LHS visual artists picture Leaside

Stephanie Marshall at the phone booth/gallery.
Stephanie Marshall at the phone booth/gallery.

“Draw a place in your neighbourhood” was the pitch to students at Leaside High. The young artists did not disappoint. In a creative way to teach water colour skills, perspective and an appreciation for place, Stephanie Marshall, Leaside High’s visual arts teacher, tasked her Grade 9s with painting a beloved locale. The bright and original pictures are mostly of shops familiar to us all, such as Sweetie Pie, Longo’s, The Flower Patch and Ramona’s Kitchen, prominently displayed in the main office at LHS. The finished pieces are a testament to the students’ creativity and developing skills as well as Marshall’s positive energy, enthusiasm and encouragement.

Marshall lends the same spirit to her senior students’ projects. A fine example is her recent repurposing of the telephone booth in the school’s main foyer. I recall spending a quarter to call home from the same box back in the ’70s. There was always a line of students at lunchtime waiting to make a call. But for years the booth has sat empty, forlorn, ignored, neglected – sad.

Grade 9 watercolour paintings on display at Leaside High. Photo Stephanie Marshall.
Grade 9 watercolour paintings on display at Leaside High. Photo Stephanie Marshall.

That is, until Marshall decided to use it as a venue for senior students’ art installations. Marshall explains it is key to “look at spaces and see them differently.” As a result, there are groups of students congregating at the phone booth but now it is the art class setting up their installations (each student takes a turn) or their peers stopping to have a look as they navigate the main hall.

Grade 11 student Raif Morton enthuses that the assignment “linked” him with students he had not known well. “The assignment added a social aspect to art,” he explains, since students were commenting to him that they liked his installation, initiating conversations. This was Marshall’s hope all along. She knows that these links create community and encourage a sense of belonging among all involved in the process, both artists and audience. She is a firm believer that “it doesn’t have to be in a formally established institution for a work to be celebrated and appreciated as a piece of art.” With her ethos that “everyone has the ability to create, students just need to tap into it,” Leaside High artists are in good hands.

Perhaps what makes all the difference are Marshall’s professional and life experiences. Doing her MFA at Leeds University, she was a professional artist for the decade before getting her Bachelor of Education at OISE. She cofounded the 7A*11D International Festival of Performance Art, a not-for-profit artist-driven collective and taught at remote Indigenous communities such as Attawapiskat and the sub-Arctic Kitchenuhmaykoosib. It was while teaching at the former that she raised $18,000, which allowed the community to fly 10 youth to Vancouver, a place they had always wanted to explore. She is a firm believer in leaving a positive mark wherever she goes. While teaching the Claude Watson students at Earl Haig Secondary School she used her performance art talent to model innovative multi-media presentations. Most of her concepts involve interdisciplinary skills which can bring together painting, poetry, music and textiles, to name a few.

In fact, Marshall’s next objective is to bring silk screening to LHS, something not done in a long time. She would even like to explore teaching students to make batik, a traditional cloth-decorating process – using wax and dye – from Southeast Asia and Africa. “The processes are very hands-on and the product is tangible, even wearable,” she explains. In the spring she hopes to display some of the student art at the Leaside Public Library. The signs are everywhere around the school that the creative energy at Leaside High is strong. To know for sure, just ask your children or neighbours’ teens; they will tell you that the visual arts are thriving.