Then and Now: From Humble Beginnings, Quest Art School and Gallery Paints an Inspiring Story

With over 25 years of community building and building, the organization has come a long way

When you walk through the Quest Art School and Gallery at the Midland Cultural Centre, you learn to appreciate how an idea can become a purpose.

The quest for art in Midland began when a group of artists began meeting in the basement of the library over 25 years ago. They met for the love of their art, to learn and continue their journey as artists.

The library’s basement lighting may not have been ideal, but it clearly didn’t stop this artist collective from evolving into one of the most important art venues in the neighborhood.

Today, natural light pours into Quest Art’s spacious surroundings through large windows and lighting designed to allow the artists’ vision to shine through the showroom and gallery.

The current exhibition titled Metamorphosis by Marli Davis is a three-part instillation that explores how her Japanese culture, rich in rituals and traditions, creates the connection and meaning that has shaped Davis as a person. The mixed media works are like a cabinet of curiosities dedicated to the memory of time, inviting the viewer to reflect on their own history.

From this perspective, it is worth considering the changes in art over more than 25 years since a group of nine watercolor artists came together to explore their passion, meet visiting artists and develop their skills in 1995.

After meeting in the homes of various members for a time, the group found space at the Penetanguishene Public Library in the basement. Eventually, word of mouth passed through the artistic community and it became clear that the band needed to grow.

Space is freeing up at the Penetanguishene Mall and the watercolourists are expanding to include mixed media and multimedia artists: wood carvers, jewellers, ceramicists and oil painters.

“People started asking us, ‘why don’t you include people who work with acrylic? Or oil? “says Mary Lyn Beauvais, founding member, recalling the beginnings of Quest Art.

For the watercolourist who switched to engraving, says Beauvais, “change is good”.

“Quest helps local artists have a place to go and meet. And then, the workshops are fabulous”, says the artist.

Beauvais attended a printmaking workshop at the gallery about five years ago and has dedicated his art to printing ever since. She even learned how to make a homemade printing press using a pasta maker, such is her passion for her new job.

“If you really want to increase your talent, this is the place to do it,” says Beauvais.

Quest executive director Virginia Eichhorn explains that Quest is first and foremost an art school.

“The importance of art and art education is at the core of what Quest does and everything else flows from that,” says Eichhorn.

“In 25 years,” notes Eichhorn, “what that means has changed dramatically.

“One of the things that’s really wonderful about Quest is that it started with people in the community with their passion and their hearts.”

The dedication to staying in the community is clear in the programs offered by Quest Art today. These programs were initiated with the aim of helping others to be passionate through artistic expression.

The HERO Project, now in its third year, is a partnership with Waypoint Mental Health Services, the Hero Center and the Midland Library, which provides space for artists to work in a safe and supportive environment.

Community Living Huronia and Quest Art also have a year-round program for those with developmental support needs. Through another partnership with the Alzheimer Society of Simcoe, art helps people express themselves through creativity.

These programs bring people together with professional artists and art therapists to help them claim their place in the community.

Due to challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, programs have been offered virtually for the past two years or more, and will likely continue with a hybrid model of in-person and online classes.

These programs are free and are made possible through donations, fundraising and sponsorship.

“Even for some people, $5 can be prohibitive,” says Eichhorn. “It was a big priority for Quest. We want to bring programs to people even if they don’t have the financial means. It’s important that their voices and creativity are supported and welcomed.

The school and gallery partner with many other organizations to offer programs like with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters and Youth Council made up of local schoolchildren, the gallery celebrates art created by all.

For Beauvais, the emphasis on youth and its expression is inspiring.

“It’s important for schoolchildren to know that their art is just as important as famous artists,” says Beauvais.

Beauvais invites everyone to go see student shows to appreciate the talent and ingenuity of budding local artists.

Eichhorm looks forward to a return to in-person art appreciation. While she noted that the virtual model has made Quest Art’s programming accessible to those with transportation issues and has encouraged a larger community to participate, such as people from British Columbia, Manitoba and even ‘It’s wonderful that people are coming back’ in the gallery.

“It’s really about being a place where people can come together. Post-COVID, with Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and a lot of significant, important, seismic cultural shifts, so much has changed,” Eichhorn says. “Look at what is happening in Ukraine and with the convoy of truckers here at home.”

There is no shortage of material and inspiration in the face of so much adversity.

In 2005, in another context, Toni Morrison said: “This is precisely when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no place for fear. We speak, we write, we make language. This is how civilizations heal.

Morrison’s lyrics seem to match the current tenor of our times.

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed,” says Eichhorn. “Quest offers this feeling of hope that everything will be fine. The whole act of being creative is a repudiation of despair, or surrender.

Eichhorn is hopeful for the future and thinks things will change. Given the latest environmental report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “we have a limited time to make changes,” says Eichhorn.

“We have to do things differently or better. Being in an environment such as Quest provides is an opportunity to examine what those differences might be for the communities we are part of.

During the pandemic, Quest Art placed tear-off flyers around town that said “Take what you need” and each tear-off said something different. The one I tore up this summer said “HOPE”.

Eichhorn smiled with pride upon hearing how a simple piece resonated with someone in the community.

“It’s really about the community that makes Quest the place it is,” says Eichhorn.

“At Quest, we want to make people feel like they have something to smile about. We need art for our hearts, for that feeling of release and rejuvenation.

If you would like to be part of the community that Quest Art School and Gallery has developed over 25 years, click here to learn more about membership, workshops and programming available for all ages.

Kayleen C. Rice