It is a staple of art-school graduations for the soon-to-be former students to hear some version of “the friends you have made here will be your strongest support network, because once you’re out there, no one really cares about your art. Keep them close, support each other, a career is a group effort.”

Prominent artists, generous patrons, noted alumni—all usually deliver a version of the same message. Even I did, almost a decade ago, at a NSCAD University graduation. We do it because it’s true. Once out of school, the chances of giving up on any idea of an art career are much higher than continuing on what is a difficult and often lonely path. A dedicated group of friends helps a lot.

In a recent column, I talked about the efforts of the Nova Scotia Talent Trust to ensure that young Nova Scotians get to study the fine arts. Another fine institution is Visual Arts Nova Scotia. Its raison d’être is ensuring that Nova Scotian artists get the support they need.

This is done though a magazine covering the arts in the region, workshops (on topics like making a website and doing taxes), and a mentorship program that pairs recent art-school grads with established artists for 10 months.

The mentors get a stipend, the mentees get regular meetings with their mentors, group meetings with all the mentees and their mentors, free access to all of the VANS workshops, and inclusion in an exhibition at the end of their program. They become part of a community and forge bonds that are invaluable as they develop their careers.

This month the most recent iteration of the Mentorship program alumni are exhibiting at the Craig Gallery at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth. Four emerging Nova Scotian artists (Carrie Allison, Emily Lawrence, Jenny Yujia Shi, and Katharine (Kyle) Vingoe-Cram) paired with established artist mentors Ursula Johnson, Peter Dykhuis, Charley Young, and Karin Cope.

Johnson and Allison created a collaborative work, while the other three displayed recent examples of their practices. Allison, originally from unceded and unsurrendered Coast Salish territory (Vancouver), has lived in Halifax sine 2010.

Johnson, the 2018 Sobey Art Award winner, is a Mi’kmaw artist from Cape Breton who also lives in Halifax. Their work The Chat is a sound installation that speaks to the heart of what the mentorship program hopes to achieve.

On a plain wooden table, set with two chairs, we see the tools and materials for aspects of both artists practices: beading for Allison and basket-making for Johnson. Near each chair hangs a set of headphones, and when donned, one can listen in on a conversation between the two artists about colonialism, reconciliation, and their (ultimately optimistic) hopes for the future of their peoples in a changing Canada.

It’s a very effective metaphor for the mentorship program, but also a deft piece of politics, evidence, as if we needed any more, that reconciliation in this country will only fail if settler culture lets First Nations down.

The remaining pairs showed works highlighting their ongoing practices, much of it smaller aspects of larger projects. In looking at the work one can see the affinities between the artists (Vingoe-Cram, showing pages from an ongoing graphic novel alongside Karin Cope’s poetry chapbook for instance), or Shi’s abstract paintings on Plexiglas (which are often realized as works directly on windows) and Charley Young’s architectural prints made from frottage (rubbing paper with ink over objects). Peter Dykhuis and Emily Lawrence share less obvious material concerns, but that sort of resonance is more of a byproduct than a goal of the program.

Less of an exhibition in the sense of a curated thematic whole than it is a snapshot, Group Effort works as a report to the community, a glimpse into a process that really unfolds in the meetings between the artists and their mentors. It plays out over years as these emerging artists evolve into established ones, who, one hopes, will eventually step up and pay the role of mentors themselves. Because as solitary as art-making can be, it is still a group effort.

Group Effort continues through July 21 at the Craig Gallery at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth. 

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