I was an anxious, high-strung kid by nature. A workaholic. I had many extracurricular activities, but the only one that allowed me to relax was drawing. All the adults in my life said I should pursue whatever made me happy. So, at 17, I prepared my entrance portfolio to the bachelor of fine arts program at the University of Alberta.
At U of A I specialized in printmaking, which is not for the faint of heart. It’s kind of like learning how to draw using a pencil tied to the end of a garden hose. First, you create a plate that becomes a sort of stamp. The plate is then printed (or stamped) on paper, usually using large and heavy machinery. The print is the artwork, but artists spend most of their time and energy creating the plate. I fell in love with the process. I felt as if I had a bodily connection with my plate — as if it was an extension of my own body.
There were 12 students in my senior printmaking class whom I saw and spoke to nearly every day. We talked about everything from social justice to oppression to mental illness to mortality. We couldn’t avoid these topics because they were the themes of our work. My close friend Lauren Huot, ’14 BFA, made prints with the esthetic whimsy of children’s books, but with an underlying message about animal cruelty. Clever messages poured out of her, like a vegan Barbara Kruger.
In fine arts, your final exam is a portfolio of your semester’s work. We perfected our work until the last possible minute. During finals, the studio was a mess, equipment was in high demand and everyone was on edge. A few of us avoided it all by working from 5 p.m. until four in the morning. The Tim Hortons five blocks from campus was open late, and every four hours or so someone would make a run for coffee and fries — also known as the fine arts student’s standard diet. Steven Dixon, our studio technician, referred to us as the “night shift.” To this day, many of us remain night owls. You simply cannot beat the productivity of 2 a.m., when sleep deprivation tears down your apprehensions.
If I hit a wall creatively (or emotionally) during these late nights, I could expect my classmates to be ready to provide critique or comfort, depending on what I needed most. One night, in a moment of desperation, Lauren showed me how to print my work so that it looked darker and vibrant. We broke some rules but created some incredible art.
At the time, I had no idea how amazing those final weeks of my degree were. We were uninhibited and pushing out fantastic work, with the feedback and validation of talented peers.
Looking back, it’s as if we spent four years living inside oysters and came out as freshwater pearls — a little lumpy but iridescent. The exterior walls of the Fine Arts Building even have the texture of an oyster shell.