Dr. Mary Blatherwick

Dr. Mary Blatherwick

Dr. Blatherwick teaches art, design and creative education in the undergraduate and graduate Education programs at University of New Brunswick. Her research interests include intercultural understanding, visual literacy, arts-based resource development, community arts, and creativity. She has developed resources on intercultural understanding, conducted surveys on visual literacy, and produced a series of films which examine the concept of creative practice. Mary has received prestigious awards for her excellence in teaching. With Dr. Jill Cummings, she recently co-authored Creative Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in the 21st century.

MS: How did you become interested in education and in creativity?

MB: My father was an interior designer and my mother strongly encouraged my interest in art. My grandfather loved art and spent hours in the evening drawing with his grandchildren. We didn't have regular art programs in our schools, so as a teenager I took private lessons. Mt interest in teaching started with offering art classes to neighborhood children in the front porch of our house. Through this, I realized that I loved teaching and began to develop a lifelong fascination with ways in which we tell our stories in visual form.

MS: You hold quite a fistful of degrees: a Bachelor's, Master's and Doctoral degree in Education, plus a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in studio art. What did each of these contribute to your understanding of art and education?

MB: The Bachelor of Education from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design provided the theories and practices necessary for teaching in the Halifax school system. Three years later, I began an off-campus Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from NSCAD that allowed me to study, work and travel overseas. A job at the British Museum of Natural History in London provided an amazing immersion in a rich cultural environment and an expanded my interest in teaching and creativity.

When I returned to Canada, I took a job as an art teacher/coordinator in the local schools and art center of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. This fueled my interest in arts administration and provided a springboard for my work in documentary filmmaking.

I then completed my Master's degree at University of British Columbia, focusing on the challenges K-12 teachers face when teaching creative subjects in which they have little or no background. I taught at education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax for the next four years before returning to the public school classroom.

An afterschool initiative that I started for newcomers to Fredericton High School in New Brunswick provided the catalyst for my PhD, which I later completed at University of Roehampton, in England. Students from China, Central America, Iran and Singapore came to my art room each week. Together we explored their worlds and shared them openly with each other. From that culturally enriching experience I decided to examine how intercultural understanding can be increased through the exchange and of students’ cultural images. My PhD research resulted in the creation of a provincial art education resource for teaching intercultural understanding, and a teaching position at the University of New Brunswick.

MS: It seems that your current work as an educator and innovator is the culmination of a lifetime devoted to intercultural understanding, art and creativity.

MB: For me, education is the means by which we explore and then expand our creative potential-- and through which we gain cross-cultural understanding. Through an inquiry-based approach, we can also foster a sense of wonder and encourage personal discovery. Professional development in the form of presentations, workshops and hands-on activities can help both the teacher and student grow exponentially.

MS: Please tell us about the Atlantic Centre for Creativity.

MB: ACC fosters collaboration with educational institutions and organizations that embrace a wide range of applications of creativity, including artistic expression, design, innovation and entrepreneurship. Its main goals are to:

  1. support programing and research in creativity

  2. offer a means of connecting through a website and other forms of communication

  3. promote the exchange and sharing of ideas through a yearly event such as a conference, series of workshops, forum or symposium.

Even though it is only four years old, the ACC has been very active. In 2015-16 we organized 26 events related to creativity and innovation. Each member of the committee took responsibility for a certain event. Then, in 2017 we organized the Creative Connection conference at UNB which offered 48 presentations and workshops on creativity, plus keynotes by the Director of Innovation at UBC, an Engineering professor from Calgary and the CBC host from the program on new technologies.

In 2018 the ACC will hold a Creative Connections symposium at Acadia University to continue the rich and varied conversations from the 2017 conference. This event will encourage Atlantic region partnerships and expand involvement. And, we are planning for a potential conference at UNB in 2019. It can further encourage people to share their research and ideas about creativity in its many forms.

MS: We tend to associate creativity with visual art, theatre, music and dance. The ACC approach seems much broader.

MB: I think creativity is a human capacity that needs to be nurtured. It is vital to our growth and well-being but because it is not a good fit with the model of education adhered to for the last 200 years, (which promoted conformity and 'one right answer thinking'), it has been viewed as non-essential.

This emphasis on conformity has resulted in generations of students who graduate thinking they are not creative and have no capacity to become creative. This is unfortunate. Creativity is an approach to learning in which students make new connections and form original thoughts. These thoughts can be in any subject area - not just in the arts where sound, movement and images are dominant.

We know there are basic aspects of learning that can be enhanced through the practice of creativity. I feel that students need to learn through the use of their senses. Teaching them to observe the world and draw what they see are crucial steps in enhancing visual communication skills. They also need to learn through the use of all modes of communication; not just numbers and letters. Sound, movement and image are equally as important as numbers and letters in educating the whole child.

I also think it is crucial to teach them what 'thinking' is and how creative thinking is made up of at least three forms of thinking (divergent, convergent and critical). This changes their perception of creativity as simply being a 'talent ' belonging  to very few and can transform it into a fascinating process of exploring new possibilities and asking probing questions.

MS: What are some of the ways you help students expand their ideas?

MB: I encourage my students to explore widely and to learn from their mistakes.

  1. In one assignment they are asked to create a tower in an hour. They are given 16 feet of newsprint and 36 inches of masking tape. They must think about height, strength and aesthetic appeal in the making of their towers. This activity encourages them to think, invent multiple options, test the out, and ask good questions about aesthetics, stability, and construction.

  2. In another assignment four or five-person teams must use their body language as a form of visual expression and visually represent /create, an object such as a sewing machine or a toaster. This lesson focuses on visual communication and how we can convey meaning using the expressive qualities of our bodies. It also encourages them to connect various modes of communication such as image, movement and sound.

  3. In another lesson students are given a theme such as 'walking' and then they have to choose a form of expression and create a play, a poem, a musical, or commercial based on the theme. Variations on a theme helps demonstrate the range of possible answers to any question and encourages students to expand beyond the first solution.

MS: As a start-up, the ACC still has a lot of unrealized potential. What resources are you seeking--and what resources have you already found?

MB: I'd say the steering committee itself is our most valuable resource. It includes faculty members from several different disciplines including science, arts, media, business, entrepreneurship and engineering. We also have community partners and directors from innovation programs and centres across the Atlantic provinces,

Our interdisciplinary approach to creativity is also a great strength. It highlights the breadth of activity that we can identify as "creative" and encourages connections between areas of expertise. As I noted earlier, creativity can drive all sorts of connections and idea generation. It is not limited to the arts.

We are in the process of establishing official status at UNB so that we can employ staff to carry out administrative duties and to manage the major initiative that the ACC organizes each year. There is great interest in the work we are doing, and I look forward to making more connections throughout the Atlantic region.

As the chair of the committee my long-term goals include:

  • helping to establish the Centre as an official part of a faculty and to encourage more collaboration and interdisciplinary programing in creativity across the University of New Brunswick.

  • making it more accessible to faculty members and students across the campus and to partners throughout the Atlantic region.

  • with administrational assistance, promoting more programing, offering additional professional development, raising more funding, and developing more partnerships. I believe that we are poised for the next steps in the ACC's development and as a leading collaborative force in creativity at UNB and in the Atlantic region.