Gordon Smith is a respected, even revered, West Coast artist. But equally important to him in his long career has been his role as a teacher. He worked for years at the Vancouver School of Art and the University of British Columbia, and now, at 93, it is still something that energizes him.
"I love teaching," says Mr. Smith over the phone from his West Vancouver home, stressing repeatedly the importance of an education in art.
"It's not just to make artists. [The students] become more creative and more hard-working people. An artist isn't someone who just draws and paints. An artist could be serving in a grocery store."
On Saturday, the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, which bills itself as the "only gallery in Canada dedicated to young audiences," opens in North Vancouver. It's an extraordinary project, and not simply because of the art hanging on the walls. The gallery, filled with work by first-rate contemporary Canadian artists, has been built specifically with education in mind, the culmination of more than 20 years of work by the group Artists for Kids.
Its objective is to get students up close to art and artists – both during the school year and at a summer-camp program. The effect of that interaction is profound on the students, according to Bill MacDonald, executive director of the Gordon and Marion Smith Foundation for Young Artists (which was created to build an endowment to support Artists for Kids, and ultimately this gallery). "Do you know what they say? He's just like me. He's not somebody special. He's a human being."
The idea that ultimately led to this place was dreamed up by Mr. MacDonald and Ken James, former students of Mr. Smith. Both were working for the North Vancouver School District (Mr. James as a principal; Mr. MacDonald as the district's art co-ordinator) in 1989 when they took Mr. Smith and fellow artists Bill Reid and Jack Shadbolt to lunch, and proposed a money-raising venture to bolster art education in schools at a time of government cuts.
They asked each artist to donate a work from which limited-edition prints could be created and sold.
As Mr. Smith remembers it, there were some reservations initially.
"Bill said, 'Oh this is ridiculous,' and he said 'I haven't got any,'" Mr. Smith says. He recalls turning to his friend and reminding him about a drum he had shown him at a dinner the previous week. It had a painting on it.
"I said, 'Well Bill, you can get that silk-screened.'" He did, and the prints sold for $3,000 each.
This was the beginning of Artists for Kids, which now raises about $250,000 in print sales annually to fund school-based art programs for more than 5,000 students a year.
That drum is one of the first things you see when you enter the gallery, just a few steps inside the remarkable wooden doors carved by Coast Salish artist Xwalacktun. The doors, with a grizzly bear at the centre, echo that Reid drum. (If you can't make it to North Vancouver, find a $20 bill, which features a version of that print.)
Since those initial donations, the program has moved to buying artists' work and then raising money through the prints. Many artists – including Mr. Smith, Toni Onley and Rodney Graham – have donated work. And there have been donations from patrons, ranging from wealthy philanthropists such as Michael Audain (who gave the project $2-million) to the vice-principal who spoke for years about having an Emily Carr in his attic before Mr. MacDonald persuaded him to lend and ultimately bequeath the painting.
The works were for years installed in an old gym at a decommissioned North Vancouver school. This new gallery is a monumental improvement, with its 23-foot ceilings, environmental controls and absence of ants.
Walk around and you will see works by Mr. Shadbolt, Michael Snow, Gathie Falk, Ian Wallace and Ed Burtynsky.
"It's not just easy art," Mr. Smith says. "It's not just pretty paintings."
But you can see how students would be jazzed by the work here: a giant Douglas Coupland sculpture of a slightly off-kilter green soldier action figure; a Martin Tessler photo of a large-scale, school-themed installation where visiting kids were offered bubble gum and encouraged to stick the chewed stuff right onto the towering work. There's also a playful Joe Fafard sculpture – a baseball player with an apple on his head – that was created during a student program in 1995. Over a number of sessions, they watched Mr. Fafard make decisions, mistakes and ultimately art.
"The kids get to see the artist in their creative moment," says Yolande Martinello, director of Artists for Kids. "It's not just someone in a suit at the end of the day giving a speech at a lectern."