The Art of Expression

Local art studio teaches kids to express their inner artist—and have fun doing it!

It is 7:30 am on a dull and gray Saturday morning in the Comox Valley.  While many people are still in their bathrobes, advice cup of coffee in hand, staring out at the stillness trying to decide if they should go back to bed, Lisa and Brad Graham are busy launching their boat at the Comox marina.

Comox Valley photographer takes her work—and her subjects!—to new depths...

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The Graham’s were up before dawn and, instead of bathrobes, they wear dry suits.  With a forecast for calm seas they eagerly anticipate spending a few hours scuba diving near Norris Rock, Hornby Island.  It won’t matter to them if it starts to rain—they will already be wet!  Winter, Lisa Graham explains, is the best time to scuba dive in and around Vancouver Island because the waters are clear and the undersea world is alive with activity.

Graham smiles with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning as she imagines what she may encounter beneath the waters of the Georgia Strait this crisp January morning.  If she is lucky, she will get a chance to shoot some Steller sea lions—with her Nikon D-200 camera in an Ikelite underwater housing.  She can’t imagine a more perfect way to spend time with her husband of 27 years and trusted diving partner, Brad.

“Brad and I married right after high school, had two children, moved from our hometown of Port Coquitlam and eventually settled in Armstrong, BC,” she says.  “We became responsible adults almost before we ourselves had grown up. Brad started working in the automotive industry and I was a stay-at-home mom for a few years.  When the kids started school full-time I took a job as a bookkeeper.”

In Armstrong, the Grahams discovered a mutual love of scuba diving. “That’s the advantages of having children when you are so young.  Here we were, both around age 40, and already empty nesters looking at each other asking: ‘What do we do now?’”

Among other things, the Bucket List they created together included world travel, scuba diving, and motorcycle riding.  Graham quickly mastered the art of motorcycle riding and soon after, they both signed up for scuba diving lessons.  By 2001, both were certified PADI divers.  They loved the sport so much they went on to become Master Scuba Diver Trainers.  In 2004, they were also certified with the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers (IANTD).  This certification enables them to dive into very deep waters with twin tanks and two regulators.  Aside from enjoying the sport, developing a dependency on each other to ensure underwater safety has had the positive side-effect of strengthening their relationship, too.

“In this sport you have to have full trust in your partner,” says Graham.  “I very often get so involved in shooting my photographs that I rely on Brad to keep me safe.  I simply can’t imagine diving with anyone else.”

Considering that their lessons and certification process involved diving in indoor pools and lakes in the interior of BC, the Grahams were eager to explore a real ocean to practice their new skills.  They took their first trip to Cozumel, Mexico, in 2001 and were ecstatic to be able to explore the undersea world.

On their second trip to Cozumel in 2002, Lisa took a disposable underwater camera designed to be used in up to 15-feet of water.  She dove down 60-feet, shot the entire roll of film and was thrilled when the camera didn’t implode underwater.  Only one photograph turned out but it was enough to captivate her.

“I was hooked on underwater photography from that moment forward,” she says.  “I saved money to invest in a really good underwater camera and have taken a camera with me on every dive ever since. However, when you are mostly diving in lakes in the interior of BC you find yourself with lots of pictures of mud and not much else!  We decided it was time to move.”

Graham says that she has always felt drawn to water and, since making the Comox Valley home in 2006, she feels blessed to be able to regularly dive, photograph and explore the coast and underwater habitat of beautiful British Columbia.

Inspired by the images created by world-renowned British photographer, Zena Holloway, Graham had spent several years following Holloway’s unique underwater fashion photography.  Her first chance to switch from shooting aquatic life to people came about when she enrolled in the photography program at North Island College (NIC), where InFocus Magazine photographer Boomer Jerritt was one of her instructors. The portfolio she developed for the program featured extraordinary underwater portraits shot at the Comox Valley Aquatic Centre.

With the NIC photography course completed, a few dozen great local dives to their credit and hundreds of pictures snapped in local waters, the fun-loving and ever-adventurous Grahams decided it was time to stroke another item off their Bucket List.  In the fall of 2007, they quit their jobs, put their most precious belongings in storage, arranged foster care for their then 15-year-old Macaw, and announced to their family that they were embarking on a trip around the world.  It would be ‘hard core travel’, living out of backpacks, often staying at hostels and, of course, taking photographs.

Were the children shocked when their motorcycle-riding, deep sea diving, photography-obsessed mother announced that she and their dad were heading out on a 16-month backpacking adventure?

“Goodness, no!” Graham says with a laugh.  “They have always known to expect the unexpected from us!”

The Grahams flew from Vancouver to Singapore.  After taking a few days to recover from jet lag, they ventured to India, where they experienced an immediate and profound culture shock relating to cleanliness—or lack thereof!  Although they had lugged their scuba gear along, there would be no diving here, considering that the water is dirty and there are no fish to be seen. (Overfishing with nets has decimated aquatic life there.)  From there, the couple traveled throughout Southeast Asia, enjoying some spectacular diving in Thailand and Bali.

After about 11 months on the road they took a quick two-week foray back to Canada to attend to personal business, then headed to South America for another six months to explore Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.  Thanks to the portability and wonders of digital photography, Graham’s portfolio is now also bursting with extraordinary photos of many exotic locales.

“It was a bit of an adjustment when we came back to Canada in the dead of winter 2009,” recalls Graham.  “First of all, we went from +40?C in South America to -40?C in Armstrong, BC, where my parents live.  Temperature differences aside, it was the culture, not the weather that was the biggest shock. After travelling extensively in under-developed countries you realize that people in North America are obsessed with material things.  Until you are away from our culture for a considerable length of time, you don’t realize how bombarded we are with commercials and advertising.  Not that they don’t have advertising in other countries but, because we often didn’t speak the language, we were able to completely filter out the noise of commercialism and just enjoy the simple things in life.”

Lisa Graham at the pool.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The Grahams are now back enjoying the Comox Valley full-time, and Graham has started a job that has allowed her to stroke another item off her Bucket List. She has combined her two passions—diving and photography—and created a unique home-based business called Seadance Photography.

“I came up with the name Seadance because I wanted a name that was associated with water,” explains Graham. “I decided on combining sea with dance because I felt it reflected the fun-loving and artistic connection I have with the water.”

While Graham is earning a reputation for producing artistic family portraits, wedding albums and commercial photography on dry land, she is also making a splash with her underwater work.  In addition to fashion photography, Graham specializes in underwater wedding portraits and, last summer, started offering underwater family photo shoots.  “Kids are so great to work with underwater,” Graham says.  “They have no inhibitions or expectations.  They just get in the pool, have fun and enjoy being the centre of attention.”

Graham recently partnered with specialty make-up artist, Ria Ambrose, who owns Colour FX in the Comox Valley.  Ambrose did the make-up and modeled for some underwater shots. The first thing the two learned is that just because a make-up manufacturer lists a product as waterproof or water resistant doesn’t mean it is!   Even nail polish, they discovered, often quickly wore off.

“We played around with different product lines before we found ones that didn’t run underwater,” Ambrose says.   “I also had to be concerned about product safety, since I couldn’t have make-up seeping into my eyes. On the bright side, now when I am doing make-up for a wedding and the bride asks me if her make-up will run if she cries, I can honestly tell her that it is really waterproof!”

Together, the two created a series of costumes with fabrics and props that promised to billow and float artistically underwater. The result was a stunning array of images that capture the undulating, free-flowing nature of water, creating whimsical and seductive pictures of beauty and serenity.

“We took some portraits with just pretty make-up and others with more dramatic, theatrical-style themes,” adds Ambrose. “Most of the more crazy ideas were mine.”

Ambrose says that being an underwater model was a truly unique experience, adding that Lisa was great to work with.  “At first it was hard to learn to keep my eyes open but she was patient and helped me to relax.  Thankfully, the Aquatic Centre doesn’t have much chlorine in the water, but you still have to work relatively quickly or your eyes will go red.”

Apparently, a unique thing about being an underwater model is that, although he or she may be positioned only a metre or two away from you, the photographer becomes just a blur in the water.  As a result, it is fairly easy to relax and, quite literally, let the water move you.  Graham wears a wet suit and a mask—not full scuba gear—when she works in a pool and simply holds her breath while she shoots the photos.  She spends considerable time working with people before they venture into the pool, instructing them on how to loosen up and when to breathe.  And, if they just can’t manage to open their eyes underwater, a pair of swim goggles adds an element of fun to the picture.

Last spring, Graham was commissioned by the Comox Valley Record to contribute to the newspaper’s annual photo-story section: A Day in the Life of the Comox Valley.  Her underwater perspective of the community included a dog paddling in the water at Goose Spit and a synchronized swim team practicing at the Aquatic Centre.  Always up for a challenge, she was also recently commissioned to produce a series of photographs for a book—The Complete Guide to Feng Shui Crystals. The photos were so well received that they have also been made into a series of art cards and a poster.

So, what’s next for this free-spirited Comox Valley photographer?  “I look forward to riding my motorcycle around Vancouver Island again this spring and summer, and I will, of course, continue to dive and take pictures as often as I can,” says Graham with a sparkle in her eyes. “In the distant future, we would like to travel to Iceland and Finland—I understand that the diving is awesome there.  In the immediate future, I am booking photo shoots in local pools, as well as Nanaimo and Vancouver. And, of course, I am booking spring and summer weddings… on dry land, not underwater.  I would absolutely love to be hired to shoot a wedding in a tropical place, like Hawaii!  Oh, and what about creating a wedding story that starts in a church and ends in the ocean?  Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

That does sound interesting. Perhaps Graham can add that to her Bucket List.  And, if past performance holds any promise for the future, there is a good chance she will make it happen.

Check out Lisa Graham’s photography at or call 250.941.7774 for more info.

4Cats Art Studio

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Walk into the 4Cats Art Studio at the corner of Comox Avenue and Anderton Road in Comox, pilule
and you know you’ve found a space for kids to be creative.

The walls are papered in paintings and sketches, nurse
from floor to 15-foot ceilings.  The shelves sit filled with paper maché and clay projects.  Cupboards stand open with paint, brushes, clay and other art supplies at the ready.  Off to one side is a splatter room, looking like the spot where Jackson Pollock refined his drip technique.  And in the centre are two enormous worktables with benches for seating.  To complete the atmosphere, the whole space is filled with music and natural light, thanks to the sound system and store-front windows wrapping the front of the studio.

It’s enough to make any kid want to take up art.  In fact, that’s the point.

4Cats is a professional arts studio franchise where children ages two to 15 can grow their ability to see and think like an artist.  It’s named after Els Quatre Gats (4 Cats Café) in Barcelona, Spain, where Pablo Picasso went with artist, poet and philosopher friends to discuss art and life and make and show his art.

At 4Cats, kids take inspiration from artists like Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol and create their own art using professional art materials.  Class curriculum and workshops are developed and delivered by curators like Comox Valley owner Kristi Martin.

“4Cats started in Victoria,” explains Martin.  “Joey [Simon] is the president, and it started in her basement with the idea of doing art with kids and teaching them art history.”

Simon’s idea in turn came from caring for a premature baby.  Simon’s son Jet was born at 26 weeks, and at the time doctors explained there was a high likelihood he would develop learning disabilities.  Armed with that knowledge, Simon looked for ways to help and encourage her son in his learning.  Being an artist herself, she started reading books about art and painting with her son.  Before long, friends and family took notice of the results and asked her to offer workshops for their children.  4Cats was born in 2005. The 4Cats workshops proved so popular and successful that Simon was soon opening other locations, including a studio in Courtenay’s Tin Town three years ago.  And that’s where Martin comes in.

“I had just returned from teaching in Indonesia—I came back half-way through our school year—and applied for a job Joey had posted on Craig’s List,” says Martin.  “I went in for the interview and she gave me the job right then.  Then for the next year I managed the studio for her.”

Simon also kept asking her—“trying to convince me,” says Martin with a laugh—to buy the studio.  It took some effort.

“I always had this negative feeling about a franchise, for some reason.  I don’t know why. I guess you just think about McDonald’s and all those kinds of places.”

Then there was the fact that Martin’s dream was to teach full-time in the Comox Valley. Martin is a graduate of Highland Secondary School, and attended the University of Victoria as a Physical Education major before completing her teacher’s training at Vancouver Island University (formerly Malaspina College). She’s been teaching part-time since returning to the Valley.

“I kept saying ‘No! No! No!  But eventually I decided to just do it.  I’m glad I did.”

That was a year ago, and since then Martin has moved the studio to Comox from Tin Town for better street traffic, grown the business, and found a team of teachers for days she’s at Highland.  The transition from teacher to art studio curator and business owner hasn’t been that much of a stretch, even for a Phys Ed teacher.

“Everyone always just thinks I’m a jock and play sports, which I always did in high school,” says Martin.  “I’ve always really been into sports and stuff.  So people are always saying, ‘What?  No, you don’t do art.’  Actually, yes I do. I always have!

“I did art in university as all of my electives.  So I’ve always enjoyed art but didn’t want to be pushed into being heavily graded on it and have a lot of stress and pressure around doing an art major.  “It’s cool to be both sides and put them together,” she adds.

Besides, 4Cats is as much about education as it is art.

“It hasn’t been a big deal that I wasn’t in art or that I wasn’t an artist,” says Martin.  “I’m constantly learning things and teaching the kids.”

That includes researching artists, learning about their techniques, developing curriculum and delivering all of it in a kid-friendly, age appropriate art class.

“I think the idea of 4Cats is amazing,” continues Martin.  “It’s teaching kids to be creative and self-expressive.  I know being a teacher myself and having 28 kids in my Grade 2 class, it’s really difficult to be creative and free with art in a class setting.  There is only so much we can do.”

“At 4Cats we’re really giving kids the opportunity to learn a little bit more and go a little bit further, just as sports have done outside of school.  Teachers can only do so much in a PE class.”

4Cat students register for specific sessions, choosing from things like clay and sculpture, drawing, claymation, and stop motion animation.  The most popular session, though, is the Artist of the Month.  Classes start with stories about a specific artist—say Michelangelo—and their style.  Kids then move onto to sketching using what they know about the artist as inspiration.  Finally, they move onto a larger painting or clay project done in that artist’s style, but with their own touch.

And the kids love it.  So much so, they’re often dragging their parents through the door to take a look.

4Cats Art Studio allows kids like Marcel Daws, above, to have fun with art. “I hope that when they come through the door they absolutely fall in love with art, and that they’ll take something away to be proud of,” says owner Kristi Martin. The Comox studio caters to kids aged two to 15.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

“We have a doctor’s office next door and I often see kids holding their parent’s hand walking to the doctor, and their head is completely turned to our studio,” says Martin with a grin.  “Then after the doctor’s visit they will come into the studio.”

And the kids definitely like what they see.

“We say the phrase ‘No big deal’ all the time because they’re allowed to get messy and it doesn’t matter if their whole hand is stuck in the paint jar,” says Martin.

In fact, the phrase ‘No big deal’ touches on the Montessori principles that are the foundation of all the 4Cat art studios.

“Maria Montessori saw education differently and changed some ideas about education as far as letting kids learn at a pace that’s more suitable for them, and letting them really find a passion when they’re younger,” says Martin.  “Also, using lot of natural things and having kids do things that maybe at first you might hesitate to let them do.

“Even our three to five year olds, I let them scoop out their own paint.  It’s really being tactile and experiencing things.  They choose their own colors; they’re making their own decisions; they’re scooping out their own paint.

“At first the three year olds are hugely messy and it’s crazy,” continues Martin with a laugh.  “But eventually they get it.  They run over and they know how to set up their artist’s tray perfectly.”

What really makes the 4Cats experience so successful, though, is the support from the community and the franchise.

“We have so many wonderful, supportive families that have been with us since Tin Town and help us get more great families in,” says Martin with pride.  “The Valley is so amazing.  There are really so many cool parents out there, and they bring their little kids’ friends.”  Word-of-mouth has helped Martin double the number of students registered in 4Cats programs over the past year.

“And the franchise aspect of it has actually been great.  For us it’s this huge support network, like a little family.  We all Skype, and we’re chatting back and forth sharing ideas.

“Even though Joey started it and it has become this huge franchise all across Canada and the US and Mexico I can still call Joey on her cell phone and say, ‘What do you think about this?’” says Martin.  “And Joey always says, ‘Do what’s best for your studio’.”

And for Martin, doing what’s best means one thing. “I feel proud to own the studio and have the kids that we have in here,” says Martin.  “I hope that when they come through the door they absolutely fall in love with art, and that they’ll take something away to be proud of.

“I don’t expect kids to come in and become artists when they grow up,” she adds.  “But I think it would be really neat to know that kids who have gone through here continue to do art.  I feel the same way about coaching [high school volley ball].  I hope that the girls that I coach go on to be active and live healthy lives.”

For more information about 4Cats and the Comox Valley studio, go to