The Art Years
Art has been a constant in my life. At a young age I learned to communicate through pictures and drawings. A visual vocabulary. My mum tells of when I learned my Granny had passed away I got very quite and went into my room to draw a picture of her in her Kelly green travelling suit. Art is my way to process the world, my feelings, my thoughts, my struggles.
I learned to appreciate art from my Dad. He is an accomplished watercolourist, as was his mother (my Granny) before him, and photographer in his own right. He taught me to see the world in shapes and composition, to chase the light (pretty time in our family means that moment at dusk at the cabin when the setting sun lights up the far side of the bay, casting a holy glow on the boathouse).
From my mum I learned to appreciate craft and handmade items. She always cooked from scratch. Sunday mornings featured wholewheat pancakes, hot coffee for the adults and round-robin games of backgammon. (The trick to the perfect pancake is to beat the egg whites until frothy and carefully fold them into the batter just before spooning the batter into a hot pan.) We frequented local craft fairs and farmer’s markets. I learned to love the fingerprint on the side of my hand thrown mug by listening to her talk with the artists about their wears. I listened to them speak humbly and passionately about the new glazing technique they had just discovered. I learned that there can be more to simple, everyday items than a single function. A mug can be an item of beauty in your home, a ritual way to begin a day, a moment of self care, a connection to humanity, something made by hands not robots.
In high school I only took one semester of art. I was quickly bored with the curriculum and available materials. I didn’t want to do the exercises – like enlarge picture from a magazine using a grid, or writing a noun and decorate it with the adjective – like FIRE with flames around it, using only pencil crayons and poster paints. None of this interested me or inspired me. None of this felt of value. None of this felt worth doing. It felt like copying other’s work. My parents recognized this and enrolled me in extracurricular art classes. These classes change my life.
I took everything from from life sketching in charcoal to acrylic painting, weaving to wheel thrown pottery (which, by the way, is not easy! I have a few bowls to show for my months spent at the wheel. Most of my work ended splattered against the studio wall). I learned to use my sketchbook as a working tool, not finished works of art to be submitted for judgement and grading, but a place to collect ideas, a place safe to experiment. I learned to deconstruct a subject or topic, to examine the parts, and the whole. I learned to plan a painting, to conceptualize, to question, to layer meaning and story. I learned to push myself and listens openly to constructive criticism. I learned to draw people and to sketch quickly – to capture the line, the composition, the feeling, the movement of a fleeting moment.
My need to create art and my passion for the natural world have always run parallel in my life. It was during this time I started volunteering at the Vancouver Aquarium. I remember being so excited to don that navy shirt with VOLUNTEER stamped body across the back. I got giddy every time I walked through the “staff only” doors to the behind the scenes world of the aquarium. Visitors see fish and other animals displayed much like art on a gallery wall. Tiny vignettes of ocean life.
Behind those doors though, oh my, the working mechanics it takes to keep those animals alive reveal themselves. Pipes run along the ceilings and walls, carrying ocean water from the inlet to the exhibits and back again. Tanks fill the corridors, leaving just enough room for two staff members to squeeze pass. The air smells damp and reminiscent of the beach. Salt crystallizes on everything.
I volunteered my time to nearly every program available. From kid’s birthday parties to preparing fish for the sea lion. From educating visitors on the number of hairs per square inch of a sea otter’s pelt (more than on your whole body, if you must know) to caring for orphaned harbour sea pups. I learned to share my passion with others. I learned to connect with people. I met one of my best friends while I was there.
I thought I would get a job at the aquarium, in the education department. What I didn’t realize is that they were hiring people with an education degree, not a background in biology. I never did get hired. But it did help build my resume and skill set and make connections that lead to some amazing opportunities.