Alumna leads the charge on changing perceptions of art
October 11, 2019
Okanagan (Kelowna, BC)
Master of Education, UBC Okanagan (2019)
Master of Art History, Carleton University (2015)
Bachelor of Arts, UBC Okanagan (2012)
”I think you can be a creative person without being Van Gogh. It’s that idea of us all being artists in our lives. We create our own journey. We create our own experiences.”
“WE’RE ALL ARTISTS.” As the Curator of Learning and Engagement at the Kelowna Art Gallery, Laura Wyllie lives and breathes these words — and it’s a mantra she reinforces with her Kelowna Art Gallery visitors.
Wyllie sits in the middle of the community space room in the Kelowna Art Gallery. She points at a few of the pieces and shares anecdotes about how they came to be. Looking right at home — and in fact she jokes that she has a cot upstairs — it’s hard to believe she had any other career in mind when she started post-secondary.
A CHANGE OF FOCUS
The Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education alumna started at UBC in 2007 with the dream of a career in architecture.
Halfway through her undergrad with high grades, Wyllie was a perfect fit for her peer tutor role in UBC’s Supplemental Learning group. It wasn’t long until her sessions had at least 30 students voluntarily coming and classroom averages were significantly improving.
“I had never thought I would be an educator. It just wasn’t on my radar at all,” she emphasizes. “[But] it was a really cool and rewarding experience that I never had before so I thought okay, maybe I might want to teach. How do I do that? How do I still care about architecture while teaching at the same time?”
That’s when Wyllie considered becoming a professor.
“If I was a professor I could teach at a post-secondary level and still keep my research interests in architecture…the only way I could do that was to get my MA first.”
After completing her undergraduate degree with a major in Art History and Visual Culture, and a -minor in English at UBC Okanagan, Wyllie moved to Ottawa, Ont. to continue her studies at Carleton University and pursue a Master of Art History. It wasn’t long before self-discovery again shifted Wyllie’s path.
“I realized really quickly I am more of a people-person,” she says with a laugh. “I want to work with people and couldn’t see myself researching all the time — and seeing the ratio of teaching to research I thought maybe there is something different.”
In her second year, Wyllie decided to extend her master’s and complete a six-month practicum rather than write a thesis. Her practicum was in the Education, Public, and Community Programs department at the Ottawa Art Gallery. It was here where a clear picture of her future began to emerge.
“I had my aha moment,” her smile grows, “I could combine my passion for art, my interest in architecture and pursue all these things while working with a diverse range of people. It blew me away that I could start my day with a seniors group and end my day with a pre-school group while still researching, setting up cool exhibitions and learning about the artists that were exhibiting at the gallery.”
Excited, Wyllie immediately started looking into career options. She found there weren’t many similar gallery positions in Canada, and those that existed often required a specific knowledge set.
“I started applying to art galleries across Canada and a lot of them were asking what experience do you have with education or curriculum?”
Her path clear, Wyllie considered her options, and decided to again further her education. Drawn by positive memories of her BA experience, Wyllie began investigating the Okanagan School of Education, Master of Education (MEd) program.
Accepted to the MEd program and finding herself back in Kelowna, Wyllie began looking for a summer job prior to classes starting in the fall. As if predestined, the Kelowna Art Gallery was looking for summer students.
“Within one week of working [at the Kelowna Art Gallery], I was helping with the end of the year school trip program and I was like, ‘Whoa this is my job!’ It was so cool. I was just so blown away.”
Once she completed her summer student position, Wyllie was asked to stay and cover a six-month leave for the head of public programs — and that turned into a permanent role.
It was during her first semester of the MEd that the Art Gallery Director approached her and encouraged her to carve her own path in the position. In discussions with her educator peers, Wyllie was convinced that she could boost numbers for the school tour program.
Flash forward to present day, Wyllie has increased school tours by 55 per cent in four years — from approximately 150 to 322 in 2019.
“It was absolutely what I learned in the MEd program. I was able to go to school and theorize and research, and then turn around and apply that to my practice.”
Her graduate supervisor, Margaret Macintyre Latta, director of the Okanagan School of Education, says Wyllie also had a profound impact on her peers. “Laura is a strong example of a non-traditional educator,” says Macintyre Latta. “She demonstrated what valuable resources can be found in the community to her Kindergarten to Grade 12 educator peers, and encouraged them to think outside the box.”
Wyllie was also attending classes during a time of change for most educators — the introduction of a new BC curriculum.
“I was in some ways on the same page as a lot of teachers in my classes. They were learning the new curriculum while I was learning curriculum for the very first time. Another thing I was able to draw parallels to in my program was that public art galleries, especially in the last five years, are really shifting in thinking about visitor experience and inquiry-based approaches to learning. This drew a lot of parallels to the new BC curriculum.”
In the four years Wyllie has been at the Kelowna Art Gallery, her team has transformed from a solo act to include three program assistants, four students during the summer months and more than 25 volunteers that assist in leading tours. Volunteers range from retired art teachers to Bachelor of Fine Arts and Education students.
In her role, Wyllie creates a variety of classes, camps and workshops coordinated with the exhibits at the Kelowna Art Gallery. A true collaborator, she still connects with her former MEd peers to seek feedback, find out what they’re doing in their classrooms and collaborate on ways she could complement their lessons.
There are many opportunities to connect with new people and those she’s met along her path. The art gallery’s programs are often taught by local artists, including UBCO faculty, with the goal of being affordable and accessible.
In addition to developing programs, Wyllie works with partners to curate the community space at the front of the art gallery — which is always free to walk through.
With Wyllie’s close ties to UBCO, it wasn’t long before student art was being showcased at the gallery.
“Laura had reached out to me with a desire to showcase new student work which led into the curation of ‘Monitor’, a group video-installation project that examines issues of internet surveillance,” explains Professor Myron Campbell of the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies.
“I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive and professional collaborator on organizing this exhibit. Laura was crucial in the planning and installation of the show and we were both very proud of the end result.”
Since then she’s worked with the faculty on several other student exhibitions and events. More recently, Viral Objects showcased an interdisciplinary collaboration with 45 sculptural objects constructed from cardboard.
Along with her work with the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies, Wyllie also has teacher candidates from the Okanagan School of Education that join her each May for their Community Field Experience.
It’s obvious that Wyllie’s dedication and passion led her to her dream career. It’s that same passion that has her leading the charge on making art accessible for all by helping to change visitors’ perceptions.
“We’re all artists…I think you can be a creative person without being Van Gogh. It’s that idea of us all being artists in our lives. We create our own journey. We create our own experiences.”
As an authentic educator, Wyllie not only shares this belief, she lives it.
During her time as a Bachelor of Arts student, Professor Carolyn MacHardy recommended Wyllie for a Go Global program in Italy.
“I remember she told me this was just the opportunity for me,” says Wyllie reflecting back on the memory fondly. “I felt supported by the faculty. They knew what I was interested in.”
Wyllie was accepted to the Go Global program, and she and 30 other students travelled throughout Italy for a month, starting in Venice and ending in Verona.
“Venice was the most memorable part of the trip. It was where we started the program as well, so I think it really stands out in my memory as my first time travelling to Europe, getting off the plane and having to take a water taxi from the airport.”
Prior to leaving for Italy, Wyllie had selected the Palazzo Del Te building in Mantua for her research project. She and another classmate presented on the building together, standing in front of it.
“It was truly an unforgettable experience to present on such a historic piece of architecture right there in person. It brought a real authenticity to my learning and research.”
The Go Global program has had a lasting impact on Wyllie.
“Seeing works of art in-person that I had only ever learned about it textbooks felt surreal. It brought an authenticity to my learning that I’d never experienced before,” says Wyllie. “The trip inspired me to continue in the field of visual arts and I left Italy with a greater appreciation for all arts.“