Carl Joosse & Sean McNeill with their families at the McTavish Academy of Art
by Deborah Rogers | photo by Janis Jean Photography –
Years ago the hallways of the McTavish Academy of Art (MAOA) would have echoed with the sounds of children and teachers, and the bell marking out the day. The former elementary school closed in 2008, and sat empty until 2016, when a group of entrepreneurs with a passion for art and community managed to secure the purchase and began to bring their vision of accessible art and creative expression to life.
Now we’re five years into that vision and the hallways of MAOA are still ringing with the sound of children (after all, there’s a preschool and before- and after-school care onsite). But there’s also guitars and ukuleles, and the music of dance classes. Listen closely and you might hear the hushed tones of yoga instruction, or the teacher of a watercolour or acrylics class. What you find behind the doors of MAOA is creativity, in all its forms, and people of all ages.
Carl Joosse, one of the founder partners, has spent many years learning about and witnessing the positive effects that the arts have on society. Working on a scheme that provided musical instruments to at-risk youth, he saw the way that access to music empowered the participants. It provided an outlet, boosted self-esteem and demonstrably led to better outcomes in other areas of the child’s life: “You see the change in a person when they have that opportunity to tap into their own creativity.” Alongside Sean McNeil (MAOA co-founder), the pair now oversee an organization that works to fill a need in our community. They see themselves as facilitators – opening space and providing support for the arts projects that the community brings to them.
They took some risks launching the venture, and the last five years have seen changes, refinements, and let’s not forget, a global pandemic. For a business so connected with people and community, being forced to close their doors was devastating – to the people who enjoyed using the space, but also to the finances.
How wonderful then to get a chance to look at the machine, and meet the staff, who have managed to keep things afloat. I say machine, because it’s due in part to a piece of technology, (along with long, long hours and the absolute desire to keep running), that MAOA has developed a new revenue stream. It saved the day, but also provided a way of taking their philosophy of accessible arts to a Canada-wide audience.
Carl calls it “art for the unartistic,” but I think that undersells the creativity of the beautiful laser-cut art sets that MAOA is now producing and selling through their website. Each kit starts out as a drawing by the talented Eliska, who then builds a digital model that can be separated into layers. The pieces are cut with a laser cutting machine, and then kits assembled. It could be an orca leaping from the waves, or a Christmas ornament; a treehouse for woodland creatures, or a superhero model. The construction process is the same – each layer is painted, then glued together, making delightful 3D pieces of art.
Making and selling art kits wasn’t part of the original plan, but it’s easy to see how it fits with the ethos. Art is for everyone, and can be experienced in many forms. Sometimes the structure of a kit, or attending a paint party, is the way to take a first step to unlocking creativity and trying new techniques. Alongside classes in watercolours, oils and acrylics are writing workshops, woodturning and photography. There’s also dance and gymnastics. Local organizations are using the space too, including the Island Woodturners Guild, the Canadian Art Therapy Federation and Saanich Peninsula Hospital’s Long-term Care for their art therapy classes.
I’ve been to several events at MAOA since it opened, and a few classes too. I love the energy that you feel in the building, from the art on the walls to the people in the hallways. It’s always bustling and you get a real sense of the way that a small team is pooling resources, and working long hours, to make something special for the community. Sean and Carl both talk about MAOA being a “family affair;” it’s true for them, but it includes you too: creating at MAOA makes you part of something bigger.
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