A few years back I participated in a 2 day outdoor art-fair in downtown Toronto. (One of the great things about Toronto is that it has a number of wonderful opportunities for artists to get their work out there.) The fair comprised of a few hundred tents set up in a west end park with every manner of art available. The park itself was riddled with hipsters drinking organic coffee, admiring each others skinny jeans and mustaches; occasionally taking the time to check out some art. To be fair, the fair attracts all sorts of people from all over the city; families taking a stroll, serious art lovers, local celebrities and the odd politician (my wife had the late Jack Layton come to her tent – as I said, it was a few years ago). The weather was perfect all weekend long and the mood was sunny.
Near the end of the first day, I decided to take a break from the tent itself and positioned myself across the aisle on a park bench. I was close enough to make myself helpful if needed but out of sight for people walking by. Sometimes an empty tent is more inviting than an occupied one at these type of things. The multiple art-fair strategies that people employ, can totally make your head spin. You get the Walmart greeter, the aloof artist, artist in action, the art-fair pro and the newbie amongst others. I myself fall into the smile and nod category. As I was enjoying the sun on my face, I noticed two men checking out my paintings; engaged in what seemed like a lively conversation. It slowly dawned on me that these men looked very familiar. To my utter surprise, I was looking at both of my former high school art teachers that I hadn’t laid eyes on in nearly two decades!
You never forget your high school art teacher(s). Every school seems to have an eccentric individual or individuals that are passionately conveying the virtues of creativity and expression. These guys were no exception. For most artists, high school is the place where you begin to develop your early attitudes towards art, later on in university they may try to indoctrinate you into their way of thinking and then after that you have to unlearn everything you’ve been told. In high school most Art development usually starts in the realm of photo realism. The teenage mind is obsessed with making something look exactly like what they think it’s supposed to look like. This is what constitutes what can be considered ‘good art’. A lot of adults still carry that preconception of art; which can eventually lead to “my kid could do that” comments when presented with anything that doesn’t fit this particular paradigm. An early love for Art is usually accompanied with an early appreciation for the great masters. There is no denying the genius of Leonardo or Michelangelo and as a kid these are the first few household artists’ names you become familiar with.
As a kid learning to draw, I was influenced by comics and the art books found around my parents’ house. I spent hours pouring over the the paintings of the Sistine Chapel or the portraits of John Singer Sargent. I was enraptured by their technique but the content and expression were lost on me. Up until high school, the only art history we were taught was the Group of Seven. At the start of high school Picasso and Van Gogh interested me but I still wanted to draw like Robert Bateman. Throughout high school, the two men who took turns teaching our art class showed us countless examples of what art could be and then in grade 11 it happened.
Mr. B. was teaching us mold-making and he brought in a piece that he had made; a giant roll of Lifesavers. I had never experienced anything like it. We were all blown away. He had made a clay version, then made a mold and then made various coloured versions using dyed resin. These were little familiar candies blown up to the size of dinner plates. This was Alice in Wonderland, this was Pop. In that moment, my paradigm shifted – Art could be pop culture, Dadist, expressionistic and most importantly fun. It was like entering a whole new world and the depth of my appreciation was multiplied incalculably.
Once I recognized who was in my tent I made a B-line to greet them. We had a warm reunion sharing our lives over the past years since we had last seen each other. They were on their way to dinner and had planned to check out the fair before hand. The fact they had happened upon my booth was a complete fluke. Mr. B. had retired from teaching years ago and Mr. W. was getting close. I told Mr. B. what an impression the Lifesavers had made on me and inquired if he still had them. He figured they were in a box somewhere in his apartment and said he was willing to part with them. We made arrangements for me to pick them up and true to his word they were tucked away in a box in the corner of his studio. I’ve seen them both since and am looking forward to Mr. W.’s retirement party.
The Lifesavers currently sit atop my bookshelf, reminding me of the day my whole world shifted.