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Episode 1: Picking up the (virtual) paintbrush

St. Albert high school students are not only adapting to challenges this year, but creating works of art through painting, drawing and graphic design during the pandemic

Welcome to the first episode of the St. Albert Signal, a weekly community podcast about the St. Albert area. Listen to the first episode below:

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to shut down in-person learning last March, it interrupted the school year for students across the province. Lots of these classes were able to transition to an online setting, but art classes struggled to do so – students no longer had access to the material their school offered, and trying to teach such an expressive subject online proved to be difficult.

This is where St. Albert teachers Teresa Wallsten and Colleen Hewitt come into the fray. The pair, who teach art at St. Albert Catholic High and Paul Kane High, respectively, came together to bring art to life through computer screens. They helped to launch the with.draw.all program, which encouraged students to express their feelings of isolation through artistic expression. Every month, a number of pieces were selected to be featured on the St. Albert TODAY website.

“At the beginning of this mess in March, we decided that we would collaborate as art teachers,” said Hewitt. “We wanted to have a way to show the world, to show St. Albert, what kids were doing and how amazing their work is despite this.”

It was an astounding success as students became enthralled in the program and used it as an outlet to both share their work with the community as well as express their feelings. You might expect most of their work to be pandemic-focused, but that wasn’t the case.

“They weren’t directed towards what's happening in the pandemic,” said Wallsten. “The kids were still able to elaborate how they were feeling and how they were doing so it really opened up a gateway for us to talk to them.”

With.draw.all ran from March to the end of the school year in June. After a summer of contemplation, the teachers decided to launch a second program for the 2020-21 school year with the fitting title of Re/LAUNCH/ing. So far, the results are just as encouraging.

As the school year is nearing its end once again, there isn’t a set plan in place to continue the program next year. But Hewitt and Wallsten said they aren’t opposed to continuing it after this pandemic is over.

“Our plan is to do it until the end of the school year in June,” said Hewitt, “Then we will see about next year ... you can’t decide about tomorrow.”

The Gazette spoke with four high school students from Bellerose Composite High, Paul Kane High and St. Albert Catholic High to learn more about the inspiration behind their work and why art is important to them. Listen to the St. Albert Signal's first episode to hear more.

Dancing with the Beatles 

For RJ Smith, Grade 12 student at St. Albert Catholic, listening to music always brings a sense of joy. When she listens to the Beatles in particular, the melodies and harmonies pull her into the music.

Her acrylic piece, titled 'Dancing with the Beatles,' tries to capture that feeling. It features John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr welcoming the viewer to dance with them inside an AirPod. Smith said the Beatles song 'Come Together' has been a particular favourite of hers during the pandemic.

"I love music so much – music is really important to me. When I'm studying, any time I'm doing art, and even sometimes in class, I just need to listen to music. It just calms me down, especially during the pandemic when you're home so much," Smith said. 

Creating art is a way for Smith to put how she feels onto a canvas, she said, no holds barred. 

"You can make mistakes, but you can always turn them into something even more beautiful on the canvas. It's just my favourite part of the day. It's so relaxing, and it just makes me so happy to be able to create something that I like."

Smith said she hopes the piece encourages others to open themselves up to music and art in general to explore their creative side. 

"Art has no limits, there's so many different things that you can do. Even if you don't like drawing, there's always sculpting, or making music, or dance. Just try everything because I'm sure that you'll find something that you love and can connect with."

Just Try It 

Ty McEwan, Grade 12 student at Paul Kane, wanted to focus his creativity to address one of the newer dangers faced by people his age – vaping. According to a Statistics Canada report released March 17, about one in seven young Canadians reported vaping on a regular basis last year.

“(Vaping) was beginning to get normalized around me,” McEwan said. “I found inspiration in my struggle with realizing that, yes, your friends are doing it. But that doesn't make it OK.”

The watercolour painting features a person at its centre, enveloped by the arms of what appears to be a motherly figure made of green smoke behind him. The person is crying as the smoke cascades from his ears, his nose and mouth. 

Written in the background are phrases McEwan has heard before about vaping: ‘If you’re so stressed just try it you’ll calm right down’ and ‘I’m not addicted but I need a hit so bad.’    

“I wanted to kind of shed light on how peer pressure isn't really what they build it up to be,” he said. “With the green smokey figure in the background, I wanted it to look more motherly and caring because oftentimes, peer pressure does come from very unassuming places.” 

For McEwan, he said art has been a way for him to express himself and deal with difficult emotions. Peer pressure can grab hold of you like wispy, billowing smoke, but it doesn’t mean those feelings will stay forever. 

“Art has always been a very healing process for me, and for a lot of other people. It's basically your alone time where you get to just take whatever you've been feeling and express it.”

A Head Full of Fruit

Women and young girls can feel tremendous pressure to wear makeup to feel beautiful – from celebrity endorsements to social media advertisements, the emphasis on makeup is hard to ignore. 

Grade 11 Bellerose student Pritam Flora chooses to not wear makeup, and decided she wanted to create a collage as a reminder that makeup does not define someone’s beauty. Her finished piece, titled ‘A Head Full of Fruit,’ plays with contrast, colour and design to create an entirely new image of a model.

“I feel like everyone is beautiful without makeup, you don’t have to wear makeup. If you feel good in it, then you should,” Flora said. “Makeup is almost just like art, you can do it for fun or you can do it for yourself.” 

She found a black and white image of a woman wearing makeup online, and felt like the look was missing something. She printed the picture out, then cut out colourful pictures of a pineapple and a slice of lemon printed in a newspaper. 

Forget perfectly winged eyeliner or shiny cheekbones, what about a lemon earring? Or a pineapple hat to finish off the look?  

“I liked that I could decide where I wanted to put the pineapple, or the lemon on the ear. I could really decide what I wanted to do with it,” she said. 

When asked what art means to her, Flora said creating pieces helps her to relax and explore her own creativity. 

“It allows me to experiment with different things, different colours and make something that I’ve never made before.” 

Tattoo Rose 

During a time when many people feel isolated, Danae Tilander, Grade 11 student at Bellerose, wanted to express the complexities of human connection.

“Art is interpreted differently by everyone but I personally see it as a sign of the spiritual connection between two souls,” said Tilander, who is an aspiring tattoo artist. 

Her geometric and nature-inspired design features a black and white rose at the centre, with two different triangles drawn on top. The triangles fill overlapping rose petals with a light pink shade, which create a deeper tone in areas where the two triangles overlap.

“The different colours within the triangle represents sort of like your aura or your spiritual presence. And when it overlaps with someone else's, it creates a connection, which is symbolized by a deeper colour.”

Like many, the pandemic brought feelings of isolation as people stayed inside to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said. Channeling those feelings through her art helped her express her appreciation for the people in her life.

“A lot of our connections disappeared during this pandemic because we weren't allowed to go out and see people. I think a lot of people take for granted the fact that they're able to talk to someone every single day, and when that’s taken away, no one knows what to do," she said. "You can't take your connections with other people for granted."