Peeking into the classrooms and gymnasium at Wells-Barkerville Elementary School this week, there’s an inspiring energy, as most surfaces are covered in art supplies, and almost everywhere you look, there is someone working on their art.
It’s four days into Island Mountain Arts (IMA)’s Toni Onley Artists’ Project (TOAP), and with 24 participants and two mentors, this year’s group is the largest one yet.
Professional and emerging artists from Ontario, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alberta and all over B.C., including Quesnel, Prince George, Dawson Creek, Vancouver Island, Vernon, Kelowna and Revelstoke, are in Wells from July 6 to 14, working in the IMA studios under the mentorship of Diana Thorneycroft of Winnipeg and Peter von Tiesenhausen of Demmitt, Alb.
IMA first offered the Toni Onley Artists’ Project for Professional and Emerging Artists in 2000, with distinguished Canadian artist Norman Yates.
The project is a nine-day intensive studio experience, with less structured time for set activities and more space for participants to develop their own work. This project gives artists the opportunity to interact with and receive mentorship from their peers, as well as one-on-one guidance from the senior mentors.
Artists set up in classrooms and outdoors at Wells-Barkerville Elementary School.
During the nine days, the artists work very self-directed, explained Julie Fowler, IMA’s artistic and executive director.
In the mornings, they have informal discussions with von Tiesenhausen and Thorneycroft about whatever they might be interested in, such as gallery experiences, the business of being an artist, how to deal with failure and how to get grants.
They have studio visits with the two mentors or can sign up to talk to them about something specific.
“If people are looking for direction a bit, maybe we can guide them a little bit,” said von Tiesenhausen.
“It’s so varied,” noted Thorneycroft.
Melanie Desjardines of Prince George is in Wells taking part in her third TOAP.
“It’s kind of like every five years, I get the itch,” she said. “I’ve known Julie for a lot of years, so I keep on top of what’s going on in Wells.”
Desjardines says the biggest thing she gets out of participating in the project is the time to dedicate to her own practice.
“This gives me that totally immersive nine days,” she said.
Desjardines also loves being around other artists for those nine days.
“It’s pretty awesome stuff,” she said. “I think the best part for the artists is the interaction. They’re drawn to the mentor if they share like interests, but I think it’s really awesome, just interacting with other artists, seeing what everybody is doing, the energy that’s created, the inspiration.”
Desjardines, Susan Jessop of Coquitlam and Mary Mottishaw of Dawson Creek (whose art name is mary mottishaw) are collaborating on a work where they each take a substrate and then each add to it. They will each take one piece home at the end of the project.
“I think the most important thing is we’re having really great conversations,” said Jessop.
“It gets you out of your comfort zone,” noted Mottishaw.
Jessop is participating in her first TOAP. She applied after an artist in her studio in Vancouver recommended the project.
“She’s been here the last two years and had the most amazing art-changing experience,” said Jessop, noting the project also appealed to her because she wanted to explore this part of B.C., as she has never been this far north.
Four days into the project, Jessop says she has gotten a lot out of it.
“It’s time to ponder and explore new things,” she said. “And having the support too – everyone is trying new things. It’s just really inspiring to see how everyone else works.”
She says she also appreciates the good networking opportunities.
“You can really have some good conversations and make connections,” she said.
Jessop works in paper collage, and coming here, she wanted to push herself to try doing bigger works.
“My work is quite small, and it’s quite contained and considered,” she said. “I wanted to make something bigger. I’m moving around, which is good, and I’m testing new ways of working so when I go back to my studio in Vancouver, I can try new ways of working.”
Jessop has really enjoyed spending time with the two mentors.
“Just to have a chat with someone in that kind of critical way, it’s another opportunity to think,” she said. “Because they’re at the height of their profession, we get some good insight into what we can do. That’s one of the main reasons I came, to get that input.”
Mottishaw is working on a project where she puts herself in the landscape “because what happens in the landscape is a big result of what we demand.”
“It’s mostly based on human interaction in the landscape and the choices we make,” she said. “I’m still formulating ideas; that’s one of the reasons I am here.”
Mottishaw participated in the TOAP in 2012 as well.
“I would say the experience of coming in 2012 gave me the confidence to make art more the way I want to make it, not the way I think it should be made,” she said. “I learned to be more experimental.”
Thorneycroft says her role as a mentor is to provide whatever the participating artists need, and because there’s such a range of experience in the group, that can mean many things.
“Some, I am giving guidance on how to do a picture plane, and some, it’s how to get a grant,” she said. “It’s like a one-room schoolhouse — but better.”
This is the first time Thorneycroft has been involved in the TOAP, and she wants to become “a repeat offender” like von Tiesenhausen, who is mentoring his third TOAP this year.
“It’s been amazing,” she said. “The quality of the participants is extraordinary. Actually, the quality of everything is extraordinary, the organization on Julie’s part, and my fellow mentor. I kind of feel like I’m floating.”
Von Tiesenhausen says he echoes that sentiment as well.
When asked why he keeps coming back, von Tiesenhausen says with a smile: “basically, Julie.”
“I have a great affinity for the area,” he added. “I come from a history of gold mining too, and this reminds me from the landscape and perspective of Dawson City, where I used to work. It’s a really creative and diverse, rich, cultural place with some really dedicated individuals, be they actors or the arts organizations, with the theatre and the chefs. For the size of this town, it’s unbelievable what’s going on here. It’s a magical place.”
The community will get a chance to see what the TOAP artists have been working on this Saturday, July 13 during an Open House at Wells-Barkerville Elementary School. The Open House starts at 7 p.m.