by Melissa Smith, Program Curator of Collaborative Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Have you ever been to the AGO? Jason Boyd Kinsella has.
Pedestrians, traffic and street cars rush past The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in downtown Toronto. Located on the lands that are the traditional homes of the Anishinaabe, the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Huron Wendat and the Haudenosaunee since 1911, the AGO is one of the largest art museums in North America. It holds more than 120,000 artworks in its collection which span from 100 C.E. to the present, while presenting wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse artists from around the world.
The AGO is also well known as Toronto-born Frank Gehry’s first building in Canada. He undertook the project because he grew up visiting the AGO and it was where he made the initial connection between art and architecture. His AGO design connects the city and the Gallery with a dramatic sculptural facade, spiral staircases, the warmth of Douglas fir wood, and the extensive use of glass which infuses the galleries with natural light- welcoming the city into the building. The facade, also, references a ship’s sails, metaphorically transporting us to new places, people and ideas.
Also born in Toronto and like Gehry, Kinsella grew up visiting the AGO, particularly engaging with the experiences and courses offered through The Anne Tanenbaum Gallery School. The Gallery School is an open concept, light-filled studio space. It’s been 93 years since Arthur Lismer, a member of the famous Canadian landscape artist collective-the Group of Seven, established Saturday morning classes in 1930 becoming the first program of its kind in Canada.
In the classes, Lismer and the instructors he supervised encouraged students to express themselves, instead of just copying the works and techniques of the instructor. With this philosophy, students could see and discuss the world around them, they could begin the process of expressing their own unique creativity and skill. This ethos, courses and single day workshops continue to be offered for all ages and interests today, including painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, photography, video and digital media, comics, movement, writing, art appreciation and more. Whether you’ve never picked up a paintbrush or you’ve studied art for years, the AGO offers a broad range of courses supported by the artwork in the galleries providing added inspiration for an average of 5000 visitors creatively making onsite a year and over 1.6 million virtually.
It was Kinsella’s Mom’s idea to attend the AGO art making classes. While chatting with the artist, he shared that he was introduced to ideas and techniques that he wouldn’t normally have been able to access. As the Program Curator of Collaborative Learning supporting the Gallery School today, I think about the full range of learners that engage with us and the importance of lowering perceived and physical barriers to art. There is plenty of research, in particular a study produced by Heather Stuckey and Jeremy Nobel, that states that acting as either an observer of the creative efforts of others or as a maker ourselves, art can enhance mood, emotions, and other psychological states. This is the benefit of running art classes in an art gallery; they exponentially increase well being, comfort with the gallery and help support relationships with art. We can see the influence of the youthful memories at the AGO in Kinsella’s work today.
During our conversation, Kinsella identified the influence of Lawren S. Harris, a leader in the formation of the Group of Seven and one of its best known artists who created a distinctive visual language inspired by the Canadian landscape. Harris, who began his career in commercial design and advertising as well, was initially preoccupied with urban scenes in Toronto, he gradually simplified his visual language creating stark, terra nullius, abstracted landscapes of the Canadian North. The influence of Harris’ stylized geometric approach to lakes, trees, skies and mountains, exploring the basic structures underlying the natural forms is truly evident in Kinsella’s artistic aesthetic, using colourful geometric forms to symbolize the archetypal elements of psychology and countenance. Kinsella’s visual language quotes the past within a contemporary practice demonstrating a depth and understanding of what has come before in order to question the world we live in today.
Another influence from his past is the largest public collection of Henry Moore works permanently displayed in the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre. Imagine a young art student, Kinsella, sketching and immersing himself in the exhibition space during class, soaking in Moore’s monumental works that associate the reclining human form with natural elements such as trees, rocks, bones and shells. Much of the fascination with Moore stems from his abstracted forms encouraging ambiguities, multiple meanings and interpretations. We can’t help but see the impact of this immersion when looking at the organic, biomorphic forms found in Kinsella’s work. There is a similar ambiguity in the assemblages of forms in his portraits, allowing for interpretations that extend beyond the physical. An investigation of simplifying features into strange beautiful shapes, exploring the interiority and exteriority are absolutely present.
Beyond the artwork itself, Kinsella speaks about his artistic process including stream of consciousness sketching, revisiting sketches, transferring the sketches to the digital realm, adding colour, refining further and finally moving to canvas and paint. Moore is quoted as saying that he would begin a drawing “with no perceived problem to solve, with only the desire to use a pencil on paper and make lines, tones and shapes with no conscious aim; but as my mind takes in what is so produced, a point arrives when some idea comes conscious and crystallises…”(AGO Selected works, 1990). It’s no surprise then that Kinsella’s similar working style has led to expanding his visual language to include sculpture. A newish stage in his oeuvre, he sees this as bringing the world in his head into real life, bridging the subconscious and physical world. Jason Boyd Kinsella’s Anatomy of the Radiant Mind brings together his paintings and sculpture and it’s incredibly moving to consider that spending time in The Anne Tanenbaum Gallery School supported the start of his artistic journey. The AGO brings people together with art to see, experience and understand the world in new ways by presenting great art, facilitating learning and engaging visitors. Art classes at the Gallery have always been an important way to connect people with art and we can see the echoes of this mission in Jason Boyd Kinsella’s Anatomy of the Radiant Mind.
Melissa Smith is the Program Curator of Collaborative Learning at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Her responsibilities include inclusive public programs, courses and accessibility advocacy. Motivated by a sustained commitment to exploring the unique relationship between art and audiences, Smith was awarded the Royal Ontario Museum Visitor Engagement Award and one of Smith’s AGO programs was awarded People’s Choice for Quality Improvement by the City of Toronto Long Term Care Homes and Services. She holds a Master of Arts in Art History from Western University and a Masters of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto. She is also a Sessional Instructor in the Inclusive Design Graduate Program at OCADU and sits on the Board of Directors at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. You can read more about her access programming methodology in an article she co-authored, The transformative learning potential of feminist inspired guided art gallery visits for people diagnosed with mental illness and addiction, in the International Journal of Lifelong Education.