The Local Creative ‘Lab’ Dedicated to Infusing Vancouver With Art-Making

The Mobil Art founders are (left to right): Mohamed Somani, Evan Lee, Sean Alward and Fiona Chan.

Ever since spotting their distinctive elephant logo on posters around East Vancouver we’ve been interested in finding out more about Mobil Art School.

We recently did just that via an in-depth conversation with one of the school’s founding members, Evan Lee. Continue reading to find out how Mobil Art went from a travelling venture to inhabiting its current brick and mortar space in Chinatown; and how it’s setting itself apart from other educational arts institutions…

First off, I’d love a bit of backstory. How did your founders find each other? It’s more a story about how we found each other again. We have all known each other for a long time. Mohamed, Sean and I were all in the same MFA cohort almost 20 years ago. Fiona didn’t go to school with us, but we have also known her for a long time. We have all gone on to do very different things but remain connected by art. The short story is that Sean and I had been talking about finding our own opportunities to teach art and art history to the general public, and at pretty much the same time, Fiona and Mohamed were also looking at starting a community-minded creative space, and the two parts came together to form Mobil Art. In fact, I ran into Mohamed and Fiona by coincidence as they were on their way to check out a space, and that’s how we discovered we were working on complementary projects. As it turns out, we also have a diverse set of life, work and entrepreneurial experiences that fit together really well.

What inspired Mobil Art? The first iteration of Mobil Art School was intended to be literally mobile. We didn’t have a space, and our original idea – which is still a big part of what we do now – was to bring portable courses to retirement homes. A lot of seniors have a serious appreciation for art and seeing this was incredibly inspiring. This led us to discover other groups that could benefit from our offsite format, which range from other underserved communities, to arts organizations and even businesses looking for creative approaches to workplace problem solving.

We use our devices so much in our daily lives, and saw Mobil as a much-needed respite from screen time. Creativity is a form of resistance against the pull of technology. We want to encourage people to be curious, and to create things.

We are also driven to make this a successful enterprise.

Mobil Art School fits outside of the traditional art education model, somewhere between the highly academic and financially restrictive Fine Art school, and DIY counter culture. Why do you think there is a demand to fill this niche and why did you decide to tackle it? We all have the benefit of having experienced both ends of that spectrum. We all have academic backgrounds and we all have our own métier. And we also have a soft spot for the rebellion we once felt against the traditional model when we were students ourselves. We recognize that it’s difficult for students from either “school” to properly see art in a holistic way, which in our opinion is necessary. We really wanted to be able to offer a high level of education for anyone who wants it. There are lots of very successful art school enterprises but we are trying to offer something different – something rigorous, but accessible. Creating and making things is deeply satisfying, and we emphasize the active part of art-making while still encouraging thoughtfulness and meaning.

Being independent allows us to teach only what we want. So we offer a mix of traditional and innovative classes and that’s what makes us unique. We like to experiment, and view what we are doing as less of a traditional “school” and more as a laboratory of ideas around creativity. So although we may be running classes for the public, these are only a small part of our overall vision which also includes working with other (not necessarily art-based) groups in the community to help infuse art-making into any and all spaces.

Obviously the ‘Founding Four’ each bring their own unique set of talents and knowledge, but you’ve also decided to branch out and include areas outside of that. How do you decide which courses to include in your art school? We work collaboratively to find teachers and each of us are interested in different things inside and outside of art. We are open to anything that fits our overall vision. So in addition to our core classes, we often let our teachers suggest what to teach, according to their interest and expertise. We have been pleasantly surprised by the new artists we have met since we started, and have been introduced to a lot of new practices that we were not aware of.

On a related note: You’ve collaborated with a lot of local artists who are sharing their skills and focusses as part of the extended Mobil Art team. How do these relationships come about? What are the qualifications of a Mobil Art instructor? Going in, we already had a big network of some of the best artists in the city. However, we are now working with artists who we have only met since starting, and they have become an essential part of what makes us unique. We also set out to give opportunities to recognized artists who may not have had a lot of experience teaching. To work with us you have to be good with people and excellent at communicating, but most importantly, our instructors have to be good at making art and have something to share.

Besides providing opportunities for students, you also seem to be opening up opportunities for practicing artists to actually work within their respective areas of interest. How does artist employment also factor into Mobil Art’s big picture? As stated above, we set out to give opportunities to instructors who don’t usually teach, and there are a lot of them. Basically every time we hold a course, an artist in the community is getting paid to share their knowledge. We try to pay a decent wage, but at this moment we’re not a full-time gig for any of our teachers. Making a living in the arts has always been tough, but we’re ambitious about the future of Mobil to become a viable place for a career. Our goal for the near future is to hire someone from the community to help us run things.

For someone who’s never attended a class at Mobil Art School before, what can they expect upon entering the space? What can they expect to take away from the experience? With our offsite classes, partnerships and other plans in the works, we believe that the idea of Mobil Art School really transcends the limits of a physical space. This may seem idealistic, but it’s also practical in a city where affordable art spaces are so rare. We are lucky to currently have our Chinatown studio in the Sun Wah building where we can run our classes. We have a large, bright, open space that’s a little rough around the edges. Studios never should be pristine and sterile spaces; our studio feels like a place where artists hang out. We have tables, hand-made easels and drawing donkeys and a lot of our equipment was kindly donated by bour friends. Every instructor runs their class differently, but people can expect to be welcomed no matter what their level of knowledge. When you come to a class expect to get working pretty quickly. Some of our instructors like to start with a bit of art history. The classes are serious, but fun and conversational. The mix of students can be very interesting: complete beginners might find themselves working next to lifelong artists looking to try something new, and it’s important to us that the studio is always a safe place for people to try things out.

We also have a great collection of tropical plants which really brings life to the space and is quite inspiring. We don’t have natural light in our studio but we have found a way to make them thrive against the odds and much to the surprise of our visitors. Come to think of it, maybe they are an apt metaphor for our school.

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