Art school seeks northern talent

The Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson wants to help more young northerners launch their post-secondary education. They're looking for people like Tamika Knutson, a Dawsonite who graduated from the program last week.

The Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson wants to help more young northerners launch their post-secondary education.

They’re looking for people like Tamika Knutson, a Dawsonite who graduated from the program last week.

Having lived in Dawson her whole life, she thought she had seen everything there was to see in the community, she said. But the school opened to her eyes to something completely new.

“That’s a whole side of the town that I never really got to see, just because you don’t really get into the art scene when you’re from here. It’s like, ‘Oh, weird art students,’” she said.

It was a co-worker and friend who convinced her to give SOVA a try. It wasn’t an obvious choice.

“I’ve always been interested in arts, but I never thought I’d go to art school, because my dad is a miner and my sister did business and my friends are doing business.”

Her year at the school was generously supported by the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, of which she is a member.

She plans to continue her art education at either Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver or the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.

Now, she recommends SOVA to everyone she knows from Dawson with an interest in art, she said.

“I keep telling them to go because it’s such a great place.”

Curtis Collins, the school’s new director and program chair, is also encouraging young people from the North to think about art school.

“For students from smaller places, going into a cultural field is not an obvious one,” he said.

But the school offers a unique opportunity to act as a bridge between remote communities and bigger cities and institutions, he said.

SOVA offers a one-year foundation program. Students who graduate can then transfer straight into second year of a bachelor of fine arts degree at partner institutions in the south.

Collins would like to see program options expanded further. He’s looking at implementing a complementary program in indigenous visual culture that would work in much the same way.

After doing the one-year foundation program, students could transfer into programs like Indian Fine Arts at the First Nations University of Canada or Aboriginal Visual Culture at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

That program is still is the investigation phase, but discussions are going well and it could become a reality as early as fall 2014, said Collins.

He would also like to see the Tr’ondek Hwech’in become more involved in school activities.

Yukon College, Trond’ek Hwech’in and the Dawson City Arts Society are the school’s three founding partners.

Now, the school calls on the First Nation for things like field trips to Tombstone Territorial Park, where elders will travel with the students and tell them about the land and the history.

But Knutson agrees that the partnership with the First Nation could be strengthened. “There’s not as much as there should be for how much they put into the school.”

Next year the First Nation will organize an ice-fishing trip for the students, and they will produce audio art pieces based on the experience.

Derian Blake, another of last week’s graduates, said the program has inspired him to rediscover his own aboriginal roots.

He is originally from Inuvik, but moved away at age two.

The program “really sprung a motivation to get back to a culture that I had moved away from, when I was really young, being First Nations and not having been connected with a lot of that community for a long time,” said Blake. “I’m hoping to get back there and learn a lot of cultural practices and crafts and stuff.”

Blake’s outdoor installation piece, performed with classmate Isabelle Ford, was one of the highlights of last week’s exhibition and graduation ceremony.

Community members were directed through a tunnel of ink-splattered sheets. After travelling though a few rooms they landed in a small space with a table serving as a bar.

Behind the bar people were greeted by a garbage monster and a raccoon-masked creature, performed by Ford and Blake.

Orange, purple and green drinks were served based on the roll of a die. The plastic wine cups had the bottom broken off so they could not be rested on the table.

“It’s really absurd,” said Blake.

Their assignment was to think about “when the permafrost melts, how are you going to deal with the space and working with your houses sinking and tilting and breaking down and stuff?

“So our theory of how we’re going to deal with it was build a bar, and work through it that way.”

The drinks, for lack of a liquor licence, were alcohol-free.

Performance art seemed to be a particular strength of this year’s class, said Collins.

Knutson called performance work “nerve-racking,” but also rewarding.

In her piece, a meditation on confinement, she stood with her back to the audience and filled a blank square with red paint.

Knutson doesn’t know where art school is going to take her later in life. The possibilities are so much bigger than just becoming a professional artist, she said.

“I know I’m going the right way, at least.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

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