Learning about ourselves with the 2016 Ashley Fellow, Stephanie Rayner

stephanie and students at Traill
Stephanie Rayner sits with students at The Trend (Traill College)

At the end of January, the colleges had the great pleasure of hosting Stephanie Rayner as this year’s Ashley Fellow.

For those who aren’t familiar, the Ashley Fellowship is a fund established by the late Professor C.A. Ashley, long-time friend of the university and fervent proponent of the College System.

Professor Ashley believed that the opportunities and the informal connections made through college life played an integral role in the pursuits of the university and its students.

Therefore, Professor Ashley bequeathed the school a fund to bring a visiting scholar to the university yearly, as a guest of the residential colleges.

However, the term scholar was to be broadly interpreted to mean anyone that could benefit the students and enrich their university experience in some way.

Nominations may come from any of the colleges or from individual departments within the university in conjunction with one of the colleges. This is a wonderful opportunity for the university community to benefit from the presence of a distinguished intellectual who can enhance our academic programs and collegiate life.

This year we were lucky enough to host the extremely talented and insightful Stephanie Rayner.

Rayner is inspiring on so many levels. From humble beginnings, her father told her she would never be an artist, that women did not belong in art, but like any true artist she found her path to creation.

Without any formal post-secondary schooling she has gone on to build an impressive portfolio and speak at many prestigious locations including The Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in China, Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Studies and now Trent University.

We were more than lucky and humbled to have this experience.

She has a talent for combining religion, literature, mythology, science and anything else you can think of, in her practice. She often builds gigantic installation pieces that take not only years to make, but take an extremely personal and physical toll her. She throws everything she is and everything she could ever be into her artworks.

Her most recent, and probably last piece, The Boat of Eternal Return, is over 30 feet long and took over 20 years to create. Her works are astonishing and stunning testaments to science, art and religion; in short, she builds monuments to the human spirit and to progress and evolution.

While Rayner was visiting Trent she gave lectures in a few classrooms and ran workshops with groups of fortunate students. These lectures were based on pieces that she had completed, but they were also deeply philosophical commentaries on human nature and resilience.

Bewilderment is a weak word to describe the feeling Rayner left behind. She has a way about her that makes you feel fulfilled and accomplished just from simple conversation.

She had a knack for inspiring people and making them question their motivations. She started a dialogue that encouraged change and ideological evolution. After her first lecture, two of the students in attendance were literally speechless.

Yes, that word is overused and has lost some of its meaning, but the students were really and truly, literally, speechless. The way Rayner theorised the beginning of human creation and resilience of the human spirit forced students to re-evaluate their own actions and ways of thought.

One of the most profound and life-changing things Rayner said came from her first night on campus at an intimate dinner with some representatives from Lady Eaton and Champlain College Cabinets in the Champlain Living Learning Commons.

Rayner came to this school technically and professionally as a visual artist, but more as a role model and inspirational speaker.

However, her background as a visual artist may have stopped some people from coming to her public discussions and workshops, for the same reason kids hate art class; they’re not artists or they’re “no good at art.”

She acknowledged there are very few true artists, but everyone is innately creative and we’re just teaching it wrong. You wouldn’t teach someone to write and then expect him or her to write amazing pieces of literature, so why teach someone to paint and ask for the Sistine Chapel?

Rayner inspired these few students to follow their creativity, for this is the only way to be truly human.

We are homo sapiens sapiens, those that know that we know. That is what separates us from the apes: our ability to knowingly create and be so profoundly inspired.

Rayner’s brief trip can be summed up to this: we were extremely privileged to have been able to spend those few days with such a profoundly talented and inspirational human being.

Want to know more about Rayner and her works? Visit her website: www.stephanierayner.com