For Travis Shilling, acclaimed Ojibwe artist, and Naomi Woodman, professional photographer, art is not a subject, but a way of understanding who we are.

As founders of the Otter Art Club, this belief forms the basis of the community initiative they created in 2018.

“The whole idea is to give youth the opportunity to explore their creative sides by giving them the space and tools to express themselves,” said Travis. “We’re not just arts and crafts.”

The Otter Art Club focuses on sharing the way artists are inspired and providing access to professional artist tools.

The unique philosophy of their program is inspired by their own personal experiences as well as the community that has supported them.

The son of renowned artist Arthur Shilling, Travis understood his father’s commitment to his community as an artist and wants to continue his legacy.

“We love this area, and we want to share it,” said Naomi. “It’s such an inspiration to Travis’ work.”

“It’s the community that inspires us,” added Travis. “Look at this area; it’s a beautiful place to be. We want to be a part of it and want to provide what we would have wanted when we were young.”

The couple was determined in their efforts to give back to the community, working hard to keep their professional careers going, while supporting their new community endeavour.  They opened a studio in downtown Orillia and started out with small youth groups who would come to create art in a professional artist setting.

“Then a beautiful thing happened,” said Naomi. “The community started to get involved.”

The Orillia Area Community Development Corp. (CDC) took a leading role in supporting the new initiative.

“We invited them (CDC) up and showed them what we do. We know what we’re doing is working, but sometimes it’s hard for others to understand. They took a chance on us,” said Travis.

Other local businesses, such as The Shadowbox, Rustica Pizza Vino, Rockwater Wealth Management, Refillery District, Rose Printing, Chippewas of Rama First Nation, and Telus provided donations, along with art supply companies that provided supplies at no cost or discounted prices.

The CDC provided their Community Capacity Building Fund (CCBF) grant for the purchase of a projector and screen to support the programs Otter Art Club offered, as well as provided advice on getting their plan up and running.

“Through the Community Capacity Building Fund, the CDC aims to support projects that improve opportunities for growth and success within that business or organization,” said CDC’s General Manager, Wendy Timpano. “The Otter Art Club had proposed to enhance their offerings in a creative way, thereby providing opportunity for sustainability and growth. We were happy to support them.”

The grant will also help to develop a darkroom in partnership with Tyler Knight and KnightVision Media that will be used to introduce students to the world of photography and film.

“The projector is a real symbol of what it means to be a painter and the importance of visual images,” said Travis. “When someone backs you up like that; comes along and says, we can do this for you; that means a lot.”

“We use the projector to share paintings with the kids. When they see such large images, they are inspired,” explained Naomi. “We have also used it with guest artist events and now with our online workshops.”

COVID-19 came along just when Otter Art Club was gaining popularity with schools, as well as with adult groups, forcing Travis and Naomi to get more creative in order to reach their audiences.

In addition to the children and youth benefitting from the club’s programs, adult groups –especially those focused on recovery from abusive situations or overcoming addictions – are realizing the healing power of having a safe, creative outlet. 

“We had to figure out how to continue our programs during COVID,” said Naomi. “We started our club, in part, to help kids get away from their screens, so we weren’t sure how going online would work, but it has become the most incredible vehicle and has helped the club in more ways than we could imagine.”

The Otter Art Club is now virtually connecting with groups and classrooms from all over the province, and beyond.

“We’re really doing what we first envisioned when we started the club,” said Travis. “We were planning to buy a trailer to create a mobile studio so we could travel to remote places. Being online is just a different way of doing this.”

Like many other businesses and organizations that have realized the benefits of virtually connecting with people, Otter Art Club will likely continue their online presence, along with in-person workshops to take place outdoors. 

“We have always wanted to offer our programs to the people who will benefit from it, not just those who can afford it,” said Naomi. “We don’t want cost to be a barrier. Because of the support from the CDC and others in the community, we’re able to reach more kids. And that’s what’s important to us – to make sure they have this kind of creative outlet.”

“Art is such a universal language,” added Travis. We’re finding our role in the community; we’re using art to share the beauty and history of this area – it’s magical.”

“We could not have done this alone,” added Naomi. “It’s cool to see how much more we can do when we come together as a community. The CDC has really helped make this a vibrant one.”

To learn more about Otter Art Club or to get involved, visit or call (705) 345-6874.

The CDC’s Community Capacity Building Fund is currently open for applications. Deadline to apply is Thursday, October 21, 2021 @ 4:00 pm.

Photos: Naomi Woodman

Source: OrilliaMatters