Exploring creativity and belonging

A journey with KOAC Artist in Residence Tara Vahab

The Kiyooka Ohe Art Centre (KOAC) in part exists to serve as a hub of artistic inspiration and creativity. It offers a unique Artist in Residency program that attracts diverse artists from various backgrounds. One such artist, deeply impacted by her experience at KOAC, is the talented sculptor and therapeutic arts practitioner, Tara Vahab.

This particularly creative journey for talented sculptor and therapeutic arts practitioner Tara Vahab began when, after participating in another residency in 2022, a creative friend suggested applying for the KOAC Artist in Residence program. Having admired Katie Ohe, co-founder of KOAC and a renowned artist, for years, the artist eagerly applied, unsure of eligibility but finding the courage upon exploring the residency’s web page on the KOAC website.

Arriving on May 1, 2023, the artist embarked on a 300-hour unstructured creative journey in the KOAC studio. Specializing in sculptures crafted from newspapers, the artist pursues her work in the medium as a platform to advocate for mental health. During the residency, she created a series of works entitled ‘I Belong,’ inspired by feelings related to immigration and to a sense of belonging to Alberta’s creative community.

Katie Ohe, a legend in the art world, played a pivotal role during the residency, offering valuable insights, feedback, and contagious enthusiasm. Her mentorship empowered Tara to enhance her work, process and presentation. The series name, ‘I Belong,’ reflects both community acceptance and a desire for a long and creative life.

Immersed in a peaceful studio surrounded by nature, Tara found confidence in presenting her art in its most authentic expression. The focus on creativity over a finished product increased her productivity, encouraged her to work on paintings, a book, and even a violin performance during the opening reception.

KOAC’s commitment to nurturing creativity goes beyond providing studio space. The residency program fosters a sense of community, encouraging artists to support each other. The legacy of Katie Ohe’s hard work, positive attitude, and stellar reputation elevate the residency experience, offering an experience beyond what is expected.

The KOAC Artist in Residence program truly serves as a catalyst for personal and artistic growth, creating a nurturing space for artists to explore, create, and belong. Through the eyes and experiences of this talented sculptor, we catch a glimpse of the profound impact KOAC has on the lives of artists, fostering a supportive community and unlocking a journey of boundless creative potential.

Tara Vahab
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Tara Vahab

Born in Iran, raised in former USSR countries and Canada, and living in Calgary for the past 15 years, Tara Vahab has been practicing art in various forms since childhood, and received her first artistic award at age nine. In 2015, she graduated from the University of Calgary and immediately afterwards, founded LOUD Art Society, a non-profit organization that supports mental health enhancement and wellbeing through art and creative practices. Tara became a certified Therapeutic arts Practitioner in 2023.

With a 20+ year practice as an independent artist, Tara has exhibited her work in Canada and internationally, including at the Hermitage Museum in Russia. Some of her paintings were recently selected to be featured in permanent public art projects in Italy and China. Tara was honoured to receive the Mamdani Arts Leadership Award and Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee medal for 2023. Her vision as an artist is to advocate for positive mental health, ignite curiosity, spread awareness, joy, and peace, through multi-disciplinary projects that are abstract, surrealistic, and sometimes visionary and performative. Usage of bright colours, pattern-making, found objects, and newspaper are elements that she returns to throughout her practice, and are inspired by research on the relationship between the metaphysical world, humanity, empathy, and joy.

Q&A with our Artist in Residence

How did you come to know of the KOAC Artist in Residence program?

I have been a fan of Katie Ohe’s (the co-founder of the Kiyooka Ohe art Centre) and have admired her work for years. I learned about her while completing my bachelor’s degree at University of Calgary a few years ago. I knew about KOAC as a sculpture park but was not aware of the residency program. In 2022 I participated in another artist residency program and one day I was telling one of our common creative friends about my experience and he suggested that I apply for the KOAC artist in Residence program next. I was very excited to find out about this residency program, but I was not sure if my art or I would be eligible for it. After visiting the KOAC’s website, I decided to take our friend’s advice and apply for the program.

When you reflect on your arrival and settling in what stands out as most memorable? And what is most memorable upon finishing your residency?

I was so excited to meet Katie before I started the residency and upon my arrival, I received a lot of support from KOAC’s team of staff to set up the studio as both gallery and working space. Throughout my residency I received very constructive feedback from Katie, KOAC’s visitors and some of the previous KOAC’s artists in residence. What stood out the most is Katie’s sense of humor and our conversations together; she mentioned a couple of times while moving her sculptures around that I was smart for choosing newspaper as my medium because it is light and easy to lift. Upon finishing the residency, the reception was the most memorable for me, I was so happy to be able to present my art as an experience for the attendees and I think it was very successful based on the number of the attendees and the many positive feedback I received from everyone! I felt very humbled to receive Katie’s message afterwards saying ‘you are a gift to KOAC’ and that I was very impactful in telling the story of who you are /I am as an artist and your / my artwork!” It was a huge honour and a dream come true for me to be the artist in residence at KOAC and have the opportunity to receive Katie’s mentorship and feedback!

What is your art form?

I create sculptures out of newspapers, I also paint and try to explore various disciplines of art to tell my story as an artist. I am an artist and a therapeutic arts practitioner; I advocate for mental health through my artworks. My artwork with newspapers have evolved over almost 16 years and the woven design was developed within 10 years of this period. Throughout this time, I have explored the effect of news on our mental health and how we generally process information. I have also discovered more about my ancestors and have learned that my mother’s aunt used to be a Persian rug weaver and my grandmother used to be a very skilled knitter. So, I think this could be one of the reasons why I create what I create!

What did you create? What inspired you?

During my residency, I created a series of newspaper sculptures called ‘I Belong.’ These sculptures are an abstract expression of my feelings about belonging to Alberta and the creative community as an immigrant. The sculptures can be interpreted as a flower bud about to bloom, hanging tear shape chandeliers and woven webs. Some viewers interpreted it as a fountain or a candle which are also fitting in my idea of belonging to a community. I was inspired by Katie’s work and the nature around the studio. The main piece is kinetic, and I want to encourage the viewers to play and interact with it.

What was Katie’s influence during your residency?

Katie offers a wealth of knowledge and insights; she sees the aspects of the art that not many notice or understand and that is what I was looking for coming to the residency. I wanted to receive expert feedback on my work, my process, my presentation, and the sense of material. Katie knew it all and was very generous with her time and wisdom. She often visited me in the studio and witnessed my progress. Her enthusiasm was infectious and empowering for me. Katie is a legend; I think part of why I named the art series ‘I Belong’ other than feeling accepted by the community is also a play with words and wanting to be and to live a long creative life — in other words BEING LONG LIVED.

How did the experience at KOAC affect your art and process?

My experience at KOAC was a great gift to me! As an artist who immigrated to Canada as a young adult, I have gone through various mental and emotional stages that I believe prevented me from growing in my practice confidently. The time that I spent at the peaceful studio space at KOAC and having the beautiful nature around me really helped to improve my work and present myself and my art authentically, in the way I have been envisioning for a very long time. The KOAC art residency is focused on creativity and not finishing an art product and I think having this in mind made me much more productive than I was planning to be. I was just so grateful to have this studio space and Katies’ mentorship that I continued producing art and work on all of my ongoing creative projects! I painted a series of paintings, I worked on my book that I have been writing and I was able to finally organize all the chapters of the book, I am also able to continue playing music and perform a small piece at the opening reception of ‘I Belong.’

How would you describe the difference KOAC makes to the lives of artists?

I think creativity is a treasure that needs to be nurtured in order to flourish and art production is truly a community effort. And so, support is always needed even for very well-established artists. KOAC offers both support and nourishment for creativity! Artists who take part in KOAC’s art residency program, in a way will become part of the KOAC’s community, they receive support and will also learn how to support other artists. And of course, Katie’s hard work, amazing attitude and reputation offers more than what an artist could ask for out of a residency program.

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The Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre is a place for art and artists, for the curious, for the novice and for the expert alike – everyone is welcome to visit, to make, to learn and to talk about contemporary art, whether by traversing our sculpture grounds and gardens, or visiting (when appropriate) with our artists in studio or via our digital forums and workshops.

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