What triggers the desire to be an artist? I knew I wanted to be an artist from the time I was small enough to walk under the counter-height entry gate to the secretary's office in Vancouver Art Gallery. Mary, the secretary, was a friend of the family and visiting her at VAG was an expedition to a magical world of enormous gilt-framed paintings, shining floors that seemed to go on for miles and an exciting bronze-figured fountain. VAG was then a small institution with a basic staff of three- the Curator, Mary, and Tommy the caretaker. Tommy disliked small children who slid on- and marked- the polished floors but my blonde curls helped win his approval and I even was allowed close to the enticing fountain.
After some experiences with plasticine in Grade One, there was little art instruction in elementary school. Nothing as messy as paint ever entered the classrooms. We made many paper boxes with designs cut out of squared construction paper and pencil crayons were an accepted medium. The illicit eating of library paste was as wild as it got. Somehow, I still became the "class artist".
Because of Mary, my Mom knew about free Saturday Morning Art Classes at VAG. My school hadn't been aware of the classes but a note from Mom produced the required recommendation. My Saturdays turned into special days. VAG was closed Saturday mornings and classes were held in the galleries, right under the paintings. We lay on canvas on the floor with drawing boards while another strip of hung canvas kept our feet from scuffing the walls. Local artists, including Peter Aspell, taught the classes which began with a talk to inspire a theme and ended with a critique. I've never looked at "Rain" the same after it was one Saturday's theme. The artists tended to be "hands on" but a dapper art-critic teacher would remain standing and carefully point his polished shoe at the finished painting he was discussing. I don't think we ever took any artwork home. Sometimes students' work was displayed. My "Storm at Sea" was shown in a department store window- my first public success! Another painting of a peaceful world went to a UNICEF display. By rotation, we had the opportunity to work in a basement studio with a well-known sculptor, Beatrice Lennie. I remember doing a frieze about fire. Sometimes we talked about the paintings on the walls. There were several by Emily Carr, even then BC's most famous woman artist. Paintings by the Group of Seven hung as well as many very traditional works. It was an art exposure I would not have had otherwise.
After three years, most students were beyond the age limit, but a smaller number of us were invited back as Class 4A. We formed a tight group although we were from all over the city and never saw each other except for Saturdays. Our instructor, Orville Fisher, a well-known artist, taught us to look around with artist's eyes. At that year-end party, I received a scholarship to Saturday art classes for the following year at Vancouver School of Art. I also started Junior High School - with a real art teacher in a real art room where even "messy" paint was allowed. My art education took a leap forward- but it had all started with stepping under that counter in the old Vancouver Art Gallery.
Further note- Alas, my blonde curls turned to straighter brunette. Interestingly, the bronze fountain was removed after a wealthy patron tumbled into it as he stepped backward from painting inspection. Vancouver Art Gallery is now in a different building and Saturday Morning Classes have been replaced by once a month Family Sundays.