Even though January is technically the start of a new year, September always feels like the true beginning. There’s a freshness in the air and a feeling of forward momentum, with the summer’s languid humidity making way for an invigorating autumnal spirit and aura of possibility. You might feel this when you see back-to-school ads in the August newspaper,  when you crack open the crisp blank pages of a new notebook at work in September, or when you push yourself or your children to try new things and projects.  In the spirit of exciting new beginnings, we’re happy to welcome two intelligent and passionate artist-educators to our Visual Arts Department. Both Melissa Star Charles (a.k.a Charlie) and Alyssa Robinson bring new ideas and creative experiences to the classroom. We spoke to both of them about their teaching philosophies, how to foster a child’s love of art-making, and the ecology of Hamilton’s arts community.

Can you tell us about your artistic backgrounds? What lead you to becoming artists and educators?

Charlie: I attended weekly summer art camps as a child  (and later became an instructor) at Glenhyrst Art Galleries in Brantford, and had a significant art teacher in public school when I was in grade six. He introduced my class to the Group of Seven- we share the same hometown as group member Lawren Harris. I remember feeling like I made works of art that year that seemed advanced in comparison to what I had previously accomplished. Ironically, by the time I got to grade eight I was making stick figure comics. At that time it was a good way for me to express my oncoming teen angst with humour and creativity. I continued making comics all through high school but also deepened my art making skills. I took art every year throughout my education, but often felt restricted in the ways I could express myself. Fortunately, I was friends with a group of creatives and we all kept our own art journals. We’d draw together and pass our books around. I found ways to stir up my imagination outside of my class and it inspired me to explore art education once I graduated. After attending free workshops and their portfolio day, I was enthused to apply to the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U). This was an excellent fit for me because it was an art & design specific school and it opened a vast world for me to explore and experiment within. I still reference a lot of the works I created during my education and look back on the experience as very formative. I was even awarded the opportunity to study abroad my final year in Florence, Italy with a group of 23 other students which instilled strong ethics in sharing space and working collaboratively, and Hamilton’s arts ecology.

“Self Love Station.” Melissa Star Charles. 15ft tall interactive fabric installation. Created at Greatmore Art Studios residency in Capetown, South Africa. September 2017.

Since graduating in 2011, I have been consistently creating and working within centres and institutions sharing my knowledge and skill base. I have traveled to Spain and more recently South Africa to participate in artist residencies. I have had lots of opportunities to exhibit locally and internationally and work as an artist coordinator, an arts blog writer, artist’s assistant, facilitator and instructor.

It will be a new sort of experience teaching at the HCA for me because it will be my first time creating lesson plans and projects that are meant to be worked on over weeks as opposed to being completed in one or two sessions. I am really excited as a teacher to see what kind of works can be created over a sustained period.

How should parents encourage and foster their young children’s creativity and art-making? 

Charlie: I think it’s wonderful when a parent enrolls their children in artistic extra curricular activities. I would hope that it’s because they support their children’s creative self-expression and that they encourage them to explore, experiment, try risks, make mistakes, start over, and most importantly, have fun! I know there are so many things to be distracted by when you’re young, so it’s also nice when a parent shows curiosity about what their children are making in a way that promotes the longevity of their practice.

Alyssa: I believe parents can foster their children’s creativity by asking questions and encouraging their ideas. Start a conversation, ask about their experiences and what they are trying to express visually, stimulate their imaginations by asking how they can convey their ideas in different ways, and what it means to them. Be excited with them and foster a positive learning experience!

What aspect most excites you about teaching the discipline of art? How would you describe your teaching philosophy? 

Charlie: I believe artistic expression connects us to parts of ourselves that are not immediately conscious. I really enjoy interpreting and analyzing art because I find that through this process, we become aware of hidden personality traits, talents and values, which in turn opens gateways to powerful self-realization. It can be a very healing experience to anybody who wants to feel they are contributing something original.

Alyssa: The aspect that excites me most about teaching art is seeing the creative development and reward through self-expression. Observing students focus on learning and exploring a variety of materials to create a unique work of art is very gratifying, especially when they feel excited and proud of their final product, as well as the experimental process. I believe in encouraging artistic expression in a positive environment while supporting students to push their boundaries of imagination. Art is a limitless realm where students should feel free and open to other’s views, opinions, and interpretations to further manifest their innovations.

What medium are you most passionate about? What would you like to explore further? 

Charlie: I love mixing my media!  Especially materials that are textural. In my own practice I have been more and more curious about interactive installations that allow for the viewers to participate in the process and fruition of the creation.

Alyssa: Throughout my undergrad studying art, we had to take 6 studio courses including Painting, Design, Photography, Sculpture – and I specialized in Drawing and Print Media. A lot of my drawings have further developed into prints; however, lately I’ve been curious about exploring mixed medias, such as creating narrative collages out of vintage magazines. I’ve also recently been doing projects which involve community waste clean ups and then repurposing the garbage into art.

For those looking to pursue visual art at the post-secondary level or as a career, what sorts of tips and advice would you give? 

Charlie: If you start young,  maximize your time to experiment and explore with what really suits your creative expression style. By the time you pursue visual arts at the post-secondary or career level, you will have a more focused direction and can utilize your associations to become a master of a technique.  Sincerity is the key to powerful art. It’s important to not get distracted by what everybody else is doing and aim to find your unique voice.

Alyssa: I very much enjoyed my learning experience during my post-secondary education; however, beginning a career into the art field can be very difficult. As long as you are passionate and very self motivated, you can make a successful path for yourself. I also found it challenging to constantly create art for a mark; I started to lose my creative flow. I’ll never forget when one of my studio drawing professors told me to just keep drawing, even if it was nothing significant. Without that pressure of grades, I was still creating, and in that I gained inspiration again. After graduating I travelled abroad for 6 months and I regained my creative expression through new experiences in an unfamiliar environment.

As young artists in the Hamilton community, how would you characterize our city’s visual arts scene? 

Framed collages from “Cosmic Inspiration,” solo exhibition at HAVN. Melissa Star Charles. March 2019.

Charlie: I think it’s pretty vibrant and expansive! There are lots of opportunities for youth to explore workshops and extra-curricular events around the city to connect them to communities and experiences in the arts sector.

Alyssa: I think Hamilton is a great city for young and emerging artists! With art crawls, super crawls, concrete canvas and ‘mom and pop’ shops, there is so many opportunities for artists to get exposure out in the community. Hamilton has so much character, and lots of coffee shops and small businesses will display contemporary local artists’ work. I personally love to support local artists in this city, and I absolutely love seeing works go large scale on buildings. There’s also lots of opportunities with different craft breweries in Hamilton where artists can submit their works to be featured on cans. This is a great way to have their name spread on a larger scale.

Our visual arts classes begin on September 7, with a range of courses for 4-18 year olds. Registration is NOW OPEN. HCA also offers free class trials; please call 905-528-4020 or email info[at]hcarts.ca for more info.

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