Visiting Red Roof Studio during my road trip through the Canadian Badlands, it occurs to me that Rita Wildschut is more than just an artist. She is the embodiment of art. She’s also the best kind of example of someone making a difference in a community.
Colorful in both personality and dress, Rita is the kind of person that makes an impact on everyone she meets. I checked into her B and B near Brooks, Alberta and within hours I was immersed in the power of her art.
“I think there would be peace on earth, truly, if everyone accepted art as part of their life. And lived with that, and saw the beauty in things.”
We’re walking through her kaleidoscope of a gallery filled with art, all of which she’s created. Blue giraffes, dizzy landscapes and sultry human forms encircle us. Her talent for art seems boundless. She’s adept in painting virtually any form and with many mediums: papermaking, raku firing, pottery, sculpting and even welding.
“I know all my paintings. I look at them every day and I remember. I remember when I made that, what I felt like, that’s what it was about, that’s my story there.”
This studio is a whirlwind, art swirling around like a storm, and us in its eye. The entire brass section of an orchestra hangs above our heads.
“Look what songs do,” Rita says. “How inspired are we by music? How does that make you feel? Well, I’m very strongly inspired by visuals. And even abstracts, I always say you don’t have to explain it.
“Those colors just make you feel sad or empty or really excited or very happy. What is that about? You just look at it and you feel that? Isn’t it awesome to feel again?”
“I sat in the front row. I had tears running down my face.”
Originally from the Netherlands, Rita and her husband Colin – a Green Beret, photographer and agricultural graduate – immigrated to Canada in the early ‘70s.
Leaving home to settle in Canada, which at first seemed like such a leap, turned out to be exactly what she needed. “You could start a whole new life, you could be yourself, and you could be who you wanted to be.” For Rita, that meant a life of expression through art.
Moving to Canada was the start, but the true turning point was an art therapy course she took one summer at the University in Lethbridge.
“I sat in the front row. I had tears running down my face. I thought I had come home. This was all I ever thought it was. It was always therapy for me but I hadn’t realized what an enormous impact it can make on so many people that are hurting, or need to learn how to cope with life, or get peace in their life.”
After that, Rita began teaching Alberta art classes at her home studio to anyone in the community who was interested.
“I said, I’m opening my studio every summer to kids to come. And they get to use my tools, the proper tools, all the materials that I have—because I could never afford them—and I’m going to teach them how to use them, on what material, and they get to do whatever the hell they want.
“So that’s why I started making projects, art therapy-wise. To make them think and feel. And these kids come out with so much self-confidence and such joy. Look what that does to a kid! Those few that I got every summer would come back. And now I get their kids. They’re coming now with their kids.”
Art Classes for Adults, Too
Rita’s belief in art as a means to process the human experience now has two generations of students. She expanded her Alberta art classes to summer camps and workshops for adults.
There’s a “painting social” every week. “Bring a beer, wine, relax, and I’ll show you how to paint. Huge success. It’s awesome. Adults get confidence. ‘My god, look what I can do! Look what I made!’ They can’t believe it.”
One of Rita’s other popular classes started as a garden sculpture workshop. It eventually morphed into a means to help people process their grief. Watching her students use fabrics to create figures, she was struck with an idea to use t-shirts of someone they lost.
“I thought, what if that t-shirt belonged to someone? I’m having the goosebumps already because I’ve had such amazing classes with that.
“I said: ‘So somebody has passed on, bring their garment and we’ll use it in a sculpture.’ You build this figure as a sculpture—so I called them garden spirits. Their spirit is in this sculpture that you just made. That fabric is right there now.”
Watching her react to her own story is a much-needed reminder of all the good in the world. It’s remarkable what a difference one person with empathy and compassion can make in the lives of others.
“The people that have passed on, that’s always incredible to see that. You know, they carry everything home like ‘I’ve got him again’ or ‘I got her again.’ It’s a really amazing workshop. The most beautiful thing you can do, to give art therapy and they don’t know it’s art therapy. It’s just…How amazing is that?”
Concerts and Open Mic Nights For Everyone
I’m supposed to head out and attend a Renaissance fair but I don’t want to leave. The Red Roof Studio, Rita, Colin and her family feel like old friends. I’m having so much fun talking to Rita that I cancel my next stop and stay at the studio to hang with the entire family.
And that’s fine by the Wildschuts. As it turns out, they love having guests as much as I love being one. Once Rita decided to build the studio (out of compressed hay bales), she turned the family home into a B and B.
Next came the idea to have concerts on the property, bringing in folks from as far away as Calgary to join in. There are also open mic nights where anyone can take a turn singing for the crowd.
“So when I did the studio I said you know what, we need to do way more. We’re going to bring all the arts in here. So I call it – anything to do with art can happen here. We brought some plays here, and book reading, poetry reading, and we had an audience! I always want to thank the audiences. We wouldn’t have this if you didn’t come out. So I’m very grateful for that.
“Seriously, I don’t leave the house. All the good people we meet here. It’s really special souls that walk into our acreage. And they all love it. They feel that there’s an amazing energy in that building. And I have quite a few people that tell me that.”
I tell her that, too. (And not just because her daughter Janine is making me homemade French fries like I was a long-lost Dutch friend.)
Welcoming Immigrants Through Art
As more and more people and refugees immigrate to Brooks, it’s becoming more multicultural than ever. More than 100 languages are spoken in the area. Rita decided the best way for everyone to understand one another was, of course, through art.
As immigrants themselves, Rita and her husband felt they could give back to the changing communities with the studio they’ve created. She asked Global Village to fund her endeavor, and is hoping for a grant to help her vision come alive.
The idea is this: Rita creates a piece of art with 20 kids and 20 adults that is about their experience as an immigrant coming to Canada.
She’ll ask them, “Where did you come from? Would you like to tell us or share with anyone in the world what that was like to come from there to here? What were your expectations? Are you living still in fear or in hope?
“Whatever your vision is, put it in a painting, or it could be a collage from photographs or stick figures. It doesn’t matter how the message comes out, if you can put it on something that everyone can look at, and then we can share that and let it travel throughout.”
Her hope is that this project can become a traveling installation throughout Canada that shares these stories across the provinces.
“We’re all immigrants in a way. We all have a story to tell. Some more than others. Now that’s pure therapy. If they get to talk anonymously, they don’t have to write their name on it, but to let all of us see what happened, how did they come here, and what have they lived through to get here. Are they grateful?
“We’re enormously grateful that our kids were born in Canada and are Canadians, and everything Canada stands for. And so, for them, do they feel the same?”
I’m in awe of Rita and her tireless vigil to spread art into everyone’s life. For her it goes beyond aesthetics. It’s almost as if she’s rewiring everyone to help them access a part of themselves, a part that makes them a better version of who they already are.
“You’re Actually Processing Life”
Her faith in passing art to everyone is based on one belief: That she could teach them art and make them feel.
“That’s really what it is. If you can give somebody a project that they have to dig into themselves, in their soul, in their heart, in their mind, what do you know, what do you feel…you use that simultaneously when you make art. You’re actually processing life when you’re doing that.”
Rita’s contribution to the community around Brooks, Alberta, and the Canadian Badlands has made a difference in the lives of so many. Classes and concerts are open to everyone and are ongoing, year-round. Check the Red Roof Studio website for the schedule.
For visitors, it’s an uplifting stop along the drive and a real highlight. I’d even suggest making a week’s retreat at the studio a destination all to itself. Check the site or email Rita (redroofstudio [at] gmail [dot] com) for information.
If you do go on a road trip through the Canadian Badlands like I did, pop in and say hi. Make it a rest stop and take a moment to browse the artwork. It’s like a free museum but with amazingly friendly people to chat with.
Before I (reluctantly) left, I asked Rita her thoughts on why the world needed art. She didn’t miss a beat.
“We need to give people a soul again. That’s why.”