Each of several defined periods of my life was led by one or two talented art teachers, including my mom Frankie Robinson and her pal Peg Shepherd (1955 to 1957), Phil Thomas and John Dobereiner (1962 to 1965), Toni Booker (1967 to 1969) and Ursula Medley (2019 and 2020).
All told, that’s only 12 years of periodic instruction, but there was plenty of room for solo practice in between. And I’m still getting progressive criticism from my artist mom, who at 97 has a lot of experience to draw upon. Just last week she moved my most recent gifted work from her bedroom because she discerned a frightening face hidden in its design, which I never saw until she pointed it out. “I can’t have that looking at me every morning!” she explained.
My teachers were and are free spirits, but free spirits with an eye for creative rigour, and a shared enthusiasm for personal style and pushing beyond self-imposed limits. All were quick to laugh, had a creative work ethic and made me want to keep on trying to expand my esthetic.
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Only one had a well-hidden negative streak held in careful check. I saw it deployed against a very gifted teenager, who could sketch still-life objects almost photographically perfect. Our teacher, in an end-of-class critique, levelled his gaze at the resulting watercolour and said: “That is a perfect reproduction of the object. But it is not art. Your style might be useful for something like selling socks.”
Even though I was young when I observed the interaction, I remember it clearly. I hope none of my paintings are suitable for advertising socks.
I began making art out-of-doors, in the Seven Sisters Grove of ancient red cedars in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Mom and Peg stressed the elements of landscape painting to my very young self. To this day, I probably love painting en plein air the most. There’s something completely special about sketching and painting in nature. Studio sessions, while in their own way important, just don’t stimulate creativity the same way.
I know this realization has enhanced my appreciation for Canada’s great landscape artists, especially Emily Carr and Lawren Harris. And here again I owe Mom and Peg thanks, because I’m sure they spoke about Carr and Harris to me in my first art classes. Mom did so as Carr’s last nurse; Peg did so as Harris’s daughter.
When I look back on my early art training, I wonder why I dropped out of formal instruction in my late adolescence. Why did I stray from something that was so much fun and reinforcing of inherent skills?
Simply, I ran out of time.
Maybe I strayed into directing museums and art galleries with great collection strengths (e.g. Calgary’s Glenbow and Vancouver’s Bill Reid), and convinced myself that governance and management of such institutions was an art.
Actually it really helped to have an artistic bent but in reality money made the world go around. Art gallery governance is in its most basic sense the creative capture and creative re-allocation of cash.
However, I’d go so far as to say you can’t be a good gallery director without a refined artistic esthetic. Galleries are really institutional canvasses and without a culturally relevant, creative vibe, they die in the hands of boring directors.
I’m back in the studio every Saturday – Ursula Medley’s Lang Bay studio in my rural Sunshine Coast neighbourhood. She embodies all of the strengths of my earlier art teachers, and combines a love of our locality with an international spirit that encourages creative pilgrimages to Mexico!
Being back in a studio creates a kind of timeless joy for me. I’m reconnecting with the feelings I had in the Seven Sisters Grove 65 years ago. It’s simply fun to make art with people who care and are creative.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.