As David Thompson secondary art teacher Malcolm McTaggart stood in the cluttered, paint-splattered workspace off his classroom flipping through his Grade 10 student Suey Li’s overflowing sketchbook, she looked down shyly, shifting from foot to foot. He stopped suddenly to ooh and aah over the elaborate lines of her drawing of a phoenix then passed the sketchbook to renowned visiting artist Richard Tetrault.
Tetrault, who has worked for more than 10 years with McTaggart’s classes to produce many of the elaborate murals throughout the school, also liked what he saw. On the spot, teacher, artist and student decided this piece would be part of the next mural.
According to McTaggart, this organic, collaborative process drives the creation of art in the high school best known for standing in as Forks High School in the Twilight saga mega hits New Moon and Eclipse.
“Rather than say this is what we are going to do, they come up with images and we take from their images and from that we start to put it all together and hopefully it is exciting and there is a sense of ownership,” said McTaggart, an accomplished artist who originally turned to teaching for a regular paycheque, but stuck with it because he is inspired seeing youth reach their artistic potential.
When the Courier visited the teacher and his classroom on a recent morning, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon played in the background as McTaggart walked around the class observing what each student was working on.
Grade 12 student Karen Tong, 17, was crouched by a back door adding some final paint strokes to a large portrait of McTaggart’s pet dog, a bullmastiff named Diesel. Karen looked the part of an artist wearing all black, her earlobes full of piercings and one side of her thick dark hair shaved to her scalp, the other side hanging in a sharp V.
“[Art] has been one of the things I have always been good at — one of the only things I have ever been good at,” said Tong, whose mother emigrated from China to Victoria-Fraserview before Tong and her brother were born.
She said her mom, a former fashion designer, inspired her to draw, but mother and daughter differ on where Tong’s focus should be now. Her mom would prefer she devote herself to getting straight As and preparing for further education while Tong prefers to focus on her art, and, for now, that means murals.
“It makes me feel really great because right after the first painting, or the rough draft, I can already see it and I can think ‘Yes, I did it right’ or if I do it wrong I will say ‘yes I saw something wrong,’” she said.
Tong said she is considering either graphic design or tattooing as career options after graduation. She credits McTaggart with encouraging her creativity.
“I know he is supportive of me,” she said.
Tetrault agrees McTaggart brings out the best in artists he works with.
“Malcolm has an artist temperament and doesn’t consider boundaries and doesn’t want to work within conventional constraints and wants to push things technically and wants to push his students and sets the groundwork and lets them take their artistic impression and I like that,” he said.
David Thompson secondary, which opened in 1958, has a tradition of displaying public art on its walls — a giant, multicouloured tile-mural depicting David Thompson’s life, completed in 1961, still greets visitors in the large lobby.
But it is the more modern pieces McTaggart’s classes have contributed that stand out. To the right of the entrance, a yet-to-be completed multi-layered wood piece of the Silk Road catches the eye with its 3-D details of wagon trains and merchants winding from east to west and seemingly out of the picture — McTaggart said it took 10 pieces of plywood to create the piece. The Silk Road image is symbolic of the diversity within the school and he hopes some of the students from his Grades 9 to 12 classes can finish the piece this year. He says that about many of the nearly completed pieces throughout the school.
“They have taken on a life of their own,” said McTaggart.
Tetrault added, “No blank wall is safe if Malcolm is around.”
A new mural will be unveiled during David Thompson’s fine arts week April 22 to 25. More details will be available closer to the date at thompson.vsb.bc.ca.