After giving art workshops to some of Montreal’s marginalized children in August, Real Art Gaining Strength (R.A.G.S.) will be exhibiting the youth’s creations at its first annual Community Winter-Fest on Saturday in Lasalle.
In 1990, Cynthia Nichols founded R.A.G.S. as a gallery to showcase fashion as art. A fashion designer by trade, Nichols had to change her gallery’s focus within a month of its birth after all the textiles she had collected were gone.
“Many artists within the community, especially those that were from other countries and who had been living here in Montreal for years and years, were having a hard time breaking into the art market,” Nichols recounted.
“They needed a place to show. So for me, opening a place to showcase fashion, I just thought it’d be great to have some sculptures and some paintings around. But within one month, all the textiles were gone and all I was left with was canvases and sculpture.”
Hosting a show every month from 1991 to 1994, Nichols said many renowned international artists used her gallery as a stepping stone to establish themselves in Montreal’s art scene, including painter Tom Xu.
Having studied with Canadian realist painter Alex Coville, Xu returned to his native China only to be struck deeply by the events of the Tiananmen Incident. Upon fleeing back to Montreal, Xu met Nichols in 1992 and decided to exhibit some of his artwork in her gallery, prompting Nichols to give R.A.G.S. a more social angle.
“After speaking with him and finding out his ordeals.that really threw me for a loop,” she said. “Then I really started to get – I don’t want to use the word activist – but I just became more aware and started to speak out a little bit more.”
Orignally from Barbados, Nichols’ idea for the Community Winter-Fest started after she visited the island nation last January. Witness to “such poverty and destruction” in her own neighbourhood, Nichols admitted she wasn’t ready for what she saw and started working on poverty eradication by getting in contact with members of the Make Poverty History campaign.
“I had been a supporter, but then I really got in touch with them and said ‘Look, I’d like to do something,'” she said. “I spoke with the director and I decided to put together an art show with proceeds going to Head and Hands and Oxfam.”
After the show, Nichols was contacted by an African group asking her to put on a exhibit showcasing artwork by African children, with proceeds going to scholarships for the young artists.
Nichols decided to bring the proposal to the group she worked with on the Make Poverty History exhibit.
“They decided that yes, it’s wonderful to be able to help children in Africa, but maybe we could do it in a different way,” she said. “They decided that they wanted to focus more on the children here in marginalized areas.”
With this, Nichols and a group of professional artists set out to five community centres in August to give children art workshops. Visiting Tyndale St-Georges in Little Burgundy, the C