G.A.L.s just want to make art, and this Toronto group is making it happen
The third annual Girls' Art League art auction is building community and raising funds for art education
If the art world's an old boys' club — and the stats on gender parity in museum collections and media coverage and gallery representation sure show it is — there's a scrappy, grassroots community in Toronto that's offering an antidote. It's called the Girls' Art League.
G.A.L. for short, Toronto painter and arts educator Erica Beyea founded it in 2014.
"It's an arts organization dedicated to the empowerment of women and girls, so we're mostly education-based," she tells CBC Arts. And on any given week, G.A.L. offers classes to all ages and skill levels, in addition to workshops at various community organizations including Central Toronto Youth Services and Sheena's Place.
But G.A.L.'s M.O. goes beyond the classroom. For Beyea, it's all about community.
"I wanted it to be this hub of feminist artists and women who are helping each other out," she says, and their annual art auction puts that idea in action.
Ness Lee, Hazel Meyer and Louise Reimer are just a few of the artists who've donated original work to the fundraiser, happening Thursday at Toronto's Xpace Cultural Centre. (Past supporters have included the likes of Shary Boyle and Kelly Mark.)
Starting bids range from $40 - $750, says Beyea, and many of the donors — a mix of established and emerging talents — are also instructors and mentors for members of G.A.L., women looking to build their art practice or their creative confidence (or some blend of the two).
"The majority of our programming is for women, girls, non-binary, trans — an inclusive idea of women and girls," explains Beyea. Some courses, Feminists' Art Class for example, are open to all genders looking to make stuff with the G.A.L.s.
There's something about practicing art as a group of women, she says, that helps some people feel more at ease with expressing themselves, and that's what inspired the whole idea in the first place.
"I used to have a little art school called Fine Oak," she explains. "It was wonderful, but I couldn't believe the difference — just the tone of conversation that would happen when there were no guys around, versus a guy being there — even the loveliest dude being in the class."
"All of a sudden, particularly the teenage girls were opening up and talking about body image issues, friends who are doing drugs, family problems, whatever," she says. The more they were with talking about what mattered to them, the freer they felt expressing themselves through visual art.
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"It's unique to find programming where girls and women can explore their interests, find community and make whatever weird, loud, expressive art they want to make, in a safe, encouraging space," says Juliana Neufeld, a local illustrator who's taught classes for G.A.L. (She also designed this year's art auction poster.)
At G.A.L., Beyea says she and her team strives to create the kind of inspiring space Neufeld's talking about, "a space that is more comfortable, with just girls."
And women, too — of all ages.
While there are classes specifically for young people (kids between 10-13 or teens 14-18), Beyea says the keener kids occasionally sit in on the adult classes, which have welcomed students well into their 70s.
"It's quite interesting what they can learn from each other when you see these intergenerational women making work together. It just adds another level of learning."
Milena Rogic has taught painting at G.A.L., but the Toronto artist gets more from the experience than being a mentor. "Painting can be really isolating. I'm sitting in my studio alone right now," she says, laughing.
"I find [G.A.L.] really supportive and helpful," she says, referring to the ongoing dialogue that's cultivated through the classes, but also the outside community that's being built through Beyea's "G.A.L socials," regular events including exhibitions and "relaxed" artist talks and even the upcoming art auction. "We go to each other's shows and events and support each other," she says.
At exhibitions, including the upcoming auction, student works are mixed in with pieces by instructors.
Rogic loves that inclusive blend. "I think it really gives people opportunities," she says. "It's difficult to have opportunities to show your work in the city, and in my experience, a lot of people need to be quite established or have a lot of buzz about them [to do so]. If you don't, it's difficult."
"It's really important to us that [G.A.L.] is accessible to anyone who's interested," says Beyea. "Visual art is really intimidating for people. It shouldn't be."
It's unique to find programming where girls and women can explore their interests, find community and make whatever weird, loud, expressive art they want to make.- Juliana Neufeld, artist
To eliminate the fear factor, Beyea brings the majority of G.A.L. workshops into spaces where students already feel at home.
Currently, two thirds of their classes are being held in social services centres around the city, with lessons adjusted to specific groups' needs — say, Gilda's Club (women living with cancer) or Central Toronto Youth Services (teen girls dealing with anxiety).
All the money raised through Thursday's art auction will be used to fund a new series of G.A.L. programming for social services. Beyea says she plans to run workshops, plus six-week courses, in eight different centres around the city.
The next goal, Beyea says, is finding a permanent home for G.A.L. itself. In two years, G.A.L. has moved studios three times, and they're currently hunting for their fourth home. (Until this week, they'd been holding classes in a College Street loft building.)
"I feel like I have a really great force behind the art league that can make things happen. I just need to be able to afford a space," says Beyea. The organization was incorporated as a non-profit this fall, and she's hoping they'll secure the necessary operational funding to make this brick-and-mortar dream happen.
"I feel like everything will come into place once we do have a space," she says. "I see it being a hub of feminist art where we could have different visual artists do residencies and through that do a mentorship program," in addition to an increase in classes.
"Just being able to be more anchored would make all the difference."
Some of the artists supplying work for G.A.L.'s annual art auction...
Girls' Art League 3rd Annual Art Auction Fundraiser. Featuring Alisha Davidson, Amanda Immurs, Ashley Culver, Audrey Assad, Carolyn Beattie, Cheasea Bellrose, Christina Martinelli, Christine Dewancker, Christy Kunitzky, Diana Lynn VanderMuelen, Erica Beyea, Eunice Luk, Hazel Meyer, Jessica Karuhanga, Juliana Neufeld, Kaley Flowers, Kayla Polan, Layne Hinton, Liz Little, Louise Reimer, Meghan McKnight, Milena Roglic, Ness Lee, Rob MacInnis, Ruth Bretholtz, Shellie Zhang, Charly Whitmore, Katie Morton, Kesang Nanglu, Laura Kelling, Meghan Farbridge, Yan Wen Chang. Dec. 8 at Xpace Cultural Centre, Toronto. www.girlsartleague.com