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Painting in the park

July 25th, 2017

Arthur Lismer conducting a children’s outdoor sketching class in Grange Park in 1934. Photo courtesy of the AGO.

This is a guest post by Judy Koke, Richard and Elizabeth Currie Chief, Public Programming and Learning.

Does the name Arthur Lismer ring a bell? Best known as an artist and a founder of the Group of Seven, Arthur Lismer has another important connection to the AGO – and Grange Park, the wonderful green space behind the AGO that recently re-opened to the public. A respected art educator, and the former principal of what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax, Lismer was invited to establish an art school at the AGO in 1928 – an opportunity he gladly accepted as it allowed him to explore new approaches in art education and to spread the ideals of a new “Canadian” art.

In addition to my position as the current head of education at the AGO, I have a personal connection to Lismer’s career as an art educator. My children grew up with an honourary grandmother, Alice Rycroft, an Etobicoke artist, a member of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, and a student of Lismer’s. As she encouraged my (now adult) children’s creativity, she shared many stories of travelling to the Gallery and painting with Lismer. A long-time visual art teacher in the Toronto School Board, Alice encouraged me to become a docent at the McMichael Collection, where I fell in love with the potential of art museums to change lives, igniting my present career. It seemed impossible that someone we knew so familiarly had known such a famous artist so well.

Arthur Lismer in front of Grange with Gallery School instructors. Photo courtesy of the AGO.

Arthur Lismer (top, middle) with group of Gallery School instructors. Photo courtesy of the AGO.

Verso of photo: “‘Big Sisters’ Group at the Children’s Art Centre – Making Habitats. This is but one of the many free groups which come every week to the Art Centre. This photo used for booklet on art education at AGT, 1936”: Education Through Art for Children and Adults at the Art Gallery of Toronto by Arthur Lismer (Toronto: Art Gallery of Toronto, 1936), p.31. Photo courtesy of the AGO.

Arthur Lismer sketching in the bush, Lake Temagami, August 1944. Photo courtesy of the AGO.

Prior to Lismer’s new school at the Art Gallery of Toronto (as it was then called), art instruction consisted mainly of copying great works of art. But Lismer felt art education should promote self-expression – that students should see and discuss artworks, and make art to bring their own “desires, inclinations and dreams” to life. He wanted students to draw from their own imagination and from nature. Much of Lismer’s own work as an artist focused on our Canadian landscape, and the outdoors. In nice weather many classes were held outside so students could sketch and paint in the park, or even embark on field trips around the city. The photograph below shows Lismer with just such a group of children, in Grange Park in 1934. Almost 100 years later the newly revitalized park offers many opportunities to practice ones’ skills. The organic lines of the new plants, trees and gardens, as well as the geometric hard edges of the buildings and playground structures, offer us all an opportunity to practice our seeing and drawing. In fact, our City Explorations: Traveller’s Sketchbook course follows in Lismer’s footsteps, offering artist instruction in both the park and the city at large.

In 1938, Arthur Lismer left the AGO to become an art educator at Columbia University in New York, and he later started another art centre at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. His legacy here lives on in our approach to engaging people with art and artmaking, and encouraging the artist in each of us. If you’d like to read more about Lismer’s career in art education, read Angela Nairne Grigor’s book Arthur Lismer: Visionary Art Educator, published in 2002.

If you’re inspired to explore your inner artist, check out the many program and courses offered by the AGO – there’s something for budding artists of all ages.

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Education programs at the AGO are supported by endowment funds from the Arthur Lismer GroupThe Learning Circle, and the Learning Fund.

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