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  • Cecilia Kramar

From Doctor to Voluntary Guide

Sylvie Douyon’s journey into the beautiful world of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

By Jihane Mossalim

For as far as she can remember, Sylvie was always interested in the arts; she loved drawing and even took Saturday painting lessons when she was 4 or 5 years old. This passion stayed with her during her elementary and high school years. When many kids were bored and disliked the mandatory art classes, she enjoyed them a lot.

Things changed when she decided to study medicine; with little time on her hands and many sleepless nights studying, making any kind of art was becoming increasingly difficult. She did however manage to find the time to visit every single temporary exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; a real feast for the eyes (and brain). Although she wasn’t active in creating visual arts, she kept a dancing practice quite alive and was even competing in social dance competitions. ‘’I always had a creative side’’ she says, “a creative side that couldn’t come out as much in my medical practice; a little bit perhaps but not that much.”

A year and a half ago, Sylvie decided to retire from her medical practice as an obstetrician gynecologist. She was going to embark on a new journey, that of a voluntary guide at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). At age 60, when she planned for her retirement, Sylvie started taking art classes at the MMFA; she loved the museum so much that she knew she wanted to volunteer her time at the institution, during her retired years.

Sylvie participated as a guest speaker in "Parallel Worlds" a free online public experience designed by the Convergence Initiative in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). The experience featured three monthly events that included a virtual tour of artworks, a live online colloquium with a scientist and an art guide, and an online art-science workshop linked to the colloquium. During the colloquium, a scientist and an art guide engaged in a dialogue about visual perception and fine art, inspired by a special pigment representing a color and a subject. During the YInMn Blue colloquium, we had the pleasure of hearing and watching the exchange between the two spokespersons Karim Jerbi and Sylvie Douyon. Here is a sneak peak:

“Do you know how the whole program works in order to become a volunteer?” Sylvie asked me. I had to admit that I had no idea! She went on to tell me that it was a very rigorous year-long program consisting of a session at Concordia University where future guides learn specific skills as well as ways to interpret an artwork. The last session takes place entirely at the MMFA where students attend an art history course, starting with the Egyptian era to today’s current art movements. Students also learn everything about the museum’s permanent collections.

Have you ever wondered why the museum was closed on Mondays? I don’t know that I have THE answer but Sylvie explained to me that every Monday when the museum is closed to the public, the volunteer guides are attending training courses on art. They are always up to date with everything that is happening at the museum. Also, every year, the guides themselves organise a field trip to a museum in another country. Sylvie had the chance to go to France with her fellow guides but unfortunately, the pandemic halted the trip and it had to be cancelled. According to Sylvie, there are a lot of advantages to being a voluntary guide. She definitely seems very happy to be following this path.

When asked how she came to collaborate with Karim Jerbi for Parallel Worlds, she explained that every time there’s a special project involving the Museum, it is posted for all the guides to see and everyone has the opportunity to apply for it. “I applied because I was very interested in the alliance of art and science and I also wanted to learn more about the way people perceive things as a way to help me in my work as a guide. This was my main motivation to apply”.

I asked her if her experience with Parallel Worlds gave her a new perspective on SciArt collaborations and she told me that other than learning the meaning behind the word pareidolia, (when we see things in objects such as faces in the clouds), she believes that this experience will really help her explain and present abstract art to museum visitors.

Sylvie also brought up some interesting points in regards to the question of arts in the scientific domain and science in the art world; she says that there shouldn’t be strict defining lines between the two. In fact, every field can merge and converge with another. She remembers learning a lot about the history of the world, not just the history of art during her art history classes. She also brings as an example the use of science in art such as the change from powder pigments to paint in tubes, facilitating transport for outdoors paintings during the times of the Impressionists or the use and understanding of shadows and perspective.

She is also very interested in art and digital creation. Fractal Flowers by Miguel Chevalier really left quite an impression on her; “having this virtual garden that lives and regenerates with different algorithms… it really is extraordinary and I think that we are going more and more towards that [kind of art].”

When I conduct interviews with people, I am always curious to know more about what makes them tick, their likes and dislikes, their perspective on different subjects, etc. Because of her very recent endeavour as a voluntary guide, at the end of the interview I had to ask Sylvie where she would see herself 5 years from now. She answers that being a voluntary guide is only one part of her life which she, of course, would still be doing as well as working on a project she had in mind; creating and illustrating small children’s books. She is looking forward to taking more art making courses and travel, travel, travel. She has been taking Mandarin classes for 3 years now and would love to go and spend 3 months in China.

Sylvie really is the living proof that retirement is only the beginning and that it can open the doors on a new life and new adventures.

Parallel Worlds includes a series of live virtual colloquia where brain scientists and MMFA's volunteer guides discuss a topic related to vision, colour and art, an online art-science workshop linked to each of the colloquium themes and a permanent virtual tour that you can visit here!

You can also watch the full colloquium here, in our YouTube channel, with subtitles in English and French.

Parallel Worlds is a free public online experience designed by the Convergence Initiative in collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). The experience encompasses a series of events that use the museum's collection to share neuroscience and fine arts knowledge about visual perception with the public.
From April to August of 2021, the experience features three monthly events that include a permanent virtual tour of artworks selected for their scientific, historical, technical and aesthetic value. A live online colloquium where a neuroscientist and a volunteer art guide discuss a topic related to one aspect of vision, colour and art. And an online art-science workshop linked to the colloquium. Each online session will be live broadcast on Zoom and other social media platforms. We hope to bring a diverse audience together to explore the advances in visual neuroscience and the impact and influence of art on those advances.
Parallel Worlds is supported by the Brain Repair and Integrative Neuroscience Program (BRaIN) of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), Concordia University Faculty of Fine Arts, The Canadian Association for Neuroscience (CAN), and a Knowledge Mobilization grant from McGill University's Healthy Brain, Healthy Lives Program (HBHL).

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