Our diverse experiences shape the choice and direction of a career transition. Integrating our personal and work experiences illuminates the unique perspectives we have gained, the skills and capacities we have developed; it helps us to contemplate what might be possible. In this interview, visual artist Siobhan Arnott generously shares the experiential journeys that shaped and motivated her career transition, a transition also filled with personal meaning.
Can you describe the transition you made from a career in indigenous relations and environmental policy to full-time artist?
Robert Hinchley, printmaker, and teacher at the Ottawa School of Art (OSA) is one of the key people who opened me to the possibilities of pursuing full-time studies in fine arts and the confidence to do so. I was passionate about my work in Indigenous relations and environmental policy and enjoyed a multi-varied career working for a diversity of organizations from Indigenous organizations to NGOs to government. Yet, I always gravitated towards opportunities to put my design skills into practice and felt as if I was repressing an important part of myself.
Solo travel is perhaps where my new life began. In a desire to capture my adventures abroad, I began to take a long a sketchbook and create travel journals combing both sketches and stories of my experiences. This led to my taking evening classes at the OSA in sculpture, watercolors, and drawing and printmaking. I enjoyed them all, but it was walking into the printmaking studio that I knew I had come home. The daughter of a printmaker, the sound of the etching press and brayers pulling ink felt so familiar and I loved the diversity of techniques this medium offered me. I eventually worked up the courage to ask if I might be considered for OSA’s Portfolio Development program with a view to applying for the Fine Arts Diploma program. It is Rob that encouraged me and by the following September I was a full-time student. Today, I am in my second year, have exhibited my works, established a website and am receiving commissions. I have never been happier.
The underlying narrative of the work(s) you create as an artist are rooted in the relationships we have with “self”, with nature, with healing and with history, to name a few examples. Can you comment on the importance of these relationships to your work?
My artworks are designed to inspire journeys – whether of healing or across the world – and introduce just a touch of whimsy into people’s lives. Restorative nature and the strength of the human spirit are two key themes I explore in my printmaking. I enjoy the multi-varied techniques printmaking employs. However, I am especially drawn to carving and hand-printing woodcuts and linocuts; this tactile process is itself healing. With my resulting images, I encourage others to build resilience and find joy by pursuing their passions, spending time in nature, and challenging themselves to new adventures whether in their own neighborhoods or across the world.
Resilience and supporting others to be resilient is of great importance to me. My own life story includes significant loss. Grief still haunts me on occasion. To keep moving forward felt overwhelming at times. What drew me forward and got me moving from that place was the knowledge that I needed to be there for my two daughters, as imperfect a parent as I might be! My friends gave me their unlimited support and a safe space to grieve.
Ultimately, I had to take responsibility for my own healing and find the tools to rebuild my life. Each person is unique. In my case, I realized I had to be active and get outdoors every day if possible; help others and drive change in community mental health but only in a manner that felt comfortable to me; see friends often; challenge myself to pursue new activities and interests regardless of being solo whether taking a wilderness first aid course in the backcountry or traveling abroad; ask for help no matter how vulnerable that made me; and, to be courageous enough to leave a secure profession to explore my passion no matter where that path might lead.
Community advocacy and engagement are important to you. In the past few years, you have brought together art and mental health. Can you comment on the importance of this relationship for you?
In 2019, Family Services Ottawa (FSO) graced me with the Joan Gullen Award for Social Justice in recognition of my fundraising work for their art-as-therapy and Art Studio programs. The latter program provided studio space, teaching, materials, exhibit support and even bus tickets for artists in Ottawa living with mental health challenges. ‘Artistic Resilience’ was the core theme of the fundraisers I had held at La Petit Mort Gallery, Shenkman Arts Centre and Orange Art Gallery, respectively. Each one featured live music, an art sale, and speeches by FSO clients and members of the Ottawa community affected by mental illness.
My initial driver for putting on these fundraisers was my experience of being the advocate for my mother, a successful visual artist who had battled schizoaffective disorder all her life. This illness led a woman who had held solo exhibits at age twenty, to lose her family, change countries, and spend long periods of time in institutions. Yet, she never lost her spirit and credited that to having access to art therapy while in care and Toronto’s Open Studio when she lost her home studio.
An artist to the end, Christine Ross, an award-winning printmaker, continued creating, exhibiting, and accepting commissions until late in life; only declaring three weeks before she died that she was ‘retired from art.’ She was more than her illness. Her legacy is that her daughter and two granddaughters, who had their earliest lessons with her, are now practicing artists. Art provides respite, it provides escape. Art heals.