Before you enter Queen Street’s Great Hall, you know you are in the visual arts centre of Toronto. Colorful murals and graffiti compete for your attention in their mastery and detail, making it difficult to distinguish which is which. Outside the Great Hall itself mill art patrons and artists, as indicated by paint-splattered jeans and hand-painted boots. They are as imaginative and youthful as the Great Hall is grand and old.
The Art Battle nationals inside are going full swing to the beats of one DJ Steintology, and in the midst of this humid melee competes Abbotsford’s own Shannon Thiesen. Thiesen, a teacher at Abbotsford School of Integrated Arts, is the winner of this year’s Vancouver regionals. Here in Toronto she battles other regional and provincial champions for the Canadian national title. After each round, the audience votes for their favourite painting; the top two artists of each group move forward as finalists.
Each of the 14 artists’ personalities is as unique as their painting style, and Thiesen is no exception. Wearing overalls that read, “Some people dream of meeting their favourite artists, I teach mine,” Thiesen easily has the most energy in the room, as one might expect from an artist who spends her days keeping up with 10-year-olds. She dances and grooves to the music as she paints, evidently having the time of her life, even under the pressure of producing a competition-worthy painting in a meagre 20 minutes. Her weapons are as unconventional as Thiesen: a window squeegee, house painter brushes, and palette knives. Thiesen likes materials that leave “interesting marks,” and she encourages her art students to think beyond the traditional brush.
With bold black strokes, Thiesen attacks the canvas and a portrait begins to appear. One neighbour works in sepia tones and the other bright rainbow colours, but Thiesen opts for more sombre blues, purples, and reds. The large crowd slowly circles around, closely watching the painters of the first round, but Thiesen and her competitors are oblivious to everything but their work.
Time is flying by, but Thiesen gradually brings a sorrowful face to life. She is known to win Art Battle competitions with her portraits, though she finds they do not as sell well due to the subjects’ unnerving expressions – “it scares them sometimes.” Her animal paintings sell much better, which she finds “people can identify with”; her exhibition painting the day before the competition was a striking blue and gold polar bear, now hanging above her in the Great Hall. Portraits, however, are Thiesen’s passion.
Brushes down, and Thiesen steps back from her canvas while the audience applauds and prepares to vote. Thiesen is pleased with her creation, though she wishes she “had five more minutes” – a sentiment undoubtedly shared by her fellow competitors. Reflecting on her portrait, Thiesen states: “It got really sad. I don’t know where that came from. I’m a pretty happy person!” Thiesen acknowledges that her piece has evolved from her initial plan, adding “It was a guy this morning, but it might be a girl now. My portraits are very androgynous.” She shrugs. “It’s whatever you want it to be.”
The tallies come in, and Thiesen finds out she won’t be competing in the final round. She doesn’t seem overly disappointed. “I’m just excited to have been part of it all. Everyone here is very talented.” She relaxes to enjoy the rest of the show, guessing correctly who will win the finals (Allan André from Ottawa). Thiesen has a message for her students back home: “Creativity takes courage. If you never take a step outside your box and make mistakes, you’ll never see what’s out there.”