After three decades of watching inspired children create art and seeing art inspire creative children, Artists for Kids director Yolande Martinello is stepping away.
On Monday, Martinello was in her Lonsdale Avenue office reflecting on 32 years spent in classrooms, workshops, galleries, day-camps, away-camps in Paradise Valley, and on her first job at the Ponderosa Steakhouse in Ontario.
Her slightly older sister had got a job at the steakhouse and, at 12 years old, (“Almost 13.”) Martinello would not be outdone by her slightly older sibling.
She swept floors, scrubbed plates, and eventually worked the grill.
Nurturing the artistic spark in children may not seem directly related to getting the perfect grill marks on a T-bone steak, but there is a commonality, she advises.
“I think it was all about: ‘She doesn’t say no, so we can make her do anything,’” she laughs.
And for a while she did anything. Martinello worked in a camera shop, a travel agency and a bakery. She was a dental assistant and – despite not being particularly mathematical – did tax forms at H&R Block.
“I worry about those people whose tax returns I did,” she says with a laugh.
For a while she was a fashion model, traipsing catwalks in New York and Japan. It wasn’t for her, Martinello says, recalling the way models were talked about: “Like you’re just a thing.”
Needing a challenge, she decided to become a teacher.
Martinello was doing her practicum in North Vancouver when she first crossed paths with Bill MacDonald, who was just about to found Artists for Kids.
MacDonald asked her to teach some after-school art classes, write some curriculum, and help out at a summer camp for the fledgling program.
Just like at the Ponderosa, Martinello didn’t back down from a job.
“I think Bill got to know that I had a lot of difficulty saying ‘No,’” she says. “He kept adding more and more things to my plate and by the time he was ready to retire I had done everything.”
In one year, she taught 40 days at the Gordon Smith Gallery.
“I don’t know how the principal at my school let me get away with that,” she laughs.
A self-described “amateur artist,” Martinello had no credential for teaching art, she recalls.
But she loved it.
There’s something wonderful about watching children figure out exactly what a sheet of paper or a blank canvas should become.
“The higher you set the bar, the higher they strive,” she says.
The role of overseeing Artists for Kids will now fall to Allison Kerr, an art/biology teacher who also served as principal at Lord Roberts Elementary in Vancouver.
Working at a school for performing and fine arts in Edmonton, Alta., Kerr was eventually lured west by romance.
“I loved it there,” she says of the Edmonton school “I ended up falling in love, though, with a man who lived in Vancouver,” she explains.
Kerr moved to the North Shore in 2001.
“Within a week of moving here, I learned about Artists for Kids,” she recalls.
For her first 12 years as a teacher, Kerr was resolute about teaching both biology and art.
“Eventually, art won out,” she says. “I’ve taught the cell, and cellular maceration and photosynthesis and all that stuff. But after a while it didn’t have that same spark.”
She loves biology, she stipulates. But while the same biology assignment will always yield the same results, an identical art assignment will inspire wildly different, and sometimes very personal responses.
“They bring in their family, their culture, their worries, their successes, who they are as a 13 year old,” Kerr says.
“The arts also attracts very interesting people. Children too,” Martinello agrees.
“There’s no language barrier,” Kerr says. It’s an invitation to see other people’s stories and to add their own.
That’s why it’s crucial to make young people feel safe enough to tell their stories, Martinello says.
“There has to be so much trust to be creative,” she explains.
While kids are fundamentally the same, the society they live in has changed.
Kids used to be a little freer, Martinello observes.
“We’ve taken away their right to take risks,” she says. “We don’t let our kids be kids too much.”
Kerr has encountered plenty of kids who start out fearful of making mistakes.
“They think there’s a right way of painting.”
The teacher’s job is to encourage kids to risk mistakes and have faith that, amid exploring and experiments, “you’ll find your path.”
Martinello’s last official day is Dec. 20. She will be back from time to time, she notes, explaining she’s been asked to teach an art class next year.
And once again, she said yes.