Michael Hemming, Much More Than A Teacher of Art

Michael Hemming, Much More Than A Teacher of Art

Teachers come into our lives in many ways. Some have formal degrees and we meet them at school. Some come into our lives and seeing the potential in us, find ways to mirror that back so we might see it too. And some pose challenges that show us places within ourselves that present opportunities for growth. Michael Hemming was all of those and more. Vic High students from 1966 to 1988 were fortunate to benefit from his unique approach to teaching art history and art classes, his determination to empower students to recognize their own innate talent, and his willingness to support and encourage them to develop it.

Orphaned at an early age, he attended a Catholic school in England, ant at 15 made parts for the World War 2 Sting Ray plane at a secret factory in Southampton. After the war he was in the Marines, then went to art school where he studied under very well-known arts and crafts artists of the time and learned a craft he later taught – the art of calligraphy. A teaching post in Terrace, BC caught his eye and he was hired,  then moving to Trail where he met his Victoria-based wife doing a teaching practicum. They travelled a lot, their first daughter was born in France, and pregnant with their second daughter Michael and family settled back in Victoria and Michael began teaching art at Vic High.  Here are just a few of his students and their stories.

David (Mourant) Blue, VHS 1976

First off, I have to say Mr. Hemming was one of the main reasons I went to Vic High. I lived about half way between Oak Bay and Mount Doug schools. It was the art specialty program at Vic High that drew me to the school. Besides the standard art class and art history, we had special studio time. This allowed us to learn and grow und Mr. Hemming’s watchful eye. He taught me so much about art theory and pushed me to find my own style. His encouragement was wonderful.

Three of David’s pieces:      My Fairy Godmother                           Giles                      Lady Penelope

I have many memories of Mr. Hemming, but my favourites were of his more silly moments. He had quite the sense of humour. Something you rarely saw in teachers. One of his favourite tricks was with the stereo. There was always music playing in his class. He had a stereo at the front of class. There was also a long mirror behind the stereo. He seemed to wait until we were all concentrating and diligently working. Music would be softly playing. He would slowly move to the stereo and the WHAM, he would turn the music up full blast. Of course we would all jump. You could see him smirk  as he quickly turned the volume down again.

Mr. Hemming always said, the purest art is that of a child, before they’re told rules about what they can and cannot do.

Doreen Dufresne, VHS 1969

I came to Vic High around October of 1968 after I had started private school but decided to quit. I had lost my family and was attending school and being boarded at Strathcona Lodge. It was filled with endless rules, religions, and an art teacher that was stuck on doing landscapes. Everything was scary to me at the big school…Vic High… but when I set foot in the art room I felt like the room was my new friend. I loved the mess, the splashed paint, the black walls filled with crazy art and the inspiration to be our own creative selves. Mr. Hemming had a very strict and serious presence. He emanated a devotion to art and creativity.It seemed like an odd contrast but all the pieces of this man were special. He was just born to turn people onto art.

When I started I had a little test like everyone else as they started. I had to pick a drawing and do variations on it… one in cool colors, warm colors, pattern, texture etc. I remember having picked a little wizard which seemed a fitting match to Mr. Hemming. He had the 3 circles in his remarkable eyes that suggested he was a warlock! (Oh the vagaries of our high school minds!!) He took one look at my work and asked me what I wanted to do. I started painting and just flew with it. I could paint to my heart’s content. I was given all that I needed. It was the best gift anyone could give me. I got feedback and new friends. At one point Mr. Hemming asked me to design a poster for a dance. I did this and was given assistants to help me in the music room when it was empty. This gave me so much confidence and a feeling of being so capable. Eventually the school was asked to show in the museum. This was the first year of this and my paintings were very present. This was such a boost to me. I will always remember it.

Mr. Hemming said that he just gave the students what they needed to utilize their talents. He did not seem to take a much credit for this. He was just devoted … to his students. When a new canvas was needed off went Michael to auctions to buy old paintings and turn them around so we could use them. This is so much work.

In my thirties I decided to go into teaching because I remembered what a difference a teacher could make in a kid’s life. I took art teacher’s training but ended up teaching a very creative version of Home-Ec. I had students design their own sewing projects by sketching it out first. In my foods class I would let them decide with flavors they wanted, how to taste as you go and learning to be one with your stove. I am sure that this all never really fit the system but …..

I feel so privileged to have been one of Mr. Hemming’s students. He was an amazing and talented person. He created lovely sketches of female nudes, such sensitive use of line.!!! We were taught all the eras, styles, and names of about 12 basic artists. I wish they still did this. It had been a huge advantage to my recognition of styles and inspirations. I remember that Manet is different than Monet because Manet has an “a” from black and he uses black in his work but Monet does not. I have been to the school so many times as a substitute teacher.or a visitor and the art room is all white. My heart feels a little broken because Mr. Hemming is not there and all the black and white seems so clean and empty.

Thank you, Michael, for your inspiration, support and great memories. You never knew my loss or my background but you were there for me and for others in a way for which I am forever grateful.

Gail O’Donnell, VHS 1975

I am a Vic High graduate from 1975. I had Mr. Hemming as an art teacher for 2 years and I loved the art classes as Mr. Hemming really challenged me. To this day, I have a framed original portrait of a young girl in red charcoal framed in my living room that I love and that I drew in his class. I still have the poem drafted in calligraphy that we learned over 3 months of focused concentration in Mr. Hemming’s class.

We used to have drawers in Mr. Hemming’s art room that we kept our work in. I remember walking into his class one day and he was waving around a small piece that I had doodled that mimicked some Inuit artwork. He wanted to know if I had done that. I thought I was in big trouble so I quietly mumbled yes. He was all happy and announced that it was going to be used as the Vic High Christmas card that year. He certainly could be intimidating!

How did Mr. Hemming shape my future? I did my first year of Fine Arts at UVic before eventually getting my Bachelor degree in Interior Design through Mount Royal College in Calgary and at Ryerson Polytechical Institute in Toronto. I practised interior design in both Victoria and in Toronto but in 1987, I abruptly changed careers working in non-profit & co-operative housing development. I worked with talented architects and contractors and then moved on to co-op housing management. With all of that under my belt, I was asked to take on a new role at the City of Toronto developing new child care centres for the City which I have been doing for the last 22 years.  I am privileged to work with Canada’s best architects including some from international destinations. I have had an amazing career where my creativity has helped to transform child care here in Canada’s largest city. Mr. Hemming taught me focus, that detail does matter, and that classical music in the background helps the creative juices flow. I thank him very much!

At the last reunion for Class of ‘75 that I attended – perhaps the 30th, – Mr. Hemming was standing at the front door greeting the students coming in. He chatted with both Linda Gustafson and I and we were blessed with a laminated bookmark of a nude that he had sketched. I still have that bookmark, even more special since I had no idea that he had passed away. It makes me happy to hear that he made his own choices.

Lawrie Dignan, VHS 1970

Michael Hemming had a great influence on my art life and I truly enjoyed the Art Specialty program for the three years I got to be part of it. I was fortunate enough to meet him several times after I retired, and he attended art shows that I had in 2007 and 2009. I also reconnected with (artist) Keith Hiscock, [VHS 1968] who was also in Michael’s Art class at the same time as myself. Barry Tate [VHS 1967], is another of Michael’s students I met up with again. We both sold our artwork at Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal for many years and spoke often and highly of Michael’s influence on us.

You can find Lawrie’s work at  www.icanvas.com/search?w=lawrie+dignan


Cheryl Taves, VHS 1979

Photo credit: Conrad Jay

The Value of A Good Teacher

Blog post January 25, 2015 – www.cheryltaves.com  (Cheryl’s art)

www.insightcreative.ca (Cheryl’s Creativity Coaching)

In recent years, I have been reunited with my high school art teacher. He’s a dashing, eloquent and pragmatic 91 year old. His name is Michael Hemming.

I took double blocks of art from him during my high school years and couldn’t get enough of his art history classes. They often included lengthy slide shows with accompanying narratives full of details about the artists’ lives that not only helped me to understand their art more fully, but had me certain that he knew each artist personally. The anecdotes and personal insights into their work were so engaging that as a teenager, even when dealing with all the teenage narcissistic obsessiveness that is teenage life at times, I could not wait for his art history lessons each week.

Listening to Mr. Hemming’s lectures I felt passion, respect, and admiration beyond words. He saw each artist as valuable to art history in some way and that’s how he presented them…..each one having shown us an idea and way of painting that would inspire those who came after. We started with the early cave paintings in Lascaux, France and ended with Abstract Expressionism, I believe. After all it was the mid-70s and Post Modernism was in full swing.

Truth is it made me want to be an artist even more deeply than I already did. I wanted to have what I did mean something and to tap into some deeper understanding and truth.

I believed then, and still do now, that artists are plugged in differently. And, through that difference comes an awareness of how much more there is to know about the world in which we live. This makes us walk through the world with an eye to see the unseen and the unnoticed. It’s like a role we must play not only because we are so surprised that others don’t always see this, but because it aligns naturally with the act of art making and creating. Observation, interpretation, absorption and re-interpretation….all this because our artistic mind wants this as its fuel….its need.

So recently I spent an evening with Mr. Hemming at a holiday gathering where he was introduced to a few other artists and an avid art collector. He was quickly recognized for his natural wit and profound understanding of art history and soon gathered a number of individuals around him to talk about art. As I observed him, as artists do, I noticed a sense of deep gratitude rising within myself. And although I had realized this before, I felt fully just how privileged I was to have this man as my art teacher in my youth. He took me, the artist, so seriously and had such a commitment to enhancing the natural talent that he saw in his students, including me, that I flourished under his tutelage and really owned my desire to be an artist.

Although I didn’t actually assume my artistic life fully until much later, I believe that Mr. Hemming’s art classes changed my life and opened a place within myself that had not yet been accessed. Because of that I knew definitively that I was an artist. I just hadn’t realized the depth of that moment until, sitting at that party, I watched my beloved teacher offering up his opinion of a young artist’s work. To the young man, who was asking Mr. Hemming to look at a recent painting he’d captured on his cell phone, Mr. Hemming simply replied “Symmetry is your enemy”.

In that one short sentence he had given a critique, a suggestion, an opportunity, a conundrum to this young artist. This is what I loved about him. He could offer his opinion, his critique, while giving you the task of having to dig further within yourself and your work to fully get it. And when you did, you knew that you had just been seen, supported and made stronger through the process. He is a teacher that knows it is most important to guide the student to their own understanding of what their work needs. That’s how they’ll actually learn. And when his guidance is peppered with an anecdotal narrative from the work of a great master, like Cezanne for example, his favourite artist, you really feel that connection to all of art history…and that you are a part of it as well.

Still makes me tingle to this day….thank you, from the depth of my being, Mr. Hemming.


Thomas Anderson, VHS 1970

Michael Hemming had such an impact on all of us as we dreamed of a future in art. He inspired us to bring our artistic passion forward. He taught us so much about art history. We had a great class. I remember Richard Hunt and Keith Hiscock among others as fellow students. Mr. Hemming had an old Quad stereo and turntable in class and occasionally played records while we worked on our projects and even let me bring some of mine to play! I remember bringing a Blodwyn Pig album and he played it! He was a great teacher who will always be fondly remembered by all us! He drove an old 1950’s Porsche sports car and wore turtleneck sweaters with cord pants and desert boots…..we all thought he was so cool and artisy!