Kathleen Tonnesen is no stranger to starting over. The Douglas College alum, who turned 50 last month, graduated with a diploma in Early Childhood Education in June and is completing her certificate in Performing and Fine Arts this summer. Kathleen, an artist, hopes to one day teach ECE at a college or university.
Though the future is looking bright, it’s been an up-and-down journey for Kathleen, who went from high school dropout and housewife in South Africa to confident college graduate in Canada.
In 1998 Kathleen left her native South Africa to come to Canada with her husband and two children, escaping what she describes as a “dangerous” and “male-dominated” society. The family settled in Maple Ridge, where Kathleen’s husband found a job and the children started school. But Kathleen was at loose ends. She had a background in professional art and theatre but dropped out of high school and believed she was never “good enough” for college.
“I believed the lie that I was blonde and stupid and all I could do was create, which was not a valid credential in the society into which I was born,” she recalls.
Kathleen worked odd jobs, did private art tutoring, painted free murals and taught children’s art classes. Then, two events rocked her world. In 2000, her sister committed suicide. Kathleen didn’t have the money to fly to South Africa for the funeral and was stricken with grief. The following year, on Sept.11, New York’s Twin Towers were brought down by terrorists and 3,000 people were killed.
“All I could think was, every person who died had family and friends who loved them. And they were all going to be grief-stricken. Because it takes a long time to get yourself into a space where you can manage it. But it never goes away. You just live with it, and if you can express it, it helps.”
As an artist, Kathleen knew all about expressing herself, and she wanted to do something for the family and friends of the victims of 9/11 and honour the police, firefighters and paramedics who died at the scene.
She did two paintings depicting the release of souls and, with a volunteer architectural designer, engineer and metal fabricators, created Release of Souls, an aluminum sculpture 18 feet high, 23 feet wide and weighing 6,000 pounds, representing the last three standing pieces of World Trade Center Tower no. 1. The names of the police officers, firefighters, airline crew members and Pentagon personnel who died on 9/11 are engraved on the piece.
“I wanted to create a gathering place to which people could come in the hope that they would converse, because in conversing we begin to share and heal,’” Kathleen says.
Release of Souls made its debut at Maple’s Ridge’s Act Theatre Sept. 11, 2003, with Maple Ridge police officers, paramedics and firefighters in attendance. Next stop for Release of Souls was Seaforth Armoury, in Vancouver. Meanwhile, Kathleen had written to the White House and City of New York to offer the sculpture as a gift. Both refused. But it made it to America and was put on display in Pasadena and San Diego.
“We exhibited a number of times and then I really just wanted to come home,” Kathleen says. “I thought, ‘You know, nobody in America really wants to accept it.’ But people kept saying, ‘Keep trying, keep trying,’ and that it should go to in New York.”
But after getting the runaround or being met with outright hostility from the mayor’s office as well as from other groups trying to memorialize 9/11 – by now it was 2006 – Kathleen began to lose heart.
“I met an artist in New York, and he said to me, ‘Every time you unpack your sculpture, you step into a hornet’s nest. Because when you unpack your sculpture, you’re unpacking political questions, personal questions, foreign questions.’”
After managing to show the piece for a short time in New York, Kathleen called it quits. She came home, her marriage fell apart, and she was broke. “I found it incredibly difficult to get a job and because I had created the 9/11 piece, people ostracized me. Even in the art world, I wasn’t helped, I was ostracized.”
Searching for a way to move forward, Kathleen, who loved children, heard about an eight-week Early Childhood Education program at Douglas College whose costs were covered by a government program. Kathleen took the program, received her certificate, but then decided she wanted – and needed – more. On the advice of her son, she applied for a student loan and entered the Early Childhood Education Diploma program. She’s never looked back.
“My first instructor, Cathy Sales, was pivotal in encouraging me to persevere with my studies and not to be ashamed of my circumstances, but to realize there was opportunity to be of service in this area,” says Kathleen. “She changed my life.”
Release of Souls is currently stored in the Chicago area in a semi-trailer. Kathleen is still reaching out to Americans who are interested in it. See more of Kathleen’s art on My Art Channel.
Find out more about the Douglas College Early Childhood Education program on our website.