and signal their insider status in the rarefied world of the elite.”

I know I really don’t want to be a part of that rarefied art world. I’m more than happy to push the reflection on my art; I know I need it for my own professional development. But I really just want to create art and be in the moment when I do it.

Chasseur de rêve/Dream Chasser, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

And ‘my desire to stay connected to people’? Although I enjoy being alone most of the time, those who know me well realize that I’m a people person. Not in the sense that I need people around me a lot, but in the sense that I love interacting with them and that I do appreciate and respect who they are. One of my mentors, Serge Murphy, once told me that as an artist evolves in his practice he becomes more and more isolated, simply because pushing the reflection on his own work creates a greater and greater gap between what he does and what people instinctively understand about art. I don’t really know how to reconcile those two motivations. I only know that, as an artist, I need to keep reflecting on my work. But I also know that I have no desire to feel separated from the society I live in, regardless of whether people understand what I do.

I’m afraid that dream did nothing to provide me with answers. I still have to learn to reconcile those two needs. But maybe that dream was just the beginning of my subconscious reflection. I can hardly wait for my sleeping brain to figure it out!