Abbotsford teacher and artist Shannon Thiesen has been named the recipient of the 2016 Young Distinguished Alumni Award from University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).
Thiesen is a Grade 4/5 teacher at Abbotsford School of the Integrated Arts’ North Poplar campus and earlier this year won the Art Battle provincial finals in Vancouver.
“If you asked me if I was a teacher or artist I wouldn’t be able to tell you either one – I’m both,” she says.
But it wasn’t always that way. While copying the drawings of a Grade 4 classmate, the art spark slowly caught fire with Thiesen, but the considerations of a practical career pulled her in a different direction.
She started with journalism at Carleton University before settling into a major in English literature with minors in law and women’s studies. From there she jetted to Japan, teaching private-school English.
After returning to her hometown of Powell River, Thiesen didn’t have the money to start university – but she had the drive and the support. She applied to UFV, where her partner James was enrolled in aviation.
She credits UFV instructors for inspiring her to become a great teacher for her own students.
Thiesen recently flew to New York City with a colleague to help an underprivileged school though a program called Sing For Hope. She carefully transported wooden discs decorated by all 450 of ASIA’s students who had drawn, painted, or burned pictures and messages onto the wooden surfaces.
She then glued the discs all over a piano and painted the whole façade to look like a big, colourful moose. It was displayed in Central Park before being donated to a Brooklyn school without music funding.
The moose piano was one of many pieces inspired by her kids. Thiesen paints with her students during class, and then breaks out the brushes when she gets back to her apartment.
She uses oils and acrylics to paint “anything organic that lives and grows and breathes”.
She even re-purposes her students’ discarded art, collecting clippings from the classroom garbage and recycling bins and pasting them onto canvas, then painting fantastical backgrounds for the kids’ characters to live on.
This led to the exhibition Imagination to Reality at Abbotsford’s Kariton Gallery, where students visited to see their drawings re-imagined with new perspective.
Thiesen won the live Art Battle competitions in Chilliwack and Abbotsford before being crowned the winner at the provincial championships.
From there, she flew to the Canadian championships in Toronto.
In most battle rounds she paints with a squeegee – “because, why not?” – but once used a fork in a blind contour painting contest at Abbotsford’s The Reach, where her art has been sold and featured.
The pieces are in even higher demand after winning a Fraser Valley Arty Award in Visual Arts this year.
“People always said don’t get too passionate about art; go get a real job and keep it as your hobby. What I realized later is a lot of success I’ve had in my life has been attributed to art, and education has really been the conduit to how I pay for it.”
The success is no surprise to those who know her.
John Trottier is a mentor at Simon Fraser University’s field study program, which Shannon completed in August.
“She’s a ‘big picture’ person who plans, implements and sees through to the end of all of her artful endeavors,” Trottier says.
“Shannon does not miss an opportunity to ‘go the extra mile’ both in her personal studies and community projects outside of the cohort.”
Fellow SFU field programs mentor and former ASIA Sumas principal John Fultz agrees.
“Shannon’s creativity and outstanding talent shines through her involvement in the visual arts, both as a teacher and as a practising artist,” he says.
“She has been wholly committed to both leadership and service in the arts and in the learning communities that she is connected with.”
Up next for Shannon is February’s Battle of the Brush, where two artists paint live on the same canvas at the same time for 80 minutes in Vancouver.
“Live art is thrilling,” she says.
“It helps people understand what went into creating art — the time and excitement that goes into brushstrokes. Sometimes people say they like a piece but don’t know why. I feel if someone saw the art being created they’d say ‘I know exactly why I like it’.
“I hope I’m bringing people that kind of joy.”