Artist-Educator pilot program hosted by Debajehmujig Theatre Group

MANITOWANING—An innovative skills development workshop for artists was unveiled last month in Manitowaning when more than two dozen artists from all over Ontario converged on Debajehmujig Theatre Group’s Creation Centre for a five-day intensive training for artist-educators.

Developed as part of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Learning Through the Arts program, and funded by the Ontario Arts Council, the collaboration with Debajehmujig represents the first time an indigenous perspective has been incorporated into the Artist-Educator Foundations Course design.

“Crafted for artists who are already engaged in arts education, and for those who would like to learn more about arts education,” the course teaches participants techniques that more effectively engage learners in the arts. The group of approximately 32 artists participated in sessions on lesson planning and teaching strategies in a “creative laboratory” to learn to apply their diverse practices within educational and community settings.

The pilot Artist-Educator Foundations Course on Manitoulin was created by four expert artist-practitioners who also facilitated the workshop at the Creation Centre: Bruce Naokwegijig, director, actor and Artistic Director of Professional Training at Debajehmujig; Nicole Fougere, dancer, choreographer, arts animator and Manager of Artist-Educator Programs at the Royal Conservatory; Jani Lauzon, multi-disciplinary artist, actor, director and dramaturge; and Joahnna Berti, director of professional training, outreach and education at Debajehmujig Storytellers. Together they designed “a new alternative route to the destination of artist-educator, aligned with an indigenous perspective on arts education.”

Traditional knowledge-keepers Jeannette Corbiere Lavell and David “Sonny” Osawabine were present to weave First Nation teachings into each day’s activities, which began with a smudge of sage, the fragrant smoke grounding the participants and the proceedings in the healing properties of the ancient ceremony.

Sitting in a large circle in Debaj’s lofty theatre space, the painters, musicians, weavers, sculptors, poets, dancers, performers, facilitators and traditional teachers experimented with imaginative and dynamic teaching and learning strategies combined with improvisational theatre techniques and traditional knowledge. Many of the activities took the form of games in which everyone participated; the room was the scene of much hilarity as some formed thunderclouds pierced by lightning zaps, while others swirled in a tail around the eye of a hurricane, everyone making appropriate storm sounds accompanied by pounding feet. Stories made the rounds, each participant embellishing the narrative in turn. Each was interviewed by peers in groups of three, pulling out and recording career experience and objectives to be crafted later into a personal artist statement, questions were tossed out for reflection after which everyone scribbled furious notes imagining their best artistic and teaching selves, remembering the paths taken in their art practices, grasping their aspirations in writing. Inhibitions were cast aside during the week as participants made simple oral statements composed of a word, a sentence, sometimes whole paragraphs revealing themselves to themselves and to the others in answer to questions and in the games.

Joahnna Berti says these are “creative teaching strategies that create an internal awareness in the learner of what educators are conveying”—this is “deep teaching” for more keenly-felt learning. According to the Royal Conservatory, the highly interactive approach to art education “is created by artists for artists and combines educational content and theory with a creative ‘laboratory” environment’.” The goal is to cultivate artists’ skills in education, including developing lesson plans, effective communication and partnerships with schools and communities.

Led by Nicole Fougere, everyone was invited to partner to create a lesson plan to present their own 1.5-hour course on Friday using the new techniques. Performance artist paired with painter, actor with sculptor and musician with glass etcher, the combinations producing strikingly innovative approaches to education. Each educator pair sought to engage their students in thoughtful new ways that filled the classroom with humour, reflection and improvisation; canvas was unfurled for painting, video clips ran on the large screen, markers were deployed for all to use, music played, drums beat. Lessons were learned, and indeed keenly felt. “Arts education is about transformation,” says Nicole, a self-described “transformation specialist” who is also the living definition of boundless creative energy—an animator who is passionate about her life’s work. In addition to preparing a teaching presentation, participants staged interviews with prospective employers, pitching ideas for their courses, often geared to remote communities with complex requirements.

Throughout the week, traditionalists Jeanette and Sonny gave teachings indoors and out, illustrated with carvings and a cedar tree rooted in a pot at the centre of the alcove reserved for the smouldering smudge. Jani Lauzon, in her strong, clear voice, taught everyone a haunting ‘Travelling Song’ as she beat a small hand drum; the song drifted through the room many times during the week, beginning and ending the days with uplifted spirits. Jani’s long career in theatre, now bonded with traditional and contemporary teachings in education and the arts, ensured dynamic, meaningful and fun interactions.

Bruce Naokwegijig, who has been with Debaj since he was 11 when the company was just starting up, is an accomplished animator whose sense of humour made for a relaxed and easy learning environment. Joahnna Berti’s organizational prowess, honed during her 30 years with Debaj, kept things running smoothly while she led and took part in the week’s workshops with vigour, discipline and a ready smile.

Lunch was prepared and served in the bright communal kitchen with attached greenhouse where nnew conversations and friendships were seeded every day. When it wasn’t raining, participants walked in Manitowaning, stopping in shops and visiting landmarks. Shuttle vans took visitors to the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre where they were staying, while others stayed in Manitowaning motels and nearby cabin rentals; Island residents drove home every evening. In the much-appreciated warmth of a sunny afternoon, Anishinaabe teachings were shared outside on the patio. The spacious gallery was first filled with Ron Berti’s large-scale sepia photographs, then the exhibit was replaced with colourful painted banners of community elders; the piano found several talented players. Creativity oozes from the aptly-named Creation Centre, a public institution that is open to all to visit throughout the year.

The final day of the course saw all the classroom presentations given and critiqued, the artist statements handed in, and readings of the little birch bark notes that participants had hung on the cedar tree the previous days. The course, which was predicated on “asking students what they want to learn” and on encouraging the positive engagement of teacher and student, was deemed a success by participants and facilitators alike. Blending new educational techniques with traditional knowledge was an experiment that hopefully will be repeated in more Ontario communities: creativity melded with traditional wisdom, a leading-edge concept in teaching and learning with a far-reaching impact on the future of education.