Unstructured Experimentation: “A Most Unusual Art School”.
Radical at its time, Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA) did not follow any traditional guidelines for its instructors. Marion Farnan and Emily Dutton made sure to hire teachers that were well respected artists and that their reputations would attract a wide range of students. Each was given freedom to pick their own themes and approaches, carving out a lively and unique atmosphere at the school. Founders Farnan and Dutton took inspiration from their studies at Doon School of Fine Arts to create a space for an arts community to thrive closer to home. Farnan recounts that one morning during breakfast she asked her teacher and friend at Doon, John Martin, on impulse to teach painting one day a week in her sleepy hometown of Dundas. Without a firm goal in mind to start an art school, Farnan and Dutton seemed to almost accidentally activate their friends and wide network, and interest in the classes quickly gained traction.
Following Martin’s acceptance, sculptor Elizabeth Holbrook was brought in to teach a second class, inviting her friend Lincoln Alexander to sit for three portrait sessions to a group of eager Dundasians.
DVSA has played a vital role in the formation of the Hamilton areas cultural landscape since its inception in 1964. The speed at which the school grew was indicative of the greater Hamilton region’s thirst for more access to the arts and creative expression. Within the year, DVSA relocated to the more spacious warehouse at 132 Melville Street, the former Smith glove factory. Jack Bechtel and William Roberts soon joined to teach, and a total of 68 students had enrolled ranging from the ages of 17-70. By 1967, the school formed a board of six members and incorporated as a non-profit organization.
In 1968, Tom Hodgson was invited to teach painting and his enthusiasm further energized the valley. Farnan recalls, “Tom stayed at the old Melbourne Hotel, not exactly five-star, and was kicked out for unseemly behaviour. The Collins Hotel became our Montmartre when groups of students and teachers gathered for lunch and beer. They stood out, they were recognized as artists and seen as bohemians.” (Farnan, 24)
DVSA was one of the first art schools in the region to offer nude life drawing classes, a deviation from a number of acceptable social norms still practiced in 1960s small town Ontario. A more common practice was to use store manikins for models, as Martin had to resort to when teaching at the University of New Brunswick. Due to the schools independence from such traditional, structured institutions, DVSA was able to get away with more relaxed and open-minded practices such as allowing women artists to join in on nude life drawings in mixed company. Women artists historical exclusion from nude life drawing classes was defied by Farnan and Dutton, who as the founders naturally held a considerable amount of power and will. Although at first they found it difficult to find models, they eventually provided transportation to drive models to and from Dundas from Hamilton. DVSA was also in a particularly favourable position as the local church, St. James Anglican Church, supported “bold ideas” and even lended their space to host classes.
This commitment to forward-thinking creative freedom is what has kept DVSA so strong and successful. In 1971, upon another move for further expansion at 21 Ogilvie Street, Farnan and Dutton made the decision to step back from their primary responsibilities at the school and hire a director. Their requirements were concise – the candidate must be familiar with the experimental philosophy and operations of the school, and they must be young: “The 60s were known as the Age of Aquarius, the youth culture, when anyone over 30 was not to be trusted.” (30). Mario Polidori, a bold Venice-born teacher who had been with the school for years, was the perfect candidate. Farnan reports that his charm and rebellious nature “brought the imagined colour and romance of Italy [to us staid Ontarians]” (21).
This spirit continued, and in 1973 a fundraising party dubbed ‘First Tango in Dundas’ was held, named after the notorious erotic drama film Last Tango in Paris. Guests arrived in both elaborate costume and various states of undress, tango instructors were available and a graffiti wall was erected where all were free to express their varied creativities. “The walls were adorned with rude inscriptions, four letter words and some truly awful art. Only briefly! Many of the guests were offended, some really shocked and the next day we received a letter from a supporter of the school reproving us for having such a wild party” (35). Farnan insisted their parties have been very tame since.
In 1977, Polidori left DVSA to return to his original passions of painting and teaching, leaving the crucial position of director open. Trevor Hodgson was selected and served as director until 1999. Under his lead, the school underwent major expansion, including the opening of the now iconic loft space. Hodgson introduced several new programs, strengthened the local arts community as well as national and international connections through visitations by renowned artists. By the end of his term, registration had reached over 4000 and the town of Dundas had become cemented as a vibrant and thriving arts hub.
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