Local artist honouring women through online exhibit

Culture

Elfrida Schragen donates 40 portraits to Our Place to support their “Women in Progress” project

Three portraits painted by Elfrida Schragen
Photo via gallery website

Growing up, Elfrida Schragen didn’t have a woman in the arts who she looked up to for inspiration. 

Now, Schragen, who will turn 75 later this year, launched an online gallery in collaboration with Our Place to honour and recognize strong local women in positions of power through a project called, “Admired – Portraits of Women Leaders in Our Community.” 

As a child, Schragen had an early interest in art through her father, who was an artist that made a living off his work. They had constant conversations involving colour, value, and drawings, and Schragen tried to seek his approval through her own artwork. Whenever she brought her own artwork to her father, however, instead of praising the piece, he would rework it and find ways of making it better. 

“My inspiration in the arts was my dad,” Schragen says. “But he also put me off it, because he doesn’t know much about kids. I would bring him a painting, and being a little girl all I wanted was approval and he would take it apart and show me how I could  do it better.”

Schragen graduated from McGill University with a general arts degree and moved into teaching and social work. Eventually, however, she rediscovered a love for the arts in her forties and pursued a career in art therapy.

“When I’m painting and I hit the ‘sweet spot,’ I don’t know how else to describe it, but suddenly I’m getting excited because I’m getting the right colour, right shape, everything is fitting together, it’s very energizing.”

After taking a couple of courses at an art therapy school, she found a passion for painting portraits and started a project to raise awareness around homelessness in cooperation with Our Place Society — a community centre helpling Victoria homeless, impoverished, and poor — in 2007. 

Schragen roamed the streets of Victoria and approached individuals to see if she could hear their stories and paint a portrait of them to raise funds for Our Place — eventually raising $35 000 for the organization. 

Nearly a decade and a half later, Schragen was inspired to work alongside Our Place again with the Admired project.

“The common thread would be that all these people are ‘people people,’ they’re improving a lot of humanity.”

“I know other women my age who have made quite an incredible impact, but they are fading away and people don’t remember the impact, so I had this desire to honour them.” 

After selecting 40 women in the community who she and others admired, Schragen spent around 30 minutes with each individual to ask them questions about their respective journeys and take photos to help her paint their portraits. 

The women range from Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, to Our Place Society Community Engagement Manager Patricia O’Byrne, and Bernice Kamono — a member of the Da’naxda’xw First Nation Band from the Kwakwaka’waka Nation, who has worked to support people that are Indigenous and homeless.

Although the group of women range in diversity, Schragen says a common trait among them is their desire to impact and better society, each in their own way. 

“They are all strongly aware, their energy is directed towards the betterment of society,” says Schragen. “The common thread would be that all these people are ‘people people,’ they’re improving a lot of humanity.”

Specifically, Schragen says, working with Indigenous women for this project and showcasing their work was a gratifying experience.

“What was the most enlightening for me was, I think I’ve done five Indigenous women, and to begin to get a little awareness of what’s happening in the Indigenous community was very exciting.” 

The portraits each come with an individual bio, and viewers can access the exhibit for free. People viewing the exhibit can also donate money to the cause, with all proceeds going towards Our Place’s emergency programs and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the society’s “Women in Progress” project. 

When public health guidelines allow, community members will be allowed to view the portraits in person at a gallery in the Bay Centre.

“This is a two for one project,” says Schragen. “You get the opportunity of helping Our Place, and Our Place is really in need as the rest of the world is becoming in need of money more than ever, and you also get to honour these women.” 

Although Schragen didn’t have a woman in particular to look up to in art growing up, she’s created an exhibit of strong women for countless other young women to look up to — regardless of the field they choose to pursue.