Artis Lane unveils sculpture of Mary Ann Shadd Cary in Chath

One week ago, Saturday May 2, was an amazing day for me. There are some opportunities presented to us that we know, instinctively, we'd be fools to miss. The chance to view the unveiling of Artis Lane's new sculpture "Mary Shadd Ann Cary" right here in my city of Chatham was one such opportunity.

I took quite a few notes about the ceremony itself, but suffice it to say that it was remarkable, uplifitng, and most of it was summed up in newspaper coverage so I won't repeat it here. Instead, I'll share my personal experience meeting Artis Lane. This is a long post, but I feel it's important to share everything I can remember!

Artis was called up to the podium a few times before the actual unveiling, and this is a bit of what she had to say:

“I'm so happy, so blessed to be here”. She recalled being a CCI (Chatham Collegiate Institute – old high school here that closed several years ago) scholarship winner, and that her art teacher paved the way for the scholarship to be available to the Arts (it used to be only for engineering and professions).
“I can't say enough about being born and educated here in Canada.” She spoke about being young, marrying a man from Mississippi, then moving to Detroit – big culture shock. “For me it runs so deeply – He gave me the gift. I am a Visual Artist but I see the soul”

Artis Lane and Gwen Robinson with sculpture of Mary Shadd Cary
After the ceremony, hordes of people surrounded Artis, and I knew I didn't want to speak with her while she was rushed, so I went straight to the reception a block away, scouted out a table to sit at and wait for Ms. Lane to arrive. It took a while, but when the ceremony officials I'd met earlier on found me waiting and asked if I'd had my chance to speak with Artis, I explained that no, I hadn't, and would be happy to wait my turn. I can't even begin to describe my surprise (and jubilation) when Ms. Lane arrived and was introduced to me right away as “a fellow artist that she had to meet”, then seated next to me at my table for the evening! It was thrilling – here I thought I'd be waiting for my chance in line with her, and instead she graciously turned to me and started talking like we were great friends. I found her to be enigmatic, charming, gracious, energetic, beautiful, and above all, she seemed to convey utter honesty and truth with everything she said.

I asked a few questions, one of them was what her recollections were of the Dominion Prize - if she remembered anything about how it was organized, and what it meant to her as a very young artist to win a national award. Artis was only 15 years old when she won Canada's National Portrait contest. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember. Her response was to consider for a short while, then with a little grin, she said something along the lines of: “What was I, 16? I simply cannot recall much from that period of time”.

So in lieu of answering that question, she simply began a little story and offered me her own invaluable advice about portraiture. I'll include the little bits and pieces that were jotted down to give you an idea of what she said.

“It's important for young people to know that it (portraiture/art) can be a profession.”
“All the creative energy has to have a sense of balance, and family plays an important role. Once you learn the technique, put it in your computer” (taps head – meaning brain/memory) “and keep notes on colours that you use, and make sure you keep some of your work from time to time.”

Artis went on to say that we (portrait artists) should not get too competitive, and that ego should not play any part in the painting process. Artis is very spiritual and spoke openly of her faith, believing her skills to be a gift of God. She feels that when an artist becomes too arrogant and brings his ego into the artwork, the quality of his work will start to go downhill. “Stay on your own path and do not become arrogant”

“In time, you will be able to recognize your work, your brushstroke, your own particular colour scheme”

“I try to capture the soul of the person; sense the different aura of each individual.” She described an experience painting identical twin sisters where she was able to capture the differences in each girl's personality.

Artis said that in everyday work and in the learning curve of life, it's important to use the “one eye” mentality; that is to realize you are not following two separate paths, that just like in the Garden of Eden, there is no room for evil – God is all encompassing. Painting portraits can be healing, especially when you allow yourself to become an instrument (move away from arrogance and the “I did it” aspect).

She briefly touched on her new, upcoming work:
“Love Series” - all the different human aspects of (eg: jealousy)
You can read more about it on her website: “When you sculpt, you use your whole body.”

I had a friend, Tanya Harris, who studied journalism in university with me taking notes (what a saviour! I'd never have this posted without her), and Artis commented that writing transforms art through words. I felt it was an opportunity to ask her if she had a difficult time writing an artist statement (as so many artists do!) and it was a big YES - “I leave it up to the critics” she said with a small laugh.

There was a break then where Artis went up to the front of the hall to sign 10 of her books that were being auctioned off. I was fortunate to win a bid on one of them, so I've included my happy “I just got a signed book from Artis Lane” photo to help convey the mood.

Also at my table: Pastor Mark Vincent of Triedstone Church here in Chatham, who sang our National Anthem beautifully, and Jacqueline Waynor from the Detroit Institute of Arts.

When the auction was finished and things were winding down, Artis returned to her seat and I took the opportunity to ask one more question. I explained that I would most likely not have the chance to meet with her again in the near future, and then asked if she would permit me to paint her portrait, using all the reference photos I took of her on Saturday. It was amazing – she truly looked surprised, which I didn't expect.

Her response was a smiling “Yes! Then, I will be able to see what YOU see when you look at me, captured in the portrait”. I am now very anxious to finish my current commissions and spend some time on this new, future project.

A wonderful end to a thrilling day for me.

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