The term amateur is often used in a disparaging way, as if someone so named isn’t good enough to earn a living in a particular field — to become a professional.
But as artist Kathleen Knowling indignantly points out when talking about people who follow her calling, “amateur originally meant lover and whether amateur or professional they all love to draw. There are some very good amateurs.”
Knowling should know. Watercolourist Cathy Driedzic calls her one of the “godfathers” of the Newfoundland art scene. In 1977 she was instrumental in starting the Group of Seventy-Seven, a group of artists, both amateur and professional, who still get together on Thursdays to practice their craft.
Originally part of the Memorial University extension service, the group didn’t fold when that was shut down. They just moved on and for the last 22 years the group has been meeting at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre in the fourth floor rehearsal room where they hone their skills drawing from a life model.
When management at the centre decided that a good way to celebrate Culture Days might be to showcase some of the less publicly available art and culture that was flourishing beyond the familiar confines of the library, the concert hall and the basement theatre they invited the Group of Seventy-Seven to mount an exhibit.
It’s only the fourth time in the group’s history that they’ve exhibited together. Previous shows include a 25th anniversary show and one dedicated to long-time model Patrick Brown.
Artists were invited to submit up to three pieces of work of their choice, not necessarily something they created while with the group. No one curated the show although the works were hung by a small team of volunteers.
The result is an eclectic mix of styles and media.
Though he is best known for his landscapes, Knowling’s fellow “godfather” Gerald Squires has contributed three charcoal on paper sketches of a reclining figure. He was an early member of the group, but took an extended hiatus. Then about 10 years ago he decided to return.
“I wanted to keep my drawing skills up,” he says. “I go to draw from the nude and my drawing has improved 100 per cent.”
He attributes that improvement to both practise and the stimulation of working in concert with others, outside the often lonely confines of the studio.
“There’s no teaching; you’re on your own. Just turn up, bring $7 and your own materials and we provide the easel and a model. There’s no judgement and no critiquing. We don’t make any statement about who can draw and who can’t.”
John Bear has been with the group since he stopped working in 2002. He’s mainly focussed on sculpture and, unlike the rest, is displaying sculptures as part of the show. That might make him a bit of an odd man out, but he finds attending the group invaluable.
“Figure drawing is the background to everything. The beginning of representational art is learning to draw the human figure. If you can draw a person you can draw anything else,” he explains.
The Group of Seventy-Seven only takes up half the space, however. Two walls are devoted to the works of Monday’s Company, a class conducted by Diana Dabinett that also makes use of the space at the Arts and Culture Centre. The group consists of about 17 members and has been meeting for 20 years.
Dabinett explains how the group works. “I try to have a bit of a focus so they learn about techniques in a number of different media. They don’t all paint like me. They’re all different and that’s important to me.”
She appreciates the support the group has received from the Arts and Culture Centre.
“They have been wonderful. They let us use a studio with north facing windows and allow us to work here.”
And while the group was asked to put on a show to highlight what was happening at the centre the class benefits as well.
“It’s hard for groups like us to find somewhere to exhibit,” Dabinett says, explaining that through shows the group learns not just painting, but how to frame their work and how to exhibit it properly.
Karen Misik, who does mostly landscapes and is gently teased for her preference for pink tones, became a member of Monday’s Company at the instigation of a friend. That was 18 years ago. She explains what keeps her coming back.
“It’s a wonderful hobby. You see things differently — you notice lights and shadows differently. And Di never makes you feel bad.”
The walls of the exhibition space are covered with works of amazing variety. Although many of the pieces by Monday’s Company are of flowers or landscapes they differ significantly from each other in media and/or interpretation.
Meanwhile, the works presented by the Group of Seventy-Seven range from the carefully rendered oil paintings of Iakov Afanassiev that evoke the old masters to Marlys Tilley’s charcoal sketches pulled screaming from modern headlines.
Whether amateur or professional it’s obvious that both groups are dedicated to their work and take it seriously. The difference between the two is clearly narrower than an outsider might think. Perhaps, in the art world at least, the word professional as well as amateur also means lover.
The Group of Seventy-Seven and Monday’s Company exhibition runs until Oct. 15 in the Second Floor Gallery and various lobbies at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s. The show is open daily from noon to 5 p.m. and from 7-9:30 p.m. when there are performances or other events going on at the centre.