Karen Close: The Art of Community Spirit
The end of art is peace. In a spirit of utopian vision for a better future, this was the dream voiced by many artists following WW1. Canada's early artists, most of whom were European, brought this dream to Canada.They cherished a confidence that individuals united in authentic artistic expression, create spiritual truths that bind humanity and create peace for the individual and the nation. Our native people know this. Art is the foundation of their culture. Unfortunately, much of art's legacy from the twentieth century veered sharply from this noble pursuit. Particularly in North America, art was debased to a product, too often valued only from a monetary perspective and rarefied as an activity for "artists"."Artworks" were removed from the community and protected in museums and galleries.Individuals felt distanced and confused by creativity and how it related to them. Many lost connection to their creative urges, that soul essence, which brought members of the earliest cultures together in a spirit of discovery and sharing. Think of the Lascaux caves in France, the earliest example of humanity's prehistoric artistic heritage.
In the Public Art Sculpture project envisioned and co-ordinated by Geert Maas in the spring of 2007, one hundred and two Kelowna residents were given the opportunity to experience the thrill of what art has been and should be for humankind. I was one of those participants and I delighted to see the synchronicity with this event and the vision stated in the spring '07 launch of Okanagan Arts magazine, "Show Me. Inspire Me. Teach Me. Include Me". The Medallion Project conceived by Geert Maas is a Public Art Sculpture project worthy of a community that was named a Cultural Capital of Canada. From May 5th until the completion party September 23rd, one hundred and two citizens interacted to define Kelowna's spirit, and participate in evolving its culture. When the Medallion Project is installed on a specially built new wall to be created within city hall, these citizen's bonze medallions, like great art monuments around the world, will be an enduring voice of how Kelowna citizens saw their community in 2007, one hundred and two years after the city's incorporation in 1905. Recording who we are is the real function of art.
Gert Maas in the studio demonstrating tools and techniques.
Attention for speeches
When Geert Maas, his wife Elly and their three children chose to settle in Kelowna in 1979, they brought with them a European concept of an artist's role. Integral to this is the artist's responsibility to share his skills and to nurture others' artistic growth. Geert was an established artist in The Netherlands who received part of his art training at The Vrye Academy (a free academy) which sought the breakdown of elitism in art.In Canada, he has worked to explore a new country, feed his artistic vision and spread his beliefs about the essential relationship between art and life. The morning I arrived to begin my experience of medallion making, I immediately sensed this core value embedded in the couple's property. The Geert Maas Sculpture Gardens and Gallery features a large collection of bronze sculptures, numerous paintings and other works. The gardens and gallery welcome thousands of visitors from around the world throughout the year. Geert explains: "On this property we have made a life that says who we are. The house was built, but we added to meet our needs and to make an expression of what we value. We're explorers. We'd never been to Canada but we heard there were great open spaces in which we could create the life we desire. We had containers from Holland sent over packed with the books and artwork we treasured. I then proceeded to make art in a new environment. When I made my proposal for The Medallion Project, I knew I had to base it here so that people could feel the inspiration of the location and that I have been diligent and devoted to my art. That is my experience I wanted to share. I have put heart and soul into making my art and people need to know that you can't make art on a casual basis or just for a specific purpose. I have to create. That takes support and Elly is always there to help my art. A big part of this project, and a part that is important to its legacy, is the organization and documentation that Elly did." Beaming, Elly continues, "I love people and I have a lot of patience. Helping people is my art form. I love teaching and helping people to understand Geert's art. I've had a lifetime of learning and it has brought me so much pleasure, I want to share that with others. Geert and I have visited so many museums and our tastes have grown together. Art has made our life joyful as we've traveled the world and learned about people through their art. Art is essential to our lives." Elly's documentation of The Medallion Project fills two large photo albums. There are pictures of each of the participants and their completed works as well as many candid shots showing the process. Documentation was a requirement of the committee, but Elly knew it had to be done more extensively. Duplicate albums are always available to Kelowna residents and tourists who visit The Geert Maas Sculpture Gardens and Gallery.
When Geert responded to the Public Art Committee's call for submission of plans for a sculpture to celebrate community spirit, he wanted to facilitate others discovering a role for art in their lives. He explains: "I knew my proposal had to be fun, educational and allow participants to express their own ideas. I wanted people to experience the self satisfaction gained by creating a unique personal work. Merely having people assist me with my design didn't make sense to me. I wanted the project to be meaningful for those involved. I wanted them to bring their own ideas and learn how to translate them into the language of art. As the artist, I didn't want to set any boundaries. The project needed to be about the participants, not about me. Looking at the completed medallions one can see each is unique and an honest expression of the creator. Bronze casting is complicated and teaching the techniques was important, but I strongly believe that art is much more than technique. I wanted the participants to develop a sense of artistic vision. I didn't press this on people, but I knew this is where the real satisfaction comes. I didn't hold any secrets back. I know some artists like to keep technical secrets, but I've always been happy to share because I get a true delight in seeing someone grow into creating something truly unique from the seeds of my teaching. Seeing what comes out of a workshop makes me very proud even when I think a participant takes what I've taught even further than I might have done. I get ideas sometimes too. That is the wonderful gift of people creating together. To me this is true community spirit that can only happen when citizens come together in moments of creative expression. We learn from each other and we feel joy in the success of each other."
As important to Geert as the personal and social connections fostered when people create together was a need to teach understanding and appreciation for artistic vision. When I asked him to define this, he laughed. We both know there are many explanations, but he is earnest in his position: "It is when there is a strong composition and the elements work together to reinforce the message and make it stronger. Harmony and diversity are as important to a work as to a community. When a work is good you can feel the power."
Now, a year after participants first began The Medallion Project all are eagerly waiting to see their work and feel its power. Geert too is eager for the medallions to be displayed. "I think the people who view the final presentation will feel proud of what their fellow citizens have created. When we had the party at our home and displayed all the completed works for the participants and their families everyone was so excited. I hope others will be inspired to maybe try to make a medallion too, or create in some other medium of creative expression. Perhaps this will be the beginning of building an artistic legacy for all of Kelowna. I strongly believe in encouraging others' desires to be creative. Many of the participants had never made a work of art before. Our culture has more and more spare time. If you can express yourself through a creative act a person feels happier within themselves, and their works make others happy too. People feel pride when they make something meaningful that they have never done before. This is important. The commitment that people put into the three days it took to make their medallions was a generous gift of their time and talent to their community. These are citizens Kelowna can be proud of and the completed work will show future generations what our community's citizens accomplished in 2007."
The Medallion Project brought a diverse cross section of this
community together. They merged in a spirit of learning and sharing to create
an impression of what was in their hearts. Their vision of
Kelowna's community spirit is powerful because of the diversity and uniqueness
of each medallion. When these are brought together in a
harmonious whole, the work will be inspiring. The coexistence of diversity and
harmony inspires peace. When Kelowna's Medallion Sculpture is mounted it
will become part of a long history. Flourishing during the Renaissance, the
art medal has a tradition of representing a gesture of honour or recognition
for the best in humanity. Like Geert, it is
Medallions left to right in rows:
Karen Close is an artist and writer, a former schoolteacher, and the author of Unfinished Women: Seeds from My Friendship with Reva Brooks.
From July 5 to September 5 2008, The Geert Maas Sculpture Gardens and Gallery will host a display from the Medallic Art Society of Canada (MASC). The juried exhibition will present The Best of MASC. There will be some medals from American and Australian members. The majority of works will be from across Canada including Kelowna MASC members. Photo documentation from The Spirit of Kelowna Medallion Project will be available for viewing. Hopefully, even the wall will be erected by then.