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By Russ Cooper
Seeing beauty in the face of disrepair takes a special eye. Helping to uncover that beauty and share it with the community takes a special heart.
The students and lecturer of ARTE 432 are lucky enough to have both.
Aimed at preparing students to develop and carry out a community-based art program, Art Education lecturer Carol Beer Houpert's ARTE 432 is helping to restore NDG's Empress Theatre – a spectacular auditorium that's seen years of neglect.
Located on Sherbrooke St. W., the Empress is a rare find anywhere – it's one of the last Egyptian-themed art nouveau theatres in North America. Beer Houpert and her class is now in the stages of laying down the figurative foundation for the rebirth of the Empress. When the class entered the theatre for the first time, they discovered it had suffered serious abuse from vandals and squatters. Those who had misused the theatre weren't shy about 'marking their territory' or scratching graffiti into the walls. But rather than seeing the ugliness in what had become of the theatre, the class saw the beauty in the artistic process.
“We decided that since it had been covered with graffiti, we went with a graffiti theme," says Beer Houpert. "We repainted parts of the interior with white paint, and our students created graffiti that made sense."
Among other objectives, ARTE 432 aims to have students develop successful response activities relating to art history and aesthetics; to research cultural, social and historical conceptual themes and adapt the activities to the needs of various populations; and participate in an eight-week fieldwork placement in a community setting where they develop a personal philosophy relating to the teaching of art.
For the students, the class is perfect for putting their knowledge into action. Fourth-year students become mentors for second- and third-year students, providing their mentees the cooperative leadership to go into community sites and provide the skills to carry out community-based art programs.
By their fourth year, students have acquired a vast reservoir of art smarts and techniques to affect a community. Working in teams, the students themselves decide where and how they would like to make an impact. “It’s art made for the public. We’re saying, ‘this is your space, your community.'"
The class has been working in collaboration with the Empress Cultural Centre, a community organization dedicated to restoring the NDG theatre. Operating with a budget of only a few thousand dollars, the partnership is helping to prepare the Empress to house the Geordie Theatre Company in as little as two years. The class will continue into next semester (as ARTE 434) as Beer Houpert will collaborate with Concordia's head of Community Art Department Linda Szabad-Smyth to help build further installations and mosaics in the Empress.
Flowing with positivity, the Empress project itself has taken on an inclusive spirit, embracing all possible characteristics of its NDG home; all ages, colours and creeds are reflected in the class' restoration project.
The students have demonstrated a fervent commitment to the project – a devotion that's transcending the regulated school hours. For Beer Houpert, this is a sign her students truly appreciate what art can contribute to a community.
“We’ve all really enjoyed it. It's been a real privilege to be part of a project like this," she says. "The students have been continuing the work in their own time. When a student uses their own time, you know they’re passionate about the project.”