Leaving the world a shade more beautiful – an artist’s view on volunteering

By Barbara Salsberg Mathews, Volunteer member of Guelph Arts Council’s Board of Directors

One of my art students, a 94-year old widow whom I volunteer teach, complimented me by saying I was her ‘young whippersnapper friend’. My other art student, a 13-year old boy, is showing me how to draw a ‘demon slayer’ anime style of art. Volunteering is a wonderful way to make new friends, connect with the community, learn new things, and have fun. Most importantly, it feels so good! Here’s how I use my personal skills and talents to volunteer and pay it forward.

I returned to Guelph over five years ago, after retiring as head of art at Toronto’s Northern Secondary School. This community gave me so much when I was a University of Guelph student in the early 80s, including meeting my husband, Bruce Mathews. Bruce volunteers as the host of CFRU’s Zombie Jamboree radio program. I also volunteered to write CFRU’s media release for their exhibition: “40 Years on the FM Dial”, and designed a poster to raise awareness of the importance to our community when CFRU’s funding was threatened.

To show my gratitude to Guelph, I made a series of paintings to exhibit at Silence Art Gallery. The show was called, ‘Royal City Gems – an Artist’s Tribute to Guelph’. People requested prints and cards from the series, so I opened an on-line store and raised over $700 from commissions which I donated to Guelph Arts Council (GAC). 

I got the volunteer bug before serving on the GAC board these past three years. When I first returned to Guelph, I spent two years as a volunteer writer and illustrator for The Ontarion, University of Guelph’s student newspaper. I was given my own column called, ‘ON Then and Now’, exploring what things were like back in the 80’s and comparing them to today. I remember covering topics such as the #MeToo, and #TimesUp movements, Communications Pre-Internet, and Finding True Love. By volunteering for The Ontarion, I learned how to put articles together, including honing up on my researching and interviewing skills. I also met many interesting people, from local politicians to student activists. 

One assignment for The Ontarion was to illustrate local leaders for Black History Month, including: Lincoln Alexander, Norma Bowen and Addie Aylestock. I learned about the importance of their contribution to our community, and donated the original portraits to the Guelph Black Heritage Society. 

I also had multiple art challenges thrown my way by the Ontarion staff. One of my favourites was when I was asked to create the cover for their humour issue, The Contrarion. I designed a Doug Ford-inspired portrait made of deli meats, garlic, olives, peppercorns and bean sprouts. Playing with your food is such fun!

Covid presented many challenges for everyone. Artists suddenly had their in-person gigs cancelled. At GAC I wrote an article on taking your art business on-line. I was fortunate to interview Ken Braithwaite, Web Designer/founder, Ethos Design, from whom I learned a lot on this timely topic. I was able to apply these learnings when I held an on-line auction of my Guelph painting series , raising $3,000 for staff members of Miijidaa Restaurant who were laid off during the shutdown. I was to have a show and sale of the paintings at the restaurant, but it was cancelled due to the Pandemic. This experience helped prepare me to set-up and manage the auction site of the online version of GAC’s ‘Collector’s Dilemma’ last year. 

During the early stages of the pandemic, I got an idea for a comic book after a video chat with my buddy, who was then turning 5. He told me he wanted me to visit him, then looked confused and added, “when the virus is gone”. That got me imagining how this pandemic might be scary and difficult for children. So I created, ‘Kid COVID Fights Back!’, a comic book to entertain and inform kids and their families about the pandemic. I made it available for free downloading at https://kidcovid.ca. Professional translators also volunteered their time; now the comic is also available in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. It has raised close to $500 for GAC through many online $5 donations.

As a volunteer writer for GAC, I was able to shine a light on local artists and their work, including: Gary Diggins, musical duo Tragedy Ann, Laurie Skantzos, Lauren Stein, and Jenny Mitchell. I am continually blown away by the wealth and breadth of talent here in Guelph. I gleaned many tips from Guelph artists on how to stay creative during a pandemic when researching an article on this subject. I found myself applying some of these wisdoms when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in January 2020. In light of the symptoms of the disease and side effects of the medications, I have had to modify my techniques, but I’m still painting, teaching and volunteering.

Volunteering makes me happy. I feel in some way it’s like planting little seeds of myself that I can leave behind. After all, I can’t take it with me, but I can leave the world a shade more beautiful.

GAC is proud to congratulate Barbara on being honoured at the YMCA’S Women of Distinction event this year!

Read more about the incredible women being honoured this year and buy tickets Here!

Interested in volunteering with GAC? Contact [email protected] for more information.

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