Teacher noticed and encouraged shy artist

By Marylu Walters
Release Date: August 12, 2009

Sylvain Voyer was named Alberta Artist of the Century in a public vote and one of Alberta's top ten artists of the century by a panel of artists and critics, but he still remembers how painfully shy he was as a child and the teacher who recognized his potential.

Born and raised in Edmonton, Voyer is best known for his vibrant yellow canola fields and golden northern Alberta autumn scenes. In January 2009, the Art Gallery of Alberta featured 50 years of Voyer's works in a retrospective exhibition.

In the early 1950s, Voyer was among the first students at Edmonton's St Thomas Aquinas Catholic School. Patricia McConway was his teacher in Grades 5 through 10 and was also principal of the school, which no longer exists.

"I was very shy and Miss McConway tried in many ways to draw me out," Voyer says. "I was keen on art as a child and I always had a dream to be an artist. Miss McConway recognized my ambition and helped me explore my artistic possibilities. Art really opened me up and gave me some confidence."

Miss McConway gave Voyer money to buy art supplies and set up an easel for him to use in a corner of the classroom. He was allowed to paint whenever he wished, as long as he was paying attention to the classroom lessons and was able to keep up his grades. Voyer says he's sure Miss McConway treated other students with equal attention.

"She approached teaching as an environment for experimentation. She had us sit around tables and do projects together, which was somewhat revolutionary in those days.

We often had visitors from the school board curious to see how the new, open concept was working. It was very exciting for us. I was lucky to be in a special environment in a good time."

Miss McConway also looked beyond the classroom walls for learning opportunities for her students, Voyer says. "She realized that I needed specific grounding to pursue art and suggested that I go to the public library to look at art books. There weren't many art books in the children's library, so she set it up for me to have an adult library card. I spent hours and hours at the library and it instilled a life-long fascination with libraries and book stores."

On leaving Grade 10, Voyer discussed his career plans with Miss McConway. She arranged for him to meet with artist Norman Yates, who was a professor in the University of Alberta Fine Arts Department at the time. "I told him that what I really wanted to do was to paint. He told me that art school, where the focus would be on making art, would be a better choice for me than going to university." Voyer graduated from the Alberta College of Art in 1961 and has been making art ever since.

In 1973, Voyer cofounded the Latitude 53 Gallery, in Edmonton. While he experimented with pop art and op art in his early years, Voyer has concentrated for many years on Alberta skies and rural landscapes. He lives in Claresholm, where his canvases are inspired by the southern Alberta foothills. He also maintains a studio north of Edmonton.