Build Me Up, Mentor

The pressure to produce constantly, and quickly, is a real one for artists who want to make a living from their work. Sometimes this means that the slower processes of experimenting and learning get pushed off the calendar. Lineages and Linkages, the current exhibition at Arts Underground, is the result of 10-month-long learning relationships between master artists and mentees (protégés).

“It takes time to pass knowledge between people, and time for new ideas to develop and flourish,” says Sandra Grace Storey, the curator who developed the program.

“Part of our job as artists is to commit to the big picture, the long timeframe.”

Lineages and Linkages was created to help artists do just that. It involved five mentors and six mentees (one mentor worked with two artists). Many arts media are involved: ceramics, metal work, stone and wood carving, painting and collage all appear in the show.

At the exhibition opening, each pair of artists spoke briefly. The common themes: Excitement. Gratefulness for the chance to build a creative relationship so deliberately. Learning parts of the art-making process that were new to them.

Ken [Anderson] took us out looking for birch trees to carve, and taught us how to select the right wood, and we had a lot of fun,” Naomi Crey said of her mentor, a Teslin Tlingit carver. Crey’s exhibited work is Feathered Moon Woman, a drum with a painted surface.

Brian Francis, who also worked with Anderson and carved an elegant circular wall work called Raven’s Journey, was more shy but grinned his agreement.

Many felt like they weren’t in mentor-mentee relationship, but in an exchange of ideas and passions.

Lynne Sofiak brushed off the “Master Artist” label when she spoke at the mic. “It was a privilege to be able to share someone else’s passion for the material that I have a passion for,” she explained.

Linda Thorseth, who worked with Sofiak, said the project increased her willingness to dive into a process.

“I never knew what I wanted to do with images in the bowls, and Lynne would say, ‘Would you just paint it!’ It was like being pushed through of fears of becoming an artist.”

Sofiak had recently taken a course in crystallizing glazes, Storey tells me the next day, and wanted to work with that technique. She ended up making ceramics shaped to hold the crystals – forms more classic than her typical work.

“And then it was incredible to see Linda, who always struggled with choosing between painting and ceramics, find this way of working that combines the two.”

Storey, who worked at Arts Underground when the project began and is now building up her own practice as a sculptor, credits Marlene Collins and Charlene Alexander with the hard work of securing funding for the process.

Funding was important because part of the Lineages and Linkages setup was to provide some budget for the artists to experiment with new materials and, in some cases, new equipment.

Bianca Martin worked with stone carver James C. Kirby. Martin has been building her sculpture skills one medium at a time – her training includes four years with the Sun Dog Carving program, a ceramics course with Storey, and more.

“This is the first time Bianca has ever carved stone,” Storey comments. “She worked really hard. And James has a great studio and great tools and was very generous with his studio and his time.”

Martin used some of her budget to buy some carving tools, so she can continue sculpting stone.

Sheila Alexandrovich, who works with willow and felting, spoke warmly about mentoring Katherine Alexander, who brought her skills in metalwork and blacksmithing to the relationship.

Their creative exchange was “like a random weave,” Alexandrovich said.

“We ate suppers and drank wine, that sort of thing. Katherine had a yard full of wire … so the weaving became out of wire instead of willow. Things like that kept happening.”

Painting is Nicole Bauberger’s passion, and she mentored Sarah McCullough at first in the same place, side by side.

“What I learned was that sitting beside someone and painting is such an amazing way to teach, because then questions arise from the student,” she noted.

The two chose the theme of home. The topic became poignant when McCullough had to move back to Ontario for family reasons. They continued the conversation by sending small paintings, sketches and collages to each other by mail.

Storey’s own art career inspired the mentoring setup.

In the late 1980s, at art school in Vancouver, she was chosen as a mentee to create work for Artropolis, a large-scale exhibition.

“It introduced me to the ‘this is how you get from here to there’ with so many things, from preparing photographs for the catalogue to learning how to move an installation,” she recalls.

“Here, what we wanted was an exchange between those who have a high benchmark of finishing and exhibiting work, and those who want to raise their own benchmark.” The experiment worked out beautifully.

Lineages and Linkages is on display at Arts Underground until March 8.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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