Wanda Koop on how art changed her life

Wanda Koop credits art classes and seeing an exhibit by Vincent Van Gogh with making her realize how important visual art was to her.
Night Watch, 2013 Acrylic on Canvas, 78 x 110.25 in (Wanda Koop Studio)

Wanda Koop is one of Canada's most celebrated contemporary artists. She's had her work shown at the National Gallery in Ottawa and all over the world.

She was raised by immigrant parents in Winnipeg. When she was a child she was chosen by the Winnipeg School Division to take art classes at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Koop can trace her desire to be an artist back to a specific moment when she was just nine years old. 

"I was an undiagnosed dyslexic so my vehicle of communication was through visual language" she recalled.

I remember walking into the space and seeing all these paintings and becoming completely overwhelmed.'- Wanda Koop

One day Koop and her class went to the Winnipeg Art Gallery to see a Vincent van Gogh exhibit.

"I didn't know anything about him" said Koop. "But the child that entered that room was a different child than the child that left that room."

"The colour was so intense and the brush stroke was so intense. I could feel something...I could read what I was seeing. It was like diving into a deep pool."

Koop knew then and there that she wanted to be an artist.

"It was my language" she insisted. "Visual art is a language. It's the way I can communicate what my observations of the world are, to everybody else."

Just as those early art classes were her lifeline when she was young, Wanda kick-started started Art City, a groundbreaking art centre for inner-city kids in Winnipeg. 

Over six thousand kids take part in art activities at Art City on Broadway Avenue in Winnipeg every year. (Tanya)
"Art City came about after nine years of working in the West Broadway area....there was a huge gang problem," she remembered. "I got some artist friends together and we opened the doors to all these kids."

These days there are over six thousand participants at Art City every year. 

"I think when you have disenfranchised youth, if you empower them in a way that they feel resourceful and able to survive....if you think creatively, you can survive anything," she insisted.

"I think you can change society. I would like to see an Art City next to every soccer field or hockey arena."

Hear Wanda Koop on Your DNTO, the "Art that Changed Your Life" episode on Tuesday November 4 with host Sook-Yin Lee. Your DNTO airs every Tuesday between 2 and 3 p.m. on CBC Radio One.