The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

 DSC0884-1Workshop gives Aboriginal youth more than canvasses

To provide kids with resources to explore their artistic abilities, the Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth is offering Aboriginal teenagers a useful skill with its latest endeavor: a lesson in canvas stretching.

 Designed to encourage youth artists on a budget and allow them to sell their work, the Canvas Building Workshop Program teaches its students to build quality canvasses from found materials. In addition, it allows its pupils to channel their skills and consider painting as something greater than a leisurely pursuit.

"I think it provides them the opportunity to see art as more than just a hobby," says Rachel Paris, program manager. "If they can learn to the next level, to actually make a career out of it instead of it just being something they do in their spare time, I think that it's contributing to the culture of Calgary and economic development. We try to encourage them to become part of society by becoming a legitimate artist."

The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth — known as USAY — asked working artist Brian (Bunny) Batista, 33, to lead the workshop from his downtown studio. Former students of the program such as Katie Dick, 20, are quick to credit him with sparking their interest.

99Brian (Bunny) Batista shreds linen in preparation for canvas stretching.

Photo by Hannah Kost.
"He was pretty amazing," says Dick. "Seeing this studio and being around him, it made me want to be an artist again."

"He helped give me that motivation because he's positive. He's patient and he's funny. He lives his life the way he wants to live his life. It's inspiring."

Batista's studio is full of his work, intricate oil paintings washed in gold and silver; the building is hushed, the wood floor scuffed and colour-stained. The quiet of the space is of great contrast to Batista himself, who is lively, engaging and quick.

"The really cool thing about the program," Batista says, "is that they come in the studio, they see a working artist, they get fed. I show them how to buy and repair damaged goods, and I show them how to build professional-level canvasses out of raw materials. And when they walk out of here, they get to keep them. Like, 10 canvasses each."

Batista says another worthwhile component of the class is simply exposure to a successful artist.

"I think it provides them the opportunity to see art as more than just a hobby," says Rachel Paris, program manager. "If they can learn to the next level, to actually make a career out of it instead of it just being something they do in their spare time, I think that it's contributing to the culture of Calgary and economic development. We try to encourage them to become part of society by becoming a legitimate artist."

"The whole time they're not just building, they're learning how to succeed at art," Batista says. "I've found over the last five or six years that Aboriginals – and this is with a very select audience – they're extremely creative and need a venue for it. They need an outlet. So the Urban Society of Aboriginal Youth is trying to give them that."

Batista has touched on something echoed by program manager Paris: the importance and influence of art in the Aboriginal community.

"Art has been something that's recognized as an essential component to a lot of the Aboriginal cultures in Canada," says Paris. "The youth really seem to learn through art, and they all have an interest in it, a lot of them do. If you apply a component that has an art aspect to it when they're learning, they seem to be a lot more interested."

The workshop, which is held monthly for about 5 students at a time, is intended to provide artists with the means to create, but is not a painting class — what the students choose to do with the canvasses is entirely up to them.

But according to former student Dick, USAY's workshop has given its young artists something beyond the canvasses: support.

"It made me feel that people cared about us, and they wanted to get us involved," says Dick. "The whole session was great. I love the people there."

"I am beyond thankful for this experience. I don't ever want to buy canvasses again, I want to make my own. It made me want to be an artist. That's what I'm meant to be. It's who I am."

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