COLUMN | Creating a “community of practice” inspires

Art Matters by columnist Sarah Zimmerman

By Sarah Zimmerman

Creating art can be an incredibly isolating and sometimes, lonely, experience. Long hours in the studio, often by yourself. Many days spent seeking inspiration, working and reworking paintings and projects. Since my first show in 2013, I’ve turned to many local artists whom I respect and admire for advice, insight, moral support and much-needed studio time together.

Over the years, Terrace-based artists such as Marie-Christine Claveau, Amanda Hartman, Jaimie Davis, Amanda Hugon, Laura MacGregor, Andy Whittington, Tara Irwin and Catherine Bégin have inspired and supported me in really tangible ways.

Either by pursuing group shows together, discussing how to price paintings, offering support and help with installations, attending one another’s shows, discussing techniques and spending time together painting. I know I am a better and more confident artist because of those connections. It’s become an informal community of practice and one for which I am grateful.

“We support each other, we collaborate, we share ideas,” says Jaimie Davis. “It’s like, we all have this understanding that we are not in competition with each other because when we help each other out, we both rise.”

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Sometimes it’s just knowing that someone else understands your experience – or maybe they just have that hard-to-find paint colour you need to finish a piece.

“It’s really nice when you find your people. The ones that understand your reality,” says Marie-Christine Claveau. “The ones with similar, but most importantly, different experience that you can trust. And living in the beautiful place that we do, the ones with the supplies and tools on hand.”

About two years ago, I began to observe the coming together of a group of artists from across northern BC who formalized their own community of practice and have even given it a name: The Fantastic Five. Consisting of Prince George-based block print artist, Mo Hamilton, Michelle Gazely from Quick, Sarah Northcott from Smithers and two Prince Rupert based painters: Suzo Hickey and Lynn Cociani. All with distinctive styles, all located in rural areas and all connected by their commitment to their craft.

The five met organically after Mo Hamilton had a show at the Smithers Art Gallery and met Michelle Gazely at a dinner party with folks in the local arts community. Lynn and Suzo had shown previously in Smithers and had also met Michelle and Sarah. A common thread of discussion amongst the five artists was the idea of attending a guided artist residency where artists pay a fee to attend and receive critiques, learn new techniques and immerse themselves in a studio experience under the guidance of an established artist. The Fantastic Five decided they could replicate this type of immersive experience by themselves.

A year and a half ago, the group spent a week in Wells, B.C. on their own self-directed arts residency. No mentors, resident artists or instructors, just five artists who booked the space together with the view to spend long days in the studio and help one another with the business of art. And that’s just what they did. They critiqued one another’s work and developed a bond that appears to be lasting.

“It was pretty magical,” recalls Mo Hamilton. “I feel like we were all really ready for something like this…it was filling this need that we all had to have a community of artists.”

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It was a transformative experience for the group and formed the foundation of a collective of artists committed to supporting one another from afar and coming together at least once a year to recreate that intensive studio experience.

“The benefit that’s made the biggest difference in my life is the feeling of connection I get from these four wonderful people,” said Lynn Cociani. “It’s easy to feel lonely as you work by yourself in the studio every day, so this connection has really enriched my life.”

And though they are separated by huge geographic distances, the five stay in contact using a group messenger chat, video conferencing and through file-sharing over social media and email.

“In the world of internet connection, it is easy for us to share ideas and information at the drop of a hat,” says Suzo Hickey. “Nothing beats face to face interaction, but distance makes that hard. We can get a lot done, discussed and shared just using our phones.”

Want a chance to check out some of their art? Don’t miss Suzo Hickey’s show at the Terrace Art Gallery this July. The Fantastic Five have a group show coming up in Wells this year, too.

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