University of Calgary

Student exchange with London’s Royal College of Art opens doors, inspires great work

UToday HomeApril 24, 2013

By Heath McCoy

Art professor Bill Laing and Sarah Gillett, an exchange student from London’s Royal College of Art, together in the University of Calgary art studio.Art professor Bill Laing and Sarah Gillett, an exchange student from London’s Royal College of Art, together in the University of Calgary art studio. Photo by Jae ImThere’s a framed photo in the corner of Bill Laing’s office, on the seventh floor of the Arts Building, one of many images on the wall amidst the vibrant mass of clutter that fills every part of the art professor’s space.

This particular photo is unassuming enough, a shot taken of a younger Laing making merry with fellow artist Tim Mara in a pub in London’s Kensington district more than 20 years ago.

It’s what was being discussed over pints that makes the moment so frame-worthy for Laing. The head of the Department of Art’s Printmaking Department and the late Mara were then hatching plans for an art student exchange program between the University of Calgary and London’s Royal College of Art, where the two men met as Masters students in the early 1970s.

Twenty years later that program has survived and thrived, creating invaluable opportunities for generations of art students and producing world-class works of art for the university.

“For our students, it gives them a lot of cache’ and it can open doors for future exhibition opportunities and jobs,” says Laing. “For the London students, they’re often inspired by the Alberta landscape. I think they’re attracted to the challenge of being in a small art city within this big country of ours.

“They also get a solo exhibition here and we keep a piece that becomes a part of our collection. So they become international artists. And, of course, they realize that our facilities here are very good.”

All of that was a major draw for London artist Sarah Gillett who braved seven weeks of Western Canadian winter early this year.

“My work is about storytelling and landscape and I was focused on the concept of the pioneer, this idea of journeying into an unfamiliar space,” said Gillett during her time at the University of Calgary.

With this approach, both Alberta’s landscape and history were sources of inspiration to Gillett. So too was the studio space and exhibition opportunity. “My intention was to try and make really big work,” says Gillett. “I was able to make a three-metre monoprint action piece.” It’s something she would never have had the room to produce at the Royal College of Art.

As for Jayme Chalmers, the University of Calgary art student who ventured across the pond last January, he jumped at the chance to develop his skills in one of the art capitals of the world.

“It’s a city full of artists and creative people and it’s just bursting with energy and history,” he says. “You’re exposed to it every day.”

His experience at the Royal College of Art was similarly rewarding. “It’s a vibrant place and you get this incredibly diverse field of students from France, Slovakia, Germany, from everywhere, and they’re all bringing a completely different vocabulary to their art. You learn so much.”

Returning to Calgary, Chalmers says he felt artistically invigorated like never before.

Chalmers is currently putting together an exhibition made up of the work he produced in London, which will be on display in August at the new Nickle Galleries in the Taylor Family Digital Library.


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