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Artist Interview Series: Audra Townsend and lifelong learning

By Nathan Durec

A portrait of Audra Townsend

Audra Townsend is a lifelong student. Never one to sit still, she has crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of knowledge, striving to learn about humans and culture.

She has worked for and been awarded a bachelor’s degree in business, a media writing diploma and a master’s in anthropology. And this wealth of knowledge is something that has influenced her worldview, which is then captured in her artwork.

“Anthropology is definitely in my art,” Audra says. “And what I find is that what I’m thinking about things, especially certain events that are going on, I’m also painting that into my painting.”

Interestingly, the painting for Audra came later in life, spurred by a desire for creativity that was missing in her work life.

Going to school

Despite a desire to always learn, it was not something that came easy. Audra lives with dyslexia, which has required her to find unique ways to learn.

A painting by Audra and some painting tools on the table

“You don’t overcome that,” she says. “It’s still there, and it’s still a daily struggle. You basically adapt.”

But instead of succumbing to the struggle, she found what she refers to as ‘workarounds’, ways to change the environment of learning materials so that it is better for her style of learning. This can be as simple as changing the font or the size of writing on a screen, or it can be something more unique.

“It never goes away. It just makes things a little more interesting. When people talk about having to try to think outside the box, I can say I was never in it.”

What never wavered was the desire to keep going. After her bachelor’s degree in Canada, she looked overseas. And she also wanted to focus on something she was passionate about.

“I decided on anthropology,” Audra says. “And anthropology was fantastic. It was the best thing I’d ever done in my entire life…It teaches you about what it means to be human. My degree was in sociocultural anthropology, everything about culture: politics, economics, the social, the historical. It also talks about colonialism, racism, all sorts. It was fantastic. It gives you a better sense of people.”

What also made the program appeal to her was that it was in her home city of Manchester.

“It was a bit of nostalgia, going back to where I spent my early childhood…I also lived on a street where my family used to live. They tore down the building, and they built a bunch of these student apartments and things like that…It was fantastic.”

Finding the creative

Audra pointing her work on the wall

After her master’s, she returned to Canada to care for members of her family. This also led to her returning to her former job with the Ontario Ministry of Health as a civil servant working with electronic health records.

But once Audra went private as a consultant, she had time to explore again and to pursue other interests.

“Poetry was something that calmed me down,” Audra said. “It was just something that took me away. I basically switched gears and was trying to go back and do that.”

Unfortunately, writing poetry did not work. So, she tried something else, studying her family’s history.

“I researched my great granduncle, his time during the war. He was one of 5,000 West Indian volunteers that went to support Britain during World War II. And he was with the RAF and, you know, one of a handful of Black men as part of the British RAF.”

But with both of these pursuits, writer’s block reared its head. It was a friend of hers who suggested she try an entirely new creative pursuit.

She enrolled in a four-week intensive art program in 2019. And it was in painting that she discovered a language that was natural.

“It came so natural that I always looked forward to figuring out what colours worked best together, what…mark-making I wanted to do. I first started out without a real plan. I just did whatever felt great. And I just enjoyed it. Days and day and days, I’d be working on a piece.”

She calls painting liberating, organic and cathartic. She says she enjoys spending time discovering new ways to make marks in the paint, sifting through videos on what makes better composition or learning from other artists.

“Curiosity has a lot to do with this…it’s trying different techniques just to see what’s going to happen. And that’s how we learn. That’s very important to learning and growing actually,” Audra says.

And she understands that different people experience art in different ways. She encourages her viewers to come and talk with her or to touch the paintings. For Audra, learning is not something done at a distance; you need to be in it. And the more you do so, the greater the enjoyment of the experience.

“That is my philosophy going forward in life: Do what you like, do what you love,” she says.” It makes life more worth it.”

Photo credit: @Frettchanstudios


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