Carlton artists awarded for group encouraging youth leadership

This painting by Annika Olson is called 'Decide' and is part of her Step Back collection. The series of works starts with black, grey and white tones and eventually incorporates pops of gold. (Submitted by Melanie Mirasty)

A group of artists at Prince Albert’s Carlton Comprehensive Public High School are the recipients of a 2020 Prairieaction Foundation (PAF) Youth Leadership Award.

The group of students and staff, known as Collection Builders for Social Justice, is a stepping stone for youth to get their work out into the local arts scene through mentorship—at the same time, it allows them to encourage world change.

According to Melanie Mirasty, who started teaching art at Carlton in the fall, the group is available to students from Grades 9 to 12 as an extracurricular activity.

“This award is really celebrating not me, but our group, which puts youth in places of leadership and allows their voices to really become elevated and amplified in regards to a lot of the issues that are so in tune with social justice,” said Mirasty.

She’s mentored about a dozen students so far in their personal art collections.

“Every single one of them has a voice. They have something powerful that they want to share to the world and really to make the world a better place, and that includes issues around identity, discrimination, racism, family.”

PAF and Lieutenant Governor Russell Mirasty announced the 2020 recipients on Tuesday. Carlton Collection Builders was one of five, along with youth projects in Clearwater River Dene Nation, La Ronge, Moose Jaw and Regina.

PAF was formed in response to the Montreal Massacre, a mass shooting that took place at an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal. Fourteen women were murdered and 10 women and four men were injured as a result of the shooting in 1989.

Now, the organization grants funds for community-based research across the prairies on violence and abuse. This particular award recognizes youth who demonstrate leadership “by raising awareness about abuse and violence, promoting healthy and safe relationships, and/or developing innovative approaches to violence prevention.”

Recipients receive up to $3,000 to put towards the project, which Mirasty said Carlton will be using to provide students with art supplies.

Carlton Collection Builders started after Maria Hirsi, who’s graduating this year, approached Mirasty for mentorship on her 11 Main Street art collection. According to Mirasty, Hirsi was the first high school student to have a dedicated exhibition to her work in the John V. Hicks Gallery earlier this year.

According to Hirsi’s statement of intent, the underlying theme among the paintings is connection to family.

“Maria wishes to share an intimate story in each canvas. These stories are about identity, both personal and collective, family, compassion, dysfunction and pathways to reconciliation,” read the statement.

The collection transports the viewer into a place many haven’t seen—the basement of a reserve home. The 15 pieces capture its imperfect walls, including chips, scrapes, holes, doodles, paintings and graffiti.

Maria Hirsi’s collection, 11 Main Street, is inspired by family members’ home in Meath Park, Wahpeton Dakota Nation and James Smith Cree Nation. (Submitted by Melanie Mirasty)

“I think it’s time for our community to see that mentorship can begin in high school and they can get a taste of what it is like to get into the arts community even before they graduate. We see that already in welding and we see that in construction, that they get hours towards their apprenticeship, so why can’t we extend that to art?” questioned Mirasty.

She, herself, has been mentored by Lana Lorensen, another art teacher at Carlton.

The artworks aren’t limited to paintings. Mirasty said students have been experimenting with mixed media, sculptures and different sizes of canvases.

One student is even painting on denim.

Emily Feschuk started her collection by painting on the back of a jean jacket, and now also paints on jeans, shorts and vests.

Through Carlton Collection Builders, Emily Feschuk has connected with entrepreneurs to grow her business Denim By Em. She paints on denim jackets, vests, jeans and shorts. (Submitted by Melanie Mirasty)

Through Carlton Collection Builders, she’s connected with local entrepreneurs to grow her business, Denim By Em.

“In the future, Emily hopes to use her talent to give back to the community, and stay tuned to how she aims to do this,” reads a summary of her collection.

Another student involved in Carlton Collection Builders is Annika Olson. She was born in Kazakhstan and came to Canada with her mom when she was eight months old.

Her collection is called Step Back. Each of the paintings progress from black, white and grey to pops of gold.

“There are moments, days, or chapters in our lives where we all are in this progression. Many of us strive to be resilient and grow from our mistakes. In doing so, we are able to not strive for perfection but accept ourselves in our imperfect states,” said Olson.

“When we accept, we can grow and move forward. When we move forward, we’re able to choose to live to our best potential. This is the feeling of gold. Even when we are in the darkest chapters of our lives, there is still gold within.”

Carlton’s principal, Jeff Court, said he hopes the unique project leaves student feeling empowered in their identities.

“To me the message is largely just about their connection to the community and some of the issues that may be represented through their art,” he said.

“It’s definitely a neat, different take on what traditional visual arts would be in a classroom setting.”

Mirasty said a variety of businesses in Prince Albert have donated to the group and are wanting to display student artwork.