Laying the Foundation for Growth

It seemed strange to me at first to feel inclined to dedicate a long post to an experience I had several years ago, but to be honest, it was such a profound one, that it is actually worthy of much more than a single blog post. I want to talk about being an artist-in-residence. 

Harbourfront Centre, south view.

A couple months after graduating from NSCAD University in 2012, I moved to Toronto to be an artist-in-residence at Harbourfront Centre, a multi-disciplinary arts centre located in the heart of the city. The residency lasted three years; it was intense, it was challenging, and at times, it was trying. However, above all, it was an undeniably transformative experience that truly impacted my path as an emerging artist.

Habourfront Centre has five very well-equipped studios that are dedicated to working in metal, ceramics, glass, textiles, and design. The residency program accepts recent graduates into each of the studios, providing a stepping stone to begin building a professional career. When I began my residency in 2012, I was one of six full time residents in the metal studio, and among many other very talented artists working in various disciplines. I was also one of very few fresh out of university, having literally just completed my BFA. Some had recently earned an MFA, or were at a completely different stage in their career or life. It was extremely intimidating at first, but it quickly became apparent that we were all there together with one thing in common: a passion and drive to create. 

I learned a lot over the three years I was a resident at Harbourfornt Centre. Even now, a couple years after my residency ended, I catch myself thinking about my experience often, and how it has had such a lasting impact on both myself and my career. I wanted to share a number of things in particular that I have learned from my time at Harbourfront Centre. All residencies are structured differently, and not everyone will have the opportunity to participate in one, however, the things I’ve learned have remained relevant to my life even outside of the residency program.

The Metal Studio at Harbourfront Centre.

1) Treat the opportunities you’re granted as privileges.

Opportunities are often earned, rather than being based upon entitlement, chance, or luck, and it is therefore important to recognize the responsibilities that come along with them. Acknowledging the circumstances surrounding an opportunity can help to drive dedication, and build respect. Upon accepting the role of artist-in-residence, I realized how fortunate I was to have been granted such an opportunity, and in turn, dedicated as much time and effort as I could to fostering my studio practise, and becoming an active part of the craft community at Harbourfront Centre.

2) Keep on keeping on.

Even on the most difficult days, trek onwards. It’s okay to take breaks sometime, and to take time off to clear your head, but no matter what, don’t give up. There were days, and even weeks, when showing up to the studio was a challenge; during creative roadblocks and periods where I felt very uninspired, making work can seem like such a gigantic feat. Showing up counts though, and as long as you continue to show up, at least you’re not moving backwards! On days when my mind felt blank, or completely jumbled, I would show up to the studio and just draw, or I would read, or take a walk, or talk to my studio mates. Anything to find a tiny spark of inspiration adds up until eventually one day you get “un-stuck”, and the enthusiasm to create finally returns.

Signs of a busy day in the studio...

Signs of a busy day in the studio...

3) Be respectful.

Working in a shared space is kind of like having roommates. Anyone who has ever lived with roommates will likely agree that communication is the key to success! Remember that everyone works differently, and has different work habits which are reflected in how we conduct ourselves in our workspaces. Some people like to have loud, energizing music beating in the background to keep momentum, while others prefer dead silence in order to maintain utmost focus. Some people thrive amidst what looks like a chaotic mess to another- and that’s okay! Do whatever you need to do to focus and get work done, as long as you are mindful and respectful of the needs of those around you. Seek compromise: maybe try putting on headphones if your music is distracting to someone else; clean up your workspace after a day’s work to help maintain some sort of collective order. Finally, don’t use judgement in a shared workspace, because there is no right or wrong way to get work done!

Sometimes I felt like I lived in the studio. My studio locker would suggest this was almost true!

4) Work together, not against.

Competition has its place, but in my mind, it doesn’t belong in a community where everyone shares a common passion. Sure, competition is sometimes what drives us to work harder, work faster, be better, do better, and advance further. However, I believe that sometimes the smarter route to moving forward is banding together with like-minded people, rooting each other on, celebrating each others achievements. So much of my experience at Harbourfront Centre is marked by learning from my peers; sharing resources, and being open about the challenges and successes faced in our practices. 

5) Give and Take (advice).

Strive to be open-minded and open-hearted. Take the time to listen to others, and be willing to accept advice. Everyone has different levels of knowledge, and comes from different life experiences, so listen to another’s perspective, even if it challenges your own. Learn to take advice, even if it’s not what you wish to hear, and be willing to offer advice to help guide someone else. When I was a resident at Harbourfront Centre, I was like a sponge, especially in my first year. As I gained experience, I found myself in the position of passing along knowledge to new residents who entered the program later. Help each other out.

Harbourfront Centre is located on the edge of Lake Ontario. In the winter there is an outdoor skating area that overlooks the lake at the South side of the building.

6) Build and nurture relationships.

Don’t take relationships for granted. If you want a relationship to last, don’t expect the other person to remember you, or stick around unless you make the effort to nurture your connection. While living in Toronto, I had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people, and made some incredibly valuable contacts. Having said that, life is constantly in flux, and especially in Toronto, no one seems to stay in one place for too long. Making a point to check in with friends, fellow artists, and professional contacts will help maintain and build your support system, even if you’re not living or working in close proximity. I am still in very close contact with a number of artists and mentors I met through the residency at Harbourfront Centre, despite having moved to a different province.

7) Confront and challenge your fears.

This is a big one, and a good one to end with. If you have any hope or expectation to grow, you have to be prepared to feel uncomfortable- there’s no other way to do it. Having the opportunity to push yourself within a safe and supportive environment is ideal, and that’s ultimately what Harbourfront Centre provided me with. I experimented with my work in ways that made me feel vulnerable; I made work that I was really unhappy with, and made me question my worth and abilities as an “emerging artist”. Reaching a new level, and new chapter in my creative practice would never have been possible if I hadn’t been willing to test, and push my boundaries. 

I will be forever grateful for all I have learned from my artist-in-residency at Harbourfront Centre. If you have any questions about my experience, or questions regarding the residency, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! You can also find out more information here.