”In August, I found out one of the accepted prints was mine! Without hesitating, my family said, “You absolutely must go to the Grand Opening in New York on November 16. So, I went.”
For the past 35 years, thousands of artists, teachers, and adult art students have attended the Metchosin International Summer School of Art [MISSA] located on the Pearson College campus and left with memories and friendships to cherish for a lifetime. MaryLou Wakefield, a local Victoria artist, came away with a life-altering experience last summer. It changed her perspective on what she could achieve as an artist— with courage, curiosity and the willingness to take a risk. Here is her story.
Q: Have you always been an artist, MaryLou?
A: That’s a great question. I suppose I’ve always had an urge to express myself creatively. I was born and raised in North Vancouver into a family who loved the outdoors. Immersed in nature from a very young age, I learned to appreciate it deeply. Nature continues to be a big influence on my work. There is a quote I love by a Japanese American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi: “We are a landscape of all we have seen.” When I think of that quote, I think of all the landscapes I’ve seen in my lifetime and how they have imprinted on me; perhaps, even without me being aware of it. I conjure up a place in my mind and recall the emotion that’s attached to it. That informs the way I approach my work. Over the past 30 years, I’ve managed to fit in different forms of art while working as an independent communications consultant and raising my family. Then, in the 80s, I started to study and practice calligraphy seriously. As I got better at it, I began to love the freedom of the calligraphic gestural movements.
Q: Is there a message you’re trying to convey in your art?
A: No message. For me, it’s about expressing ideas visually. One of those ideas is about our physical and emotional connections—to places, to stories and to memories. I’m at a place in my life now where I have more time to pay attention to those ideas. Having time to explore what I have to say feels like a complete luxury; and it’s something I’m thankful for. I work mainly as an abstract painter and printmaker. Last year, I made my own brushes from my botanical collection of grass, moss, seedpods, and twigs. With them, I created one of-a kind marks with ink, some of which I made myself.
Q: Was 2019 your first MISSA experience?
A: No, I’ve been twice before. For a long time, I thought MISSA was beyond my ability, a place where ‘real’ artists went. For me, it was always in the distance. Then, about 5 years ago, I decided to go. Of course, once you go, you’re hooked! You want to go back again and again.
Q: Did you go for printmaking each time?
A: I’ve taken painting and abstract painting in the past. In 2019, I chose printmaking for two reasons. I enjoy the process and all the little decisions along the way. You never know what it’s going to look like until the end, when it comes off the press. The reveal is very exciting. Secondly, I’d read that Dan Welden was the instructor and I love his work. The majority of students that summer wereart educators who knew Dan’s work and had come from away specifically to study with him and learn his technique. I was in great company. Dan’s reputation as a Master Printmaker is well known.
Q: Take us through what your experience in Dan Welden‘s printmaking class was like?
A: Dan gave a lot of himself over those five days, not just his technical knowledge and experience. He gave us reasons to be inspired and do good work. I made the decision weeks before the course started to learn all that I could; so, I arrived early and stayed late. Dan would start each day by asking us to form a circle. He’d put on an aria from one of his favourite operas or a classical piece that we’d listen to with our eyes closed. Then, he’d ask us to comment and share our experiences. He read quotes and shared stories about his experiences with other artists. He shared what inspired him and invited us to find our own inspiration. At other gatherings throughout the week, we discussed and asked questions about the technical aspects of solar printing and watched him demonstrate the fine art of printmaking. Dan was very engaging and set high standards. It was a privilege to be there. My process every morning was to tell myself, “Arrive fully in this space.” It’s my way to focus my attention, be open and curious. I felt completely at home in the floating studio on the wharf with the big open space, the ocean, and the light. I settled right in.
Q: I understand he innovated a printmaking technique, using light-sensitive plates?
A: Yes, the solar plate method Dan developed in 1972 uses only sunlight (or UV light) and tap water to harden and etch light-sensitized, steel-backed polymer plates. There are no acids or hazardous chemicals with his technique.
Q: Then what happened?
A: On about Day 2, he let us know about an international printmaking exhibition he was organizing that November in New York. He said, “I’d like each one of you to seriously consider applying to the exhibition.” He told us he had extended the deadline for entries for one more week just to accommodate our class. He repeated this several more times over the next two days. He said he had nothing to do with selecting the work; a jury of professional artists would do that. At first, I didn’t think this exhibition had anything to do with me, so I just carried on with my work, and stayed in my zone. Every once in a while, Dan would stop by my table and quietly say: “I like what you’ve done there. How did you get those colours?” or “I think you’ve got a good eye for this.” He made me feel confident in my creative choices and his subtle encouragement was just enough to make me reconsider. After MISSA, I went home and thought more about the exhibition. Should I submit? I decided to do more work on three pieces, adding more colour and lines. Eventually, I pushed ‘Send’ on the online application form and shipped off the three prints. I found out later that three others in my class had submitted work, too. Out of 4 submissions, 3 were accepted. In August, I found out one of the accepted prints was mine! Without hesitating, my family said, “You absolutely must go to the Grand Opening in New York on November 16.” So, I went.
Q: What was the Southampton Art Centre like?
A: From the website, the centre looks small and quaint with an unassuming entrance. Inside, it’s a different story. It’s four large, well-lit, elegant galleries with high ceilings that go forever. The walls in the first 2 galleries were covered with prints from artists from 11 countries. Of the 700+ works submitted, about 130 were on display in this immense space. The calibre of work was impressive. Some were very large with multiple images and techniques. I felt slightly overwhelmed that my piece was included with all these other works.Meeting artists from all over the world was the most fantastic part. People would ask: “Do you have a piece in the exhibition? Let’s go and look at it!” After that happened a few times, I began to feel that I belonged. The third room was the Masters’ showcase. Dan’s work was there along with other big names like Eric Fischl and Kurt Vonnegut. There was a lot of buzz in the room, filled with the media, photographers and the Long Island and New York art communities who’d come out to support Dan’s event.
Q: More than enough excitement for one night, right?
A: Well, yes—or so I thought! However, towards the end of the evening, the four jurors gathered in the fourth gallery where silent auction prints were on display. They talked about what it was like to adjudicate an international show and the challenges of doing that while they lived in different places. They talked about how impressed they were with the calibre of work and the innovation. Laura Einstein, one of the jurors, commented that there were many outstanding works for discerning buyers and to not be fooled by the size or price of some of the smaller works. And then, she said something I won’t soon forget. “For example, there’s a little gem of a work that I discovered by MaryLou Wakefield from Victoria B.C.” I’m not sure I heard what anyone else had to say after that. I introduced myself to her after the presentation and thanked her for her kind words about my art. At which point, she told me, “I actually bought your piece!” The whole experience was a thrill. And here’s the part about being curious and taking risks. If I hadn’t gone to MISSA, hadn’t enrolled in Dan’s class or submitted my work for the exhibition, none of it would have happened.