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Artist and teacher has become a pupil and painter of nature

This week we are Following Up with artist and activist Sharyn Seibert who is preparing a TED Talk called Art Activism and How I Found My Muse

When GuelphToday first profiled Sharyn Seibert in March 2017 she shared a number of stories about her experiences creating and teaching art during a career that spanned more than 30 years.

Seibert talked about the healing influence of art and the many times it helped her transcend cultural and language barriers whether she was oil painting in Florence, Italy or embroidering moose hair in a remote Cree community in York Landing, Manitoba.

Art was a language Seibert understood intimately but later in her career she grew distracted and feared she was losing her artistic voice.

“I struggled,” she said. “I struggled with what my purpose was. I finished teaching and was looking for meaning.”

In November of 2016 she contributed some of her work to an exhibit at 10 Carden that featured a collective of artists helping to raise money and awareness about the efforts of the Yorklands Green Hub.

The goal of the group is to protect the delicate ecology of the former Ontario Reformatory lands on York Road and to purchase approximately seven per cent of the property.

“It’s owned by the province and it is imminent that it is coming up for sale,” said Seibert. “Excess property is offered to non-profits before it goes on the general market. The whole parcel is 1,000 acres. Yorklands wants 70 acres. It would be a tragedy if that was paved over or bulldozed.”

Seibert had fond memories of visiting the site with her family as a child but revisiting it as an adult and seeing it under threat had a profound impact on her.

“This has been a phenomenal way for me to have a focus for my work but also bring a benefit to the community,” she said. “It became almost an obsession going out there for the last two years. The springtime, the winter the fall it is all so incredibly beautiful.”

That obsession translated into a growing body of work part of which is on exhibit at Atmosphere Café on Carden Street.

The exhibit includes large and small canvases depicting the landscape, flora and fauna of the property during all the seasons. A percentage of the sale of paintings will go to the Yorklands Green Hub project.

“I feel like I was reincarnated there from a human into a water buffalo because I get my rubber boots on and I go splashing out there,” she said. “I love that swamp in the west end. I put my chair right in the water and sit there with my canvases.”

She draws inspiration not just from the natural beauty of the land but the stories of how it was created by an effort to reform prisoners through fulfilling work and the creation of beauty.

“This came from the city’s Beautiful Movement and that whole thing was influenced by the same landscape architect that designed Central Park in New York ,” said Seibert. “They thought beautifying your surroundings was really good for your mental health. There are such incredible stories that have come out of there.”

Seibert spoke about the rejuvenating effect of the natural environment during the opening of her exhibit at Atmosphere Café May 23 and presented some of the science to back it up.

“Dr. Dakner Keltner at Berkley, studied awe-inspiring experiences and he said, when you are met with a beautiful sunset or anything that evokes awe in you it is good for the soul but it also has surprising benefits. Your problem solving is better for some reason. You feel more in touch with the big plan. You feel there is something bigger than you.”

Saving the property, she has come to love – her muse – is something bigger than Seibert and she hopes her efforts will inspire other artists and musicians to use their talents for the cause.

“I envision and hope that musicians can go up there and get the word out in song and through performance and more visual art,” she said. “I think it is just a treasure trove for artists.”

Even the stone walls where her paintings are hanging at Atmosphere have a connection to the story.

“These stones would have been from the same quarry on Stone Road as those used to build the reformatory,” said Seibert. “So, I think it is very fitting that they are here with this background.”

Seibert said the ever-changing landscape of the former Ontario Reformatory lands and efforts to preserve it has given her a new lease on life.

“I could just work on Yorklands for the rest of my life and it would still provide inspiration,” she said. “I applied to do a TED Talk on this in September. It’s called Art Activism and How I Found My Muse.”