Painter taps into theme of social activism

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Carolyn Vienneau's art has always been a reflection of her personal
circumstances.

Carolyn Vienneau’s art reflects a life of always reaching for the next experience and always responding to the latest reality.

Vienneau is best known for her painting and jewelry making but she is as much innovator as artist and has always had a penchant for social activism. She grew up in Pictou, the daughter of a fisherman and a mother who did not consider herself artistic although she was an accomplished seamstress, quilter and rug-hooker.

“Looking back I was always creative but it wasn’t until Grade 5 that I began to think seriously about art and that happened because I did a watercolour painting that impressed a teacher and she encouraged me,” said Vienneau.

There was no money for art lessons in a fishing family but Vienneau’s interest in art grew and by the time she was a teenager an older sister provided steady encouragement.

“She was 17 years older than me and she had started to paint so she shared what she’d learned with me. Painting became something to do when we were together. Many years later both she and my mother took lessons from me.”

As a young mother, Vienneau took once-a-week lessons.

“I was improving and selling a few paintings. In those days I had to sell my work to pay for my lessons. If I wasn’t selling anything I’d be wondering if I should be spending money on lessons when there were other things the family needed. Gradually, I went to workshops and a week of lessons and I still do.”

Vienneau’s husband, Gerald, who worked as a mechanic, suffered a series of debilitating strokes when the couple’s two sons were in their late teens.

“Our circumstances changed pretty drastically. Gerald required 24 hour care and my only income was from a part-time job at the liquor store.”

Vienneau assessed the possibilities and decided to convert her husband’s shop in their drive-in basement to an art studio so she could give lessons, calling it Strokes of Colour.

“His strokes, my colour. I wanted to be able to involve Gerald in the project and he was in a wheelchair so that got me thinking about people with disabilities. I decided my studio had to be accessible to people with limitations and people with limitations have taught me so much since those early days.”

Oil painting had become her passion but she switched her personal focus to making glass jewelry.

“Gerald had always supported my art and I realized that if I started working in fused glass he would be able to do the grinding for me, one of the few things he could do. One of his caregivers started taking lessons with me and we still go to shows and on art trips together.”

Vienneau cared for her husband at home for 10 years before his death in a nursing home.

“I had to step back from the kind of art I was involved with but I learned that art can be adapted, it is a very broad category. Even today I get involved in things that don’t seem like art but somehow, for me, it all comes together in a form of art.”

Most recently Vienneau adapted her art in response to a family tragedy. Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Cole Harbour, whose suicide has been blamed on cyber-bullying, was her grandniece.

“I wanted to do something to help Leah (Rehtaeh’s mother) and I wanted to try to change the way teenagers think about cyber-bullying. I was asking myself how I could use my skills and talent and I thought back to how much my students with limitations had opened up when they were involved with art. From there I just jumped into it.”

Vienneau has organized an art exhibit including 14 professional artists and nine students, four from a Pictou youth program and five whom she met at a Pictou County Roots for Youth Society girls’ night.

“I knew I had to give them something new to work with so I started thinking about new acrylics and digital transfers. I showed them how they can add a message to a piece of art and I’m so happy with what the students have accomplished.”

The exhibit, which includes Vienneau’s own life-size painting of a happy Rehtaeh, is on display at Celtic Circle until the end of May and will then move to Cole Harbour. Vienneau has also been invited to bring the show to Prince Edward Island.

“Right now I am very excited that Justice Minister Peter MacKay will be coming to the exhibit and addressing 50 or 60 students about the laws on cyber-bullying.”

MacKay will be at the exhibit May 16.

The exhibit and the sale of tickets on a donated piece of art will help fund the Cole Harbour’s Ray of Hope Centre for teens at risk.

“Rehtaeh was a sensitive, artistic girl. What happened to her destroyed her soul, we lost her and  we can’t bring her back but we have to carry on with the tools we have to bring about change.  Art is a soft approach to educating young people about the terrible consequences of cyber-bullying.”

- Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca

Organizations: Youth Society, Hope Centre

Geographic location: Pictou, Prince Edward Island, Stellarton

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