Maureen Atkinson became a teacher because she wanted to find a way to incorporate her love of art into her everyday life.
“I had done some of the art in Laval, in Quebec, and I much enjoyed it, and I was thinking about, how can I have this in my life?” she said.
But long before Laval, Atkinson had been interested in art for as long as she can remember, and has become a ‘Jill of all trades’ in the art world — though none would add the ‘master of none’ after seeing her work.
“I’ve always been interested in art. I’ve painted and watercolour-ed and did clay and crafts, knitted, and it’s been part of my life my whole life. So it was something I knew I needed to do even before I did my degree.”
Atkinson did her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria, a French and Arts degree at Université Laval in Quebec, and her teaching degree at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
After all that studying, Atkinson got a job teaching French at Mount Elizabeth Middle/Secondary School (MEMSS) here in Kitimat, and moved up north in 1989.
She taught French for a few years before moving to the old Cormorant Elementary School (now Kitimat City High School) and taught French Immersion and English kindergarten for eight years.
From there, she went back to MEMSS as an art teacher and has been there since, and said she loves getting to incorporate her passion into her career.
“All my life I would like to have art involved in some way and teaching is one of the ways you’re able to have art in your career as well as your life, and be able to touch others’ lives, the children’s lives, as well,” she said. “And be able to have my enthusiasm, because I’m very enthusiastic about what I do and I try to encourage children as much as possible.”
One project of her students’ she’s particularly proud of is the annual Grade Seven clay fish project, something she’s been doing since she first started teaching art at MEMSS.
“[Fish] have got wonderful texture, because you can see the scales, the texture, and the bones in the fish and the fins and everything. And it’s something that we can put together piece by piece and they can accomplish,” she said. “It’s funny now when I talk to some of the kids, you know, 15 years later and I ask them if they still have their fish, and they still do.”
However, this year’s group of fish were bitter-sweet for Atkinson, as she’s retiring in January 2021.
“This is my very last time doing this project,” she said. “I was going to go to the end of the year, but I decided to stop a little earlier because I was able and I’m finding COVID-19 a little difficult.”
Atkinson said COVID-19 has made it difficult for her to form relationships with the students and connect with them and their art pieces, which is one of the main reasons she got into teaching in the first place.
“I can develop relationships with them and we can share our love of art. And, yeah, that’s one of the hard parts about being in COVID times — it’s one of the reasons why I’m retiring — it’s really hard to develop that same relationship.”
She said she can no longer work with students one-on-one to help them further develop projects, the students can’t intermingle while in the classroom with those outside of their cohort, and she can’t walk around the room to help them as easily, either.
“I like to walk around the class and give them encouragement as needed, and try to find ways if they’re struggling, how to help them when they’re struggling, adapting things to make things work for them,” she said. “Yeah, just that relationship that you can have in an art room that you can’t have in a math class or other places, because they’re also sharing a little bit of their soul, because that’s part of the art, is letting yourself be vulnerable.”
However, Atkinson added that she feels very lucky to have had the time she’s had in her career as an art teacher, and to have had the experiences and memories that will last her a lifetime.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had children choose art so that I’d be able to have a career here because, you know, I’ve just been very lucky that my students have chosen to create this job for me.”
When Atkinson first started in the art world, she mostly painted with watercolours. From there, she moved into acrylics and painting landscapes, which is what she’s best known for right now. In her retirement, Atkinson wants to move into painting in oils. They’re more luminous and richer in colour and she wants to experiment with that.
Atkinson is excited every time she transitions to working in a new medium. Along with painting, she does clay work, weaving, and many other types of art.
She was introduced to weaving shortly after she moved to Kitimat and immediately fell in love with it.
“I tried it and loved it right from the beginning, and I’ve been weaving ever since.”
She weaves blankets, tea towels, scarves, and works with fibres including silk, cotton, and wool. She’s also made many friends through painting and weaving, including Jackie Worboys, Kathleen Stuart, and Kris Lewis, who she’s done workshops and art shows with, and who she said have been a great support in her life in the art world.
“I’m ready to start my new life, though I have fabulous friends here that I’m going to miss sorely. And the walks in the woods,” she said. “I’m going to miss those hikes to Hirsch Creek and to Coho Flats. Fire Mountain Lookout, I’m going to miss that, and all the friends that I got to do that with. And my fellow artists, I’m going to miss them, too.”
Atkinson said that, along with her friends, her students are some of the people she’s going to miss the most, especially because of the connections she’s built with them and the school during her many years here.
“Erin Hutson, Emily Almeida, Presley Carvalho, Reese and Alicia Luethje, Michaela Tait and Emma Sali among many others,” she said, naming off students she’s taught who she remembers clearly for their passion for art and incredible skills.
And because art is an elective that can be taken every year, some of those students she’s taught every year from middle school all the way up to their final year of high school.
“The students for me — because I don’t have any of my own children — are almost like my own,” she added. “Some of the Grade 12 students I’ve taught four or five times.”
Atkinson will be moving to Vancouver Island, to her house on Bear Mountain near Langford. Her husband has been there for about six months, taking care of the house and his parents. She’s very excited to get down there to join him.
She’s also looking forward to doing some oil painting as well as more weaving and clay work. Atkinson said she hopes to enter some of her pieces into art markets and craft fairs once they start opening up again post-COVID-19.
As for her life in Kitimat and at MEMSS, Atkinson said she just wanted to say thanks.
“Mostly just thank you,” she said, “for acceptance and support. For confidence in me that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
And while she’s sad to leave, she said she’s absolutely excited for the “opportunity to start my new chapter with a life that I hope is full of art.”