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How Markham’s Art Hub Became an Online Art School

Winged Canvas founder, Fei Lu, recounts the story of their transformation

Near one of Markham’s busy malls and across from a supermarket, nestled behind a few trees with stuck-on faces was the only business in the plaza with artwork propped up on the windows. That was where the Art Hub in Markham resided; that was where Winged Canvas originated before COVID-19 changed the education landscape forever.

Pivoting from a brick and mortar art hub to an online art school

One of our instructors teaching March Break camp in our in-person studio.

For six years, we were known to the local community as Markham’s Art Hub. Our busy studio hosted regular art classes, popular seasonal art camps, offsite school workshops, and art parties every weekend. But when COVID-19 forced many businesses to close in March 2020, everyone had to respond and adapt — quickly.

I remember sending all of our staff home the day before our sold out March Break camp, and personally calling every parent who registered to cancel the program. We were closing our doors for the foreseeable future. And like many small business owners, I was devastated.

This was one of our very first online class tests when we still used Zoom!

By April 2020, we began to move Markham’s Art Hub online. We had to quickly learn how to run virtual classes and adapt to a fully online teaching model. We now like to joke that we had to “evolve from artists to tech support” overnight, but in reality we truly believe in staying innovative. Since curiosity and innovation are some of our company values (or maybe because I’m an optimist), we chose to view this pandemic as an opportunity and calling: we now have the chance to pioneer the future of art education online!

While our online learning setup was considered a temporary plan initially, we soon decided to make it a permanent shift in our program offerings. Through a lot of trial and error, we began to get into the groove of teaching online. We even moved away from Zoom (remember the Zoombombings in 2020?) and built our own video conferencing server — one of our largest hurdles and greatest art nerd achievements to date! We’ve since moved to the teacher-friendly Google Meet platform for all of our live virtual classes.

From that point forward, we were no longer Markham’s Art Hub, but instead, we became Winged Canvas: Online Art School. With virtual learning, we are now able to serve a global community of art nerds like us!

The future is now, and it’s not waiting for us

Art instructor Grace teaching a watercolour painting class.

While many wished to go back to normal life, we saw a new normal on the horizon; a normal where wildlife thrives with less carbon emissions, where everyone can connect via the internet in seconds, and affordable, accessible education for all. I won’t sugarcoat anything and say that it’s been easy to change our entire business, but rather than go back to how it was, we knew that it was time to prepare for a new era of learning.

Most students didn't seem to mind that we were operating through a screen.

By the end of summer 2020, we began to notice the benefits of teaching online. Even though I’m an extrovert, I loved how convenient working from home was, and how beneficial and flexible it could be. Although I missed our beautiful art space and teaching our beloved students in person, I began to appreciate all of the benefits of online learning. It is truly amazing how easily technology can bring us together — in a matter of seconds! Not to mention the precious time saved by parents not needing to chauffeur their kids from program to program after work. Reduced stress from battling traffic, reduced carbon emissions, and the flexibility of joining live classes from anywhere — now, everything is done instantly with a few clicks.

Businesses weren't the only ones forced to adapt; school systems also had to change and shift the way they taught their students. Teachers suddenly became front-line workers with dangerous jobs, and everyone — including my 91 year old grandfather — had to learn how to use technology, whether they wanted to or not. This involuntary growth spurt propelled us into the future that was already here.

The future of education is online

Online learning has been available and progressing for the general public for many years, and it’s become a far more plausible way of learning in the digital age. Along with all the workplace benefits, now quality arts education is far more accessible to people living in remote and rural communities.

2020 will be known as the pivoting point for the much needed change in the public education system. During the lockdowns, the traditional teaching model became obsolete almost overnight. Although COVID-19 challenged many businesses, it also forced them to innovate and adapt for the future we already saw coming. It made us realize how valuable online learning was, and how it could be a lifeline during trying times. With a mental health crisis looming, art and creativity are needed more than ever before. A drastic call for change is here, and now is our opportunity to reinvent art education.

Why Winged Canvas moved to a fully virtual teaching model

This isn’t the first time we’ve considered teaching online. We’ve already taught international students who traveled from as far as Brazil and Hong Kong to attend our classes during their school breaks! We also had regular students who commuted for over an hour to attend a class! We were considering live streaming and starting an online Art Mentorship years ago, but instead of investing in online program development, we had to prioritize in-person art classes and services to fill our large studios and pay our rent.

But as a small business, we have the advantage of being more nimble than big institutions when it comes to change. We also lucked out — our rental agreement ended a month after the lockdown, so we promptly moved out of our physical studio so we could use our resources to rehire our staff and teachers.

Creating together without the carbon footprint

By going virtual, we reduced our carbon footprint by over 95%, and even more if you count the emissions saved from students and teachers commuting for classes! COVID-19 also brought on the concept of virtual parties — where people could create together from all around the world! From creative online birthday parties to virtual art workshops for companies, this allowed people to gather live from all over the world — extended families abroad, long-distance friendships, work teams around the globe, and people isolated at home.

Virtual workshops aren’t limited to people in their homes — we’ve popped into many events virtually to host an art lesson, including schools and other enrichment learning programs and camps! The flexibility of online learning allows us to bring our curriculum and unique teaching method directly, easily and affordably, into classrooms around the world. We’ve worked with many innovative teachers who have brought us into their schools virtually, with some students attending in person, while others from home!

We're expanding our mission to make art education easily accessible

For 6 years, Winged Canvas focused on teaching and serving our local community. We created art contests for Markham residents, taught workshops at local schools, and helped local artists with framing, high end art reproduction, and held regular art exhibitions in our gallery to celebrate arts and culture in York Region. We had loads of fun advocating for visual arts and serving our community with creative and memorable experiences.

Our mission has always been to make art and creativity easily accessible to everyone. While Markham’s Art Hub was dedicated to serving our local community, Winged Canvas can now serve a much larger community — the Art Nerd community around the world!

Creating online art resources to help school teachers

By the Spring of 2021, we were hearing the frustration from exhausted teachers who found teaching art online impossible. We were in the midst of a mental health crisis with continuous lockdowns, and students were falling behind. Our team has always been passionate about advocating for better art education in schools, and we’ve been working with teachers since 2014, so we saw another opportunity to help.

Being stuck at home for over a year resulted in another passion project — creating a web portal to help school teachers facilitate high quality art programs designed to curriculum standards. We began to edit our best class recordings into bite-sized video lessons for students in grades 1 - 12. We created worksheets and assessments so that any educator can support young artists and enjoy learning art fundamentals with their students.

In September 2021, after collaborating with our team of 25 artists, educators, creators, designers and video editors, we officially launched our learning portal. So far, we’ve created a variety of online art courses to help all educators — teachers, parents and homeschoolers facilitate affordable and professional art sessions with bite-sized video lessons to learn from home, school, or anywhere, at any pace.

Celebrating milestones and where we’re heading next

Over the course of the pandemic, we created over 250 free art education videos on YouTube, including weekly livestreams, drawing tutorials, and video resources for teachers on the elements and principles of art and illustrated biographies of famous artists throughout history.

We believe that helping other educators is the best way to reach our goal of making art education easily accessible, since visual art is so often underfunded in our school systems. This is why we’ve dedicated an entire team to creating art resources for teachers to use in classrooms. If you’re an educator, you can browse our full library of art resources, including worksheets, handouts, and video lessons on our Teachers Pay Teachers marketplace.

Join our growing art nerd community!

Being an art nerd has been part of our philosophy, company culture, and teaching method since the very beginning! If you’re wondering what it really means to be an art nerd, you’re in luck — we’re so nerdy we even wrote an art nerd manifesto!

Since 2020 we’ve been live streaming regularly on YouTube, so we started an online community on Discord, which has since grown to connect art nerds from around the globe! We’ve also started a Winged Canvas Patreon, which provides a membership and network for our fans to support the creation of free arts education, with cool perks like free classes and exclusive behind the scenes content.

Our goal for the year ahead is to continue improving our virtual art classes, seasonal online art enrichment camps and overall student experience. I'd like to personally thank all of our students, parents and families who believe in what we do, and stuck with us throughout the Pandemic with online learning. Without your support we won't be where we are today. I'd also like to welcome our new students and fans from around the world -- it's been a whole new adventure connecting with you, and I look forward to our future!

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Comments (41).webp

Virtual Art Classes

Live, interactive art lessons from the safety of home. Flexible enrollment. Join in anytime! (42).webp (39).webp

Art Mentorship

This is an art program specifically for students who know what they'd like to learn, or those seeking one-on-one style lessons. (40).webp (43).webp

Teacher Resources

Doesn't matter what grade you teach, you can use our free teaching resources to help you educate the next generation of artists. (44).webp

Access the Best Art Education From Anywhere!

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