An Explosion of Creativity: So You Want to Be an Artist

© National Gallery of Canada

Young Canadian artists from across the country have answered the National Gallery’s recent call by picking up pencils, paintbrushes, ink jars and cameras to create some highly expressive works of art. Supported by media partner CBC/Radio-Canada, So You Want to Be an Artist is the Gallery’s annual online art competition for teens. This year, it attracted 258 submissions, ranging from abstract paintings to representational landscapes and portraits. Now the top 15 works of art, chosen using a combined process of online voting and curatorial selection, are on display in the Artissimo Gallery, the long space between the Scotiabank Great Hall and the Cafétéria des Beaux-Arts.

NGC Magazine recently caught up with three of the finalists, as well as last year’s first-prize winner.

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Michelle Chung

Michelle Chung is in her first year in the University of Waterloo’s Arts and Business co-op program, majoring in Studio Fine Arts. She drove all the way to Ottawa to hand-deliver her mixed-media drawing for the exhibition. “I’ve lost things in the mail before,” she explained, while seated in the Gallery’s Scotiabank Great Hall, “so I didn’t want to take a chance.”

Michelle Chung, When the True Self Explodes, mixed media: watercolour, pen, pencil crayon on Stonehenge paper

Michelle’s submission, When the True Self Explodes, is a self-portrait done in watercolour, ink and coloured pencil. Against a background of loose, fluid pinks and browns, the artist looks straight at the viewer, her features drawn with clean, precise lines. Solid, confident forms are balanced by expressive meandering.

As Michelle said, her style emerged on its own, as she went along: “I wanted it to be a pretty traditional painting at first, but then I realized that going outside the lines can make you outstanding – I mean, outstanding from others. I usually don’t like painting, but I like watercolours because they allow me freedom. They’re so hard to control.”

Michelle has always been interested in the arts, thanks to her mother, who encouraged her to take dance and piano lessons. It was in high school, however, that she began focusing on visual art. She credits her teachers at Maxwell Heights Secondary School in Oshawa with inspiring her to develop her talent. “I used to get really frustrated, and would rip up my work. But they really encouraged me to complete it.”

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Joanna-Maria Marianakis Belec

Montrealer Joanna-Maria Marianakis Belec is a Grade-11 student at École secondaire Paul-Gérin-Lajoie-d'Outremont. Her pen and ink drawing Elapse is a portrait of her younger sister, incorporating objects and places that symbolize past and present. In an email interview, Joanna-Maria explained her process: “In the shadows of her portrait, I drew tiny animals, toys and candies that she loves, and some more subtle things, like long grass, clouds, garden tools and brick walls. I love doodling, so most of my recent work is done with pen and ink. Elapse was my first attempt to make a portrait composed of doodles.”

Joanna-Maria Marianakis Belec, Elapse, pen on paper

Joanna-Maria has been interested in art from a young age. “One of my favourite activities was going to the library with my mother and flipping through art books, especially the one that contained Dali's paintings. I was amazed at how he could take these dream-like scenes, and put them on a canvas for others to see.”

Even when pen and paper were out of reach, she always found art materials around her, sometimes to the chagrin of her parents. “I would do a ton of stuff that got me in trouble. As a toddler, I took a hex key to ‘decorate’ my new armoire by punching holes in the wood. I also drew on the sides of our kitchen counter, painted my sister blue, poured salt and pepper on restaurant tables to make pictures, and the list goes on.”

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Haley Sweet

A Grade-12 student at Earl of March Secondary School in Kanata, outside Ottawa, Haley Sweet has only recently taken up the camera as an art tool. “Photography is slowly becoming my favourite medium,” she said in an email interview with NGC Magazine. “I sometimes feel limited by drawing and painting, but photography, on the other hand, seems absolutely limitless.” Glitter on the Pages (II), her photograph of a young woman’s face painted over with glitter, is a satire of the fashion and beauty industry.

Haley Sweet, Glitter on the Pages (II), photograph

Haley’s piece was one of three finalists chosen by NGC curator Adam Welch solely for artistic merit, and not by online voting, so the news came as a complete surprise. “When I found out I was a finalist in the contest I was waiting in a Tim Hortons drive-thru after class. I got the email, screamed, and burst into tears of happiness. My boyfriend, who was driving, rolled up his window and passed me tissues, so I could calm down before we had to go up to the window.”

Going public with a work of art can take a lot of courage, as Haley says. “Whenever you put your artwork out there for people to see, it's intimidating at first. You never know if people are going to have a connection to your piece. To have that confirmation in a contest with so many talented artists was such an amazing feeling.”   

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Kevin Nguyen

Last year’s first-place winner was Kevin Nguyen, whose black and white print Woman – Age 47 shows a figure working in a floating market in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Winning the competition was a “surreal” experience, he wrote in an email. “It was recognition of my hard work on a national stage for everyone to see, a strange moment for a young and relatively unknown artist.” Part of his prize was a flight to Ottawa to see his work hanging on the wall, a meeting with the Gallery’s Director and CEO Marc Mayer, and an interview with CBC. “This overall experience made me wonder what other exciting adventures my artistic practice could take me on. The contest ultimately reinforced my decision to pursue the visual arts as a career.”

Kevin Nguyen, Woman – Age 47, archival pigment print of a digital drawing

Kevin considers himself a relatively late bloomer as a visual artist, having been faced with a choice, in middle school, between music and visual art. “I was forced to trade a cello in for a sketchbook; drawing and painting anything and everything became a means of coping with a creative loss.” Now in his second year at Toronto’s Ryerson University, in the Creative Industries program, he hopes to pursue a mixed media artistic practice with an entrepreneurial approach.

So, art lovers, brace yourselves for this next generation of Canadian artists. They’ve got talent!

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So You Want to Be an Artist contest results were announced December 10, 2015. Congratulations to this year’s three winners:

First Place — Haley Sweet, Glitter on the Pages (II)

Second Place — Natalia Beattie, Erosion of Humanity

Third Place — Emmanuelle Boutin, All Those Unsaid Things

The 15 works chosen as finalists in So You Want to Be an Artist are on display in the Artissimo Gallery until January 17, 2016. For more about the contest, including the complete image gallery of finalists’ works, visit SYWTBAA.

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