Island artist Sheila McDermid finds personal growth in online classes

Author and artist Sheila McDermid is discovering the joys, and challenges, of conducting art classes online. Ms. McDermid is pictured with a copy of one of her Hawbear series of books.

MANITOULIN – As Thursday evening approaches, artist/teacher Sheila McDermid gathers up her paints and materials and settles in front of the camera and lights to prepare to go online. Her students, in the meantime, are also settling in front of their computers ready for this week’s foray into a world of creativity bounded only by the limits of the imagination. Her classes have proven a godsend for the mental health and wellbeing of hundreds of people currently isolated in their homes.

But Ms. McDermid is the first to admit that she never would have pictured herself delivering courses in art through online teaching.

“This has really been quite the learning curve for me,” she laughed. Although she has been teaching art classes for many years it has always been a face-to-face engagement. “I am so used to being there in person to help people when they are struggling.”

Overcoming that digital divide has not only taken some getting used to for the artist, but there is a whole new skillset to master as well. “I started out just using my phone,” she confided, “but I was just online looking at some equipment to help make things better for the people on the other side of the lens.”

Ms. McDermid began her online efforts with a local page for her usual students. “At first it was just a handful of people, but then it began to balloon to 72, now, the last time I checked, I was up to 425 students,” she said. What is truly amazing is that her page isn’t open to the public, per se. “I didn’t want to be wide open,” she said. “But then people started recommending me to their friends and family. I just approve the requests to join.”

Now there are people on the classes from Thunder Bay, Alberta and even Michigan. “It’s all basically just family members of my students,” she said. Even though her art sales are taking quite a hit from the impact of the pandemic, Ms. McDermid has not been charging for her classes online. “I am just doing a bit of custom work these days,” she said. 

Ms. McDermid has been working largely in basic colours and materials in her online classes. “With the stores all being closed it’s a lot harder to get supplies so we are trying to limit it to things you are more likely to have at hand,” she said. So perhaps some classes using mustard and ketchup are in the offing? “Well, maybe,” she laughs, “but definitely not toilet paper.”

“She started about a month ago,” said student Penny George, who notes the classes have become a great social touchstone for her family and friends. “My neighbours from up the road, my daughter-in-law is one of the group, it really is helping us all get through this.”

And how is the learning going?

“Fantastic,” said Ms. George of the artist, “she is a teacher through and through.”

“Feel free to share with others who may be interested in taking tole painting classes or loves re-loved pieces of furniture,” Ms. McDermid notes on her Facebook page ‘Paint a Little.’ “I love taking something old and making it new again.”

Not a bad way to while away a Thursday evening in pandemic captivity at all.