During Senior School special assembly on Friday, January 22, Barbara Heller, Class of ’65, and our very own Art Teacher Angela Jurgensen, shared their “not so straightforward” stories of pursuing an art career, and the importance of following your passion in life.
Barbara Heller ‘65
Barbara Heller is currently an exhibiting artist in the school’s alumnae gallery (third floor, Senior School). She spent years exploring the fields of painting, printmaking and fibre arts, before deciding to devote herself fulltime to tapestry. She has exhibited widely over the past 30 years, and her tapestries have been featured in several books, magazines and newspaper articles. In 2005, she published Cover Ups and Revelations: the Tapestries of Barbara Heller, to accompany the touring exhibit of the same name. In 2014, a catalogue of her solo show, Falling from Grace, was published. Her work can be viewed here, and she can be visited at Fibre Art Studio on Granville Island.
Barbara began her talk saying how she didn’t imagine being an artist as a future for herself. She was an honour roll student at York House, and considered herself a “brain” back then. She was going to be a scientist, or more specifically, an astrophysicist. She enjoyed art in school, but she thought it would be just a hobby, not a vocation – just something to balance out her “real work in the real world”.
“Then the real world challenged my assumptions,” said Barbara. She nearly failed math in her first year at university and needed a tutor to see her though – something she called a “very humbling experience.” While she found her science courses fascinating, she found psychology even more fascinating. She volunteered in the theatre department and took an art class. After graduating with honours in psychology, and a year of working in mental health in Boston, she started a masters program in California. As part of her required coursework, Barbara took a class in self-exploration through art. This was her “ah-ha” moment. Half way through her master’s thesis, she remembers waking up one one morning and realizing that what made her happy and gave her purpose in life was being an artist, not a psychologist.
“I followed by bliss and went back to school,” she said. She moved back to Vancouver, enrolled in art education at UBC and spent the next five years reveling in studio courses. “What I am trying to say is that you never know where your life will take you. You need to keep your options open. No learning is wasted – my academic background and psychology studies have influenced how I think as an artist.”
Angela Jurgersen, Senior School Art Teacher
Senior School Art Teacher Angela Jurgensen has been teaching at York House since September 2015. Born and raised in Brazil, Angela grew up loving books and the beautiful illustrations that accompanied the writing. These illustrations are what led to her to discover her love of drawing. Unfortunately there was no formal art in the education system where she grew up.
When it came time for her to decide on a university, she had to choose which entrance tests she would take (there was one test for each subject area). Her mother told her she should go into business, but Angela loved drawing and wanted to be an artist. She knew she would be unhappy taking business. Her father gave her some advice: “You can’t let people choose for you”.
Angela decided architecture would be a good compromise as it would still allow her to be creative. Teaching was not an appealing option at the time, as the lessons teachers were expected to give were very rigid.
When she was 16, Angela’s life changed. Her father passed away and she and her mother found that they were soon living under different circumstances. Angela decided that business would be the safer choice and she enrolled in university. Two months later, she felt lost – business was clearly not for her. She then decided to follow her mother’s career path, and enrolled in dentistry. She enjoyed the camaraderie in her dentistry program, but when it came time to graduate, she knew she couldn’t be a practising dentist.
Angela began to research art schools on the Internet, and settled on a school in Portland, OR. Upon arriving at the art school, she discovered she was required to submit a portfolio. Her first question was “what is a portfolio?” Since Angela had never taken art in school, she didn’t have a single pieceto submit. But the Admissions Director liked her and told her if she could come up with a portfolio, she would consider her work. Angela worked non-stop for two weeks to create 12-16 pieces of art to submit with her application and she was accepted.
Art school brought her great joy; creating art and collaborating with her peers brought about that “special feeling”. “That feeling you get when you are so happy to be somewhere,” said Angela. After graduating art school she began to do freelance art, but found she didn’t like working on her own.
Having a family to support, she worked odd jobs and eventually purchased an alteration store after moving to Canada. Angela had a great time running the business and making costumes for her dance crew, but something was still missing. She was getting farther away from the things she really loved: books and illustrating.
She came up with the idea to start her own publishing house. Angela had wonderful ideas on book publishing, but she felt she was still working in a vacuum. She missed the two-way conversation and feedback from art school. “Turns out it was me, alone again. I was missing community. I just wasn’t happy. I was happy about the books, but I wanted more,” she said.
A friend suggested she go into teaching, and Angela thought this was a brilliant idea. Since she has become a teacher, she has “that feeling again”. “I have that thing bubbling up inside of me, that creativity, which is what I was missing,” said Angela. She loves how her students are always coming up with new ideas.
“I feel like I have arrived at a magical point; the same excitement and creativity, but now with people to share with,” With this feeling to fuel her, she has now started writing her own books, and will eventually illustrate them. “Instead of feeling like I have wasted time, I look back and think – what an amazing adventure.”
Her final message to the girls was that it’s okay not to plan everything. “Life is not about following a map, but the breadcrumbs. Follow that feeling, that is what you should aim for; don’t settle for less.”