ARTISTS as teachers

Students learn to see things differently thanks to art educators.
By Jody Farrell and Sarah Alford
Pile of Steel

Greg Gourlay

Grande Prairie artist Greg Gourlay has spent the last six years of a varied education career teaching art at Beaverlodge Regional High School. While he’s humble about his own contributions, others say the path he cuts in exposing students to all facets of the arts is wide open.

He’s been known to delve into anything he feels might create excitement around self-expression. Once, he brought in an aromatherapist to help students explore the link between scent and creation. As an artist, he’s focusing these days on metal sculpture and design in his recently-acquired studio, a log homestead he moved from Huallen to his backyard.

Gourlay spent years touring remote Northern Alberta, including Fox Lake, Jean D’or Prairie, and Wood Buffalo Park, as the arts coordinator for the Northland District Board, helping new teachers design and carry out programs that these days, hardly exist.

He looks back fondly on the “heyday” of art education, when provincial funding in the eighties allowed for some innovative programs. Gourlay and (Grande Prairie Regional College fine arts instructor) Ken Housego once loaded up a twin engine Islander with bandsaw, wood, tools and paint for a community workshop in Chipewyan Lake.

One real coup for him involved bringing the late Ojibway artist Arthur Shilling to the Peace. A biography published following the First Nations painter’s death noted the trip to Northern Alberta as having been particularly important to him.

“My idea is to give kids the opportunity to make something with their hands,” Gourlay says of his role as teacher. “It’s sad when they don’t want to take it home because “Dad will laugh.” I guess just the process has been good though.” Teaching students to use their imagination, to think on a different level is important for him as well. “It really is one of the higher things in life,” Gourlay says of visual arts.
Store Clerk

Gordon Perret

Gordon Perret is famous in these parts for his clay sculptures depicting rural life, in all its glorious layers. His farmers and grain elevators, pickled gophers and country store clerk have made for incredibly vibrant and popular exhibits.

What many don’t know is Perret has taught art at Montrose Junior High School, in Grande Prairie, for 27 years. His students’ works are always a high point in the year end “All Schools, All Art” exhibitions at The Prairie Art Gallery. The mixed-media sculptures, featuring fake fur animals or papier mache oversized cereal bowls or backpacks, hint at the humour that has to come through in his example.

“I give them the concept of being original. I want to see something that is about the person.” Perret tries to encourage efforts at being genuine, and discourages what is less so. “If the math teacher looks for the same 25 answers to a problem, the arts teacher looks for 25 different ones,” he explains.

“It’s harder to get kids to take craftsmanship seriously,” Perret says of today’s culture. The immediacy of computer clip-art, while effective for research, sometimes replaces the desire to make one’s own mark, he comments. Still, the new technology makes for new tools, and his teaching now includes courses in video and digital art.

“It’s an important part of training your mind,” Perret says of teaching visual arts. “It leads to creating and understanding what is good art.”

Fay Yakemchuk

Gestation of ThoughtFrom Fay Yakemchuk’s installation Gestation of Thought Fay Yakemchuk’s courses, offered in Peace River through the Grande Prairie Regional College, have attracted a loyal following. She attributes the success of the program to her passionate students. Her students attribute their success to their creative, challenging instructor. Yakemchuk says that becoming a teacher was a natural step for her as she was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Lethbridge.

“Why Peace River? People always ask me that!” She laughs, “I wanted to go home to teach, I wanted to give people an opportunity I didn’t have, and honestly, I can’t leave the program, it would have to shut down. It’s the students, they stretch like rubber bands, they have heart, desire, they ask questions, and they challenge me. It’s everything you want as a teacher. Why leave?”

Yakemchuk urges her students to see the details, not only in their work, but also in their lives. In doing so, both their art and their lives change. “It’s not how you draw, it’s how you see things, when you can really see things, you can’t help but draw well.” She asks her students to see what gets missed in our busy lives. Yakemchuk’s influence extends beyond the classroom. She recalls that her husband found one of their cat’s whiskers on the floor and saved it for her.

The thing about art, says Yakemchuk, “is that there is no right or wrong answer. No one is the same. I tell my students that this is a free for all; it’s the one time you get to take off your hat and be yourself. And then,” she exclaims, “They never see things the same way again! They can never go back. My gosh! I could never go back. You mean I get to make art, use my brain, and my heart? This is what it’s all about!”

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