Edna McPhail : Inspiring Spirit

By Jody FarrellEdna McPhail

Edna McPhail greets you at the door with an energy that defies her 82 years. She’s got a handshake and a look that somehow puts you both at ease and attention. This is one firecracker of a woman.

“Never downsize,” she advises as she moves swiftly through her brightly lit condo unit in the heart of Dawson Creek. “I’ve had to get rid of so much, and now I can’t find a thing.” She easily removes a heavy, framed watercolour from above her bed for better viewing, then is off to dig out little mementoes of her abundant career of giving to the arts.

The few scrapbooks and photo albums she still has document over half a century of service to the community. She pours over them wistfully, sometimes stopping to laugh at a memory, or share it with Jim, who sits quietly nearby reading the newspaper. Asked what it’s been like to live all these years with an artist, her husband pauses, and, with a smile that says more than he’ll betray, simply replies, “Interesting.”

McPhail came to Dawson Creek in 1950 as a teacher. Born in Medicine Hat in 1923 and raised in British Columbia, she wanted to experience the province’s more northern reaches. By 1970, she and Jim had already given enough of themselves to be awarded Dawson Creek’s Citizens of the Year, and still, nearly 35 years later, she’s the person most will credit with continuing to shape and support the visual arts in this South Peace city.

Winters EdgeWhile McPhail left full-time teaching to raise her family shortly after her marriage to Jim, she never stopped teaching art to children and adults, and still runs the Wednesday seniors art program at The Dawson Creek Art Gallery. These experiences would keep any single human busy, let alone a mother of four, and yet, Edna has done much more than teach. She’s been part of the development of many civic projects, including a library, and in 1985 was awarded a lifetime membership to the local curling club for her work at local and district levels. Other awards have recognized her outstanding contribution to cultural heritage. Still, it’s the visual arts she feels most passionate about.

One of her proudest achievements came while serving a second term as president of the South Peace Art Society in 1982. The Society ran a public art gallery in a space it shared with the area museum. Cramped quarters and a desire for something grander spawned an idea to save one of the remaining Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevators. “I was standing there (near the grain elevators), thinking about what we could do, and it just came to me,” she says today. It all happened fairly quickly, as the committee wishing to save and move the elevator and its annex from its original location to its current site five blocks east, learned that the sale was conditional upon their moving the buildings in 40 days. The elevator was renovated and opened as The Dawson Creek Art Gallery, and now, 20 years later, attracts as many history buffs as arts enthusiasts throughout the year.

“It was really interesting to watch,” McPhail says of the hours-long relocation of the elevator. “Here it was, this big building slowly moving down the street, and hardly a person batting an eye. The pigeons came right along with it, never moving off.”

Watercolours from a series McPhail painted following a visit to the Galapagos Islands.We laugh about how blasé we tend to be about the oddest sights: Entire living accommodations are rolling down the Alaska Highway bound for some unknown destination we presume has to do with the oilpatch. “Who really knows what they’re doing out there?” Edna titters mischievously. That’s the true artist’s imagination at work; the one that inspires awe and a sense of the wildest possibilities.

McPhail’s own art – several watercolours and acrylics hang alongside those of such well-known friends and relatives as Robert Guest and Allison Forbes – is primarily landscape and still life. Her mixed media and collage works are housed somewhere else. McPhail’s compositions are playful, and her style loose and happy. The titles reflect not only a keen eye for everyday miracles, but a sly sense of humour: She has named a watercolour of ravens feasting beneath a restaurant garbage bin Breakfast at Smitty’s.

It’s the desire to share this sense of wonder that keeps McPhail teaching. “I try to teach them to look at things their own way. Nothing should be a forgone conclusion.” Then, looking up from her fat, weighty scrapbook, with not a whiff of pretense, McPhail adds, “I have also always thought you should leave something to show you were here.”


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Students learn to see things differently thanks to art educators. By Jody Farrell and Sarah Alford http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Pile of Steel" align="right" />

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. http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Store Clerk" align="left" />

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

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Gestation of Thought" align="right" /> From 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!"
12 years ago

Students learn to see things differently thanks to art educators. By Jody Farrell and Sarah Alford http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Pile of Steel" align="right" />

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. http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Store Clerk" align="left" />

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

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Gestation of Thought" align="right" /> From 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!"
12 years ago

Students learn to see things differently thanks to art educators. By Jody Farrell and Sarah Alford http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Pile of Steel" align="right" />

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. http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Store Clerk" align="left" />

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

http://www.artofthepeace.ca/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/pile-of-steel.jpg" alt="Gestation of Thought" align="right" /> From 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!"
12 years ago