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Calling visual artists to The Steel Spirit

Military personnel, police, firefighters and all first responders have the opportunity to showcase their visual art and stories through The Steel Spirit.
Aydyn Neifer, a contributer to The Steel Spirit, paints a picture straight out of the journals he kept of his deployments. SUPPLIED

The Steel Spirit organization, an Ontario-based platform for military, police and first responders to share their artwork and personal stories, is looking to set up a branch in St. Albert. 

Barbara Brown, founder and director of The Steel Spirit, founded the organization in 2017 after her husband, a police officer, was posted overseas investigating war crimes. 

“I wanted to keep busy. I did a lot of artwork which I found soothing and the military families I knew comforted me,” said Brown. The Barrie visual artist’s pride and joy is a portrait of her father, a proud member of the Canadian Air Force. 

Brown’s initial inspiration came from intimate ties to the military and policing. However, she quickly noticed similar emotional experiences in both military personnel and first responders. 

“There was so much more about people I wanted to share with everyone. People in the service are a very inspiring group.” 

Initially, Brown was unsure which direction to go. However, she put out a call for visual artists and designed a website. Coincidentally, the first art exhibition happened in 2017, the year Prince Harry’s Invictus Games played out in Toronto. 

“I think the turning point came when we had our first gallery. It was a small gallery in a small room. We had a small reception for the artists who invited a few friends. We had 100 people attend. Five artists talked about their work. It was so successful, you could see the emotion in people’s faces. That started a wonderful, inspirational moment of progress.” 

While the unique exhibition started with 10 artists, it has since tripled in numbers with an added gallery in Nova Scotia in 2019 featuring 16 artists from the region. 

Currently, the gallery showcases the diverse artwork of military personnel, police, firefighters, paramedics and hospital practitioners, both serving and retired. 

While the words ‘visual artist’ conjures up images of canvasses hanging on walls, a quick preview of the online gallery features a large base of mediums. In addition to paintings and sketches, the disciplines range from pottery, photography, stained glass and sculptures to wood carvings, leather work and wood burning. 

Each submission has an accompanying story about the artist or the art. 

“Stories and art are equally important and it’s about what the artist wants to share. It’s about making a connection. Some do art as a way to get away from the service and the stress. Many people who join the military and then transition to civilian life find it difficult and art helps them cope.” 

Elena Vlassova, a retired military photographer now living in St. Albert, was stationed at Canadian Forces Base Borden north of Toronto. As a passionate art devotee, Vlassova submitted an acrylic painting for the 2018 showing. It was her first submission, and it was accepted. 

“In a way, I was in shock because it was my dream for a long time. I had reached a point where I thought it (gallery exhibit) was unattainable especially since I moved around so much. All of a sudden, I was showing my painting.”  

During the reception Vlassova was nervous and excited. 

“I couldn’t breathe. But I made this little speech.” 

Vlassova grew up in Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest city in Russia located in the Ural Federation. She studied art in school and attended the Architectural Academy eventually teaching other students design. 

But as Russia’s economy collapsed virtually overnight and inflation ballooned, Vlassova immigrated to Canada. 

“Inflation went through the roof. All my savings were lost in a few days. Retirement was a disaster, and crime was very high. The crime level was too high to handle. Technically, I lost my savings, I lost my country and I left. If I had to start over, I may as well start elsewhere.” 

Her first stop was Montreal followed by Calgary where she worked as a drafting technician for ATCO Structures, a firm that designs portable office trailers for business. In addition to drafting, Vlassova functioned as an interpreter for large contracts with Kazakstan.  

After upgrading and a two-year degree in Business Administration from SAIT, she applied for every job posted. The first to reply was the Canadian Forces. Originally, Vlassova was part of the army’s public affairs service, but shifted to the Air Force to serve as a photographer for 16 years. During a storied career, she was posted at several bases across Canada including Edmonton Garrison. Vlassova retired from active duty this year. 

“Now that I’m out into the civilian world, I need to spend time integrating,” said Vlassova currently considering website development as a future career. 

Vlassova gathers inspiration from her travels and in the 2019 Steel Spirit showcase, she submitted a photo of two older carriages parked in a Cuban alley. Knowing the Russian artist’s detailed university training makes it easy to identify the spot-on architectural lines in her acrylics. 

“It (Cuba) has the most magnificent architecture in the world. Nothing can measure up to it,” said Vlassova whose current influences include Monet, Pino Daeni and Richard S. McDiarmid, three artists displaying freer brushstrokes.  

Taking part in The Steel Spirit reinvigorates her enthusiasm and determination to give military personnel and first responders a creative outlet to tell their story. 

“I want to help expand The Steel Spirit in Alberta and what Barbara started. But it’s her baby and I have to be in line with her vision. But if I can help other people to have exposure, for me it is a big deal. If I can help other people, that will be my goal. It might change their life.” 

Brown and Vlassova are hoping to host a gallery exhibition of regional military and first responders’ art in 2023. Anyone interested in taking part can call or text Vlassova at 1-705-795-6744. A complete online view of visual art, webinars and general information is available at   

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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