BRENDA MALKINSON, DIPLOMA, 1975, COMMUNICATION ARTS
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY JOANNE FISHER
From top left to bottom right: The Three Graces – October Seventh, woodblock prints, 24” x 18”, edition of six
The Three Graces – August Twenty Fifth, woodblock prints, 24” x 18”, edition of six
Landscape of the Heart, 2011, CK Hui Heart Centre, Robbins Pavilion, Lois Hole Hospital for Women Royal Alexandra Hospital, Edmonton, Alberta, 10’ x 70’, vitrified enamels on tempered float glass
You Are Here, 2005, Alberta Foundation for the Arts Lobby, Edmonton, Alberta, 6’ x 8’, vitrified enamels on tempered float glass, sandblast, graphite drawing
The Three Graces – November Fifteenth, woodblock prints, 24” x 18”, edition of six
JOANNE FISHER: What did you major in?
BRENDA MALKINSON: It was called Communication Arts. I wanted to go into Fine Arts but the practical side of me, and a bit of parental pressure, thought that Communication Arts might be a better choice. It had options of possible employment. In the long term, it turned out to be the best decision for me. It taught me design really well, not just graphic design, but the general principles of design theory. We had deadlines and were designing for fictitious clients. It taught me a lot about getting things finished and done, while being creative at the same time.
I managed to get a job afterwards. It was a contract job with a provincial museum here in Edmonton, but during that time, I was introduced to someone who was doing stained glass, which grabbed my heart. I started dabbling around in glass, I really liked it and saw some potential for commissions and work opportunities.
There were people who wanted glass done, like a bathroom window. When people at the museum knew I was doing this, the odd person would come up to me and say, “Could you do this?” or “Could you do that?” I actually didn’t know how, I just learned by doing, I am basically a self-taught glass artist. At that time, there was no one teaching stained glass here and the only place to get information was through the US, where I couldn’t afford to go to at the time. Or from whatever book I could find. It intrigued me on many levels because I could figure out my own way through the technical side of things.
I took a year off and thought, if I can’t do well in a year doing just stained glass, then I’ll go back and look for another job. As things turned out, a couple of architects contacted me and it progressed from there.
I started off with a studio in my bathroom of my one room apartment, went to renting a small space, and then I moved into a retail gallery/wholesale situation about 1978. In Edmonton, we had a huge financial crash in the early 1980s, large commissions in progress were cancelled, I was in debt for inventory and rent. I had no choice but to close down. The loss of my gallery and subsequent life was heartbreaking beyond measure, however I am grateful for the support from friends who offered their garage spaces and a place to live so I could continue. I eventually moved into a studio out of the municipal airport here for many years.
Sometimes I would get a commission that would give me carte blanche and I would have the opportunity to do some truly inspired contemporary stained glass, and sometimes I had to do glass that never made it into my portfolio. I couldn’t afford to turn things down, I accepted that I could pay the rent by doing the more commercial work. Eventually, I was able to experiment with contemporary work with some sculpture and things like that. That’s over a period of almost 40 years. So, it went up, down, and sideways. It really did, but I’m a pretty stubborn person, tenacious. I really wanted to keep going. I’m very independent, so I just managed basically.
FISHER: Where did you first take the stained glass?
MALKINSON: I opened the studio out of my bathroom in 1978. At the time, it was quite difficult being a woman in this genre, and I was very young. No one was doing stained glass except for an older man here in Edmonton and he was very reluctant to share information or sell me material. My biggest difficulty was finding the supplies I needed but I managed to connect with a couple of people in Toronto who were doing glass. This was pre-internet, so trying to find these people was really difficult.
I contacted friends I knew in Toronto by phone and asked them to start looking around. They found a couple of people that were doing glass. I contacted them, travelled to Toronto, and met with them. They let me know who their suppliers were, which at that time, was a company in the US. I contacted the company, and could start getting supplies.
Being taken seriously by the art community was also tough. There were very few people working with stained glass, so it really wasn’t recognized in the arts field. Eventually, we had the Alberta Craft Council here, of which I am a founding member, but that didn’t start up until the early-1980s. A community of craftspeople developed then. But, in all honesty, while I was doing it, I didn’t think about any of these things. I say them now because I’m thinking about them. At the time, I absolutely loved what I was doing and nothing was going to stop me. I kept working and working, even today I am in my studio working almost every day. I believe coming from a self-taught point of view gives my glass a distinctive look.
FISHER: It seemed you developed your own technique.
MALKINSON: Yes, I did. I broke all the rules. When I tell people who do traditional glass how I do it, the look on their faces is quite funny. As a result, most of my work is really experimental. I have always kept the sketchbooks that have all my notes and drawings during the experimental processes. I have over thirty sketchbooks now.
FISHER: So, what do you do? I’ve been looking at your pieces on the computer. You’re painting and firing glass?
MALKINSON: Yes, that’s right, I’m actually painting on glass, coloured and clear. This developed later in my career with the stains and enamels that I get from Europe. They’re the same materials that are used in ancient and traditional windows, but I chose to use them in a contemporary painting kind of way.
FISHER: So, you went into printmaking as well. I saw on your CV you started in 2010. What brought you to the printmaking?
MALKINSON: I did do printmaking back at ACA(D), loved it, but I couldn’t see a future in it at that time. I took those courses on the side while I took Communication Arts. Printmaking was different then because it related to Communication Arts more. We needed to know how to silkscreen and set type because it was pre-computer. If you were going into Communication Arts, you had to know the techniques used to create posters and brochures, which involved printmaking. We were taught all of the different methods, including woodcut. So, it has always been something in the back of my mind.
I apprenticed with a master printmaker here in Edmonton in 2010. I spent six months with him, and got back into woodcut printmaking. The ironic thing is that how woodcut is done, is very similar to how I do the glass – in layers of transparencies. The processes are almost identical. It’s actually a perfect fit. I can use the imagery that I create in glass for the woodcuts and vice versa.
FISHER: Are you taking the architectural glass outside of the continent?
MALKINSON: I hope to. I don’t have anything in the works, but I’m looking around. The difficulty with glass is that it is difficult to ship. That’s really why I went into printmaking as well, I’m getting more of an international presence with the printmaking than I am with the glass.
FISHER: Seeing where you came from, commercial arts through stained glass and printmaking, what advice do you have for someone like me who is just starting in school?
MALKINSON: Try to be flexible, make your own opportunities. Don’t rule anything out. Especially today, there are so many possibilities and different media, you never know what will grab you. Eventually specialize in the media that expresses your voice. That’s what surprised me. Stained glass was not on my radar in art school. If you think about Calgary 45 years ago, it wasn’t accessible as a young artist. You can take printmaking and glass, make it contemporary and expressive or keep it really traditional. Find out where you want to fit your concepts in. I always keep both eyes open.
Don’t avoid the business side. A couple of days a month you’ve just got to do it – bookkeeping, banking, taxes – all that stuff.
FISHER: For students graduating or soon-to-be-graduating, what advice would you give for establishing a creative business?
MALKINSON: You have to really want to be an artist, no matter what anybody says to you. If you need a job, which we all did coming out of art school, try to find something that’s at least close to an artistic endeavor. I know it’s tougher now to find those kinds of jobs, so keep your eyes open. You’ve learned a lot in school, but not necessarily what you want to do, or what you need for the rest of your life. Talk to those who have made a living in the arts, learn from them.
When you graduate, you tend to lose that community. I found that tough. That’s why I suggest the idea of joining or forming collectives to have the support to carry on.
FISHER: How do you think creativity matters in the big picture?
MALKINSON: It can be approached on many different levels. One level is education. Creativity is a big part of being a well-rounded individual. Just because kids are taking art doesn’t mean they’re going to be artists. It helps them think differently. It helps to see the world differently.
I think creativity is very important for people to learn how to problem solve, instead of depending on someone else to do it for you. I also think it’s very important in the world sense because creativity allows for more diversity. I think creative thinking people are much more accepting of differences and I believe creativity fosters compassion.
FISHER: I think it’s forgotten in a way because I know some people associate it only with the arts, and yet it applies to everything.
MALKINSON: A lot of times people sell themselves short on how creative they can be. It can be rather polarizing – they either sell themselves short on how creative they can be or they go on the internet, watch a YouTube video, and think they’re creative. Creative as a word is overused a lot and I think the definition is changing. I would like to see people be more creative individually, rather than copying (DIY projects). I’m worried that we’re losing that individual problem solving ability.
FISHER: What would you like people to know about your experience?
MALKINSON: I would like people to look to the work, see that it’s been a long career, and that it’s been done in Alberta. My hope is that people will look more to home than beyond because I feel myself and many others have done some amazing work in this province and nobody really knows about it. I think, partly in my case, because most of my work has been on commission, it’s not readily available to be seen. That’s where the computer has been wonderful. I would like people to know that I’ve worked really hard, dedicated my time to teaching art to others and love what I do.
I have given back to the arts community through a lot of volunteering, being an artist in the classroom, serving on arts boards, donating my work, fundraising and more. I’ve taught at the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension for 23 years and at Series Summer School for the Arts at Red Deer College for 16 years. I’ve taught many workshops over the years from Athabasca to Medicine Hat, Toronto, Whitehorse and even in Inuvik, so I’ve spread the joy. Hopefully I’ve helped more people be creative through that and I have wonderful memories of seeing people realize their potential. There is a story behind my career and I hope to share that with others.
FISHER: I think it would help bring meaning.
MALKINSON: I’m hoping. What I’ve noticed when talking with students that know my story is that it gives them the sense that they can actually do it and it’s going to be hard – but what isn’t? You have to really want it. Of all the grads, some want it and just keep going and others find it too difficult, however what you have learned never leaves you.
FISHER: Tell me more about the obstacles you’ve faced over the years.
MALKINSON: Some months, there was absolutely no money coming in and other months there was a commission or perhaps a sale of work. I had to learn very early on to exist without spending money. Not to blow it. Finances have probably been the biggest obstacle.
Going into a craft media, that was difficult on many levels, but sticking with it because I absolutely loved it, and creating original contemporary work. Being taken seriously in that regard might have been another small obstacle, but it didn’t stop me.
Finding studio space and reasonable rent. In the last few years, I was lucky that we built a studio in the garage. Having my own studio has made a huge difference, but I also believe that artists can make art anywhere. Just because you don’t have a studio, doesn’t mean you can’t make art.
FISHER: It sounds like persistence is what got you over or through the difficulties.
MALKINSON: Yes, and it certainly wasn’t there 100% of the time. There were lots of times I wanted to give up, just seemed so uphill at times, I thought, “maybe I should go back to University or do this or that” but I didn’t, so here I am.
FISHER: Did you go into art college right from high school?
MALKINSON: I did. At that time, it was still part of SAIT. The building that it’s in now, I was there for the last two years of my program. During my first two years, classes were located all over the place – it was actually quite fun. They were called Quonset Huts, those big steel or aluminum round buildings, it was so cold we wore our coats most of the time. What I really liked, in hindsight, was that the classes were really small. There were only 30 in my graduating year, so we got to know each other really well. I’m still in touch with a few colleagues.
You walked through a painting class to get to another class and you knew everybody. Pottery was in the back corner, somebody else was in another corner, but when we moved into the new school, it was all separated. We used to call that walkway, “the moat”. I was in my third year and I think they opened admission to 100 students, so the dynamics really changed a lot and, of course, it’s changed since, but I think ACAD’s done a really stellar job of integrating everybody, having everybody involved, and having exhibition spaces in the main area.
FISHER: So tell me more about when you started school, who was the Director?
MALKINSON: That was Stanford Perrott, who I just adored. He was the reason I went there. I was actually at the University of Calgary, just looking around and he happened to walk through. He was Mr. Personality. I was with a friend, we were having a coffee and he ended up sitting with us. We didn’t know who he was and he said, “You should come over and see the art college. I’ll give you a personal tour.” Both my friend and I loved art, so we went over there, found him and he took us all around. The next day we both enrolled. He was wonderful.
Going into Commercial Arts there were people like Kenneth Samuelson, they all had their own businesses at the same time and I think we learned from that. Several of them were accomplished illustrators and painters and had shows and we were able to see a lot of that. Even though I never taught at that level, it seemed important to my students that I did this full-time. It gives credibility. I don’t have a degree because when I graduated, it didn’t exist at ACA(D), and I didn’t have the opportunity to go back and get one. Back then, it wasn’t important to have a degree, you could do quite well without one. You definitely need one now. I think getting some years under the belt, you just sort of buildup that credibility. I think it’s important that students see that you’ve committed your life to this and I find the students are interested in my story to learn from.
FISHER: What do you want to be recognized for? What do you want people to know about you?
MALKINSON: I would like people to know that it is possible to make a career in the arts. I’ve done it, I am still doing it, and will continue to do it for as long as I can. The work has value and my accomplishments have contributed to the history of art in Alberta and beyond. I want people to know that I have shared my knowledge, skills and passion through participation in arts organizations. Teaching and mentoring many aspiring students who have gone on to have careers of their own. Committing to the life of an artist has sometimes come at a personal cost to me, it has never been easy. I have had the support of so many people over the years and I am grateful to them. At the same time I have made my own opportunities and I work hard in my own quiet way. I am proud of what I have achieved and contributed to the arts.
FISHER: What’s on the radar for you in the near future?
MALKINSON: I completed a glass commission for the University of Alberta, St. Kateri Chapel, St. Joseph's College (2015), right now I’m working on a new body of prints and glass which I plan to submit for shows coming up in the next few years. I have a solo exhibition opening at the Alberta Craft Council in June of 2018.
One of my woodblock prints was selected for the International Print Exhibition, Canada/Japan that’s heading over to Kyoto, Japan (2016). My prints have been well received, prints have been juried into several exhibitions in New York and Chicago.
I’m just going to keep working. I’m very excited at this point in my career because I can let some things go. I’m even more serious now about creating work that has meaningful context. I’ll work as long as I can possibly do it. It’s an interesting full circle because I’m almost feeling as giddy as when I met Stanford Perrott.
I’ve come through the hard stuff, where I’ve made a living, paid the rent and worked my butt off to get shows, commissions, and do all that – it’s not that I have a lot of money or anything – but I retired from sessional teaching, completed my terms on several arts boards, now I have more time in the studio. I’m really excited about that. I feel like I’m launching into resurgence and the best work is yet to come.