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October 24, 2002 Graduate examines Arthur Lismer's role in art education



Six-year-old Allie Janush paints at the final session of this year’s Saturday Art Workshops, which have run at Concordia for more than 20 years.

Concordia student Emilie Bonnardeaux works with Jaydon van Wijk during a recent Saturday art workshop. About 70 children enjoy these classes every year, which are supervised by art education undergraduates.

Photos by Andrew Dobrowolskyj


by Scott McRae

Arthur Lismer was not only a member of the Group of Seven, who gave Canadian landscape painting a national identity, but he was also a staunch proponent of art education. Although he was one of the most influential art educators in Canada, his contribution has only recently been explored.

Concordia alumna Angela Grigor, an art educator in Ontario, has just completed Arthur Lismer, Visionary Art Educator. The book is an exhaustive look at Lismer’s role in art education. After 15 years of research and writing, the Canadian History of Education Association awarded Grigor the 2003 Founder’s Prize.

Last Tuesday, Grigor, who looks very much like a kindly schoolteacher herself, returned to Concordia to share her research in the same room where she once taught children Saturday art lessons

Lismer, she explained, was passionate about exposing children to art. He was a full-time educator and ran classes in museums, where he encouraged children to work in groups and put on pageants and other presentations.

“He loved interacting with little kids and getting down on the floor to play with them,” said Grigor. “He really understood children of all ages, and wanted to give them the opportunity to express themselves freely.”

Such a humanistic outlook was a long time in coming. When Lismer went to art school in 19th-century England, goals were vocational, and the system promoted copying to produce skilled craftsmen.

When Lismer emigrated to Canada and began teaching at Halifax’s Victoria School of Art and Design, he brought this point of view with him, but he was also unhappy with the system in which he was trained and, after reading the work of several prominent progressive American thinkers, he radically changed direction.

He became a leading and controversial figure in the modernization of art education, lecturing widely to spread his ideas of creative liberty and hands-on learning. “They were really not out of the 19th century at that point. He was trying to pull them into the 20th century.”

While researching her book, Grigor interviewed former students and contemporaries of Lismer.
It’s impossible to estimate the scope of his influence, she explained, but many people were influenced by him.

Now, however, art education is no longer fighting to define itself — it’s fighting to survive. “Art education is very undervalued,” Grigor said. “It’s a field that’s rapidly disappearing.” She told a small audience of mostly art education professors and grad students that “it’s up to you guys to bring it back,” and suggested that they write about their experiences.

Despite the hassles of publishing, she said that she’s happy to have written Arthur Lismer, Visionary Art Educator. “He was always pushing for art education. That’s why he’s my hero.”