Small in stature but big on heart, energy and all things creative, Megan Strain never sought to be in the spotlight. However, she thrived on bringing attention to her students, family and community.
Charitable work was a way of life for the art teacher, who died Jan. 25, 2021, at age 68.
Strain was a gifted visual artist and high school teacher, born July 11, 1952, and raised in Kenora, Ont. She later earned a bachelor of fine arts honours degree from York University (Toronto), a certificate of education from the University of Manitoba, and an master of education in art education from the University of British Columbia.
After accepting a teaching position at Moose Lake, she later moved to Peace River, Alta., to teach secondary school fine arts. Strain eventually landed at Murdoch MacKay Collegiate in Winnipeg, where she taught fine arts and English for more than 20 years.
Though her teaching career was in Winnipeg, her roots were firmly planted in Kenora. Strain returned to the family home and cottage over school breaks and upon her retirement in 2013. Her family sometimes wondered if her short stature, at barely five feet, influenced her sense of scale.
"She did things big," recalls her brother, Lindsay. "Parade floats, ice sculptures, fabric clown and animal sculptures, stuffed toys.
"She drove large SUVs that required running boards for her to enter. Her largest personal project was a collaboration with dad: a life-sized merry-go-round horse carved from wood.
"Not everyone can see the good side of winter in Winnipeg," Lindsay says. "Yet, Murdoch MacKay’s floats celebrated winter and made people smile."
Her brother, Gregg, agrees.
"Megan deliberately chose large projects to involve as many students and staff as possible, regardless of their backgrounds, to provide the opportunity to participate in the community and to enable individuals to gain confidence and experience," he says.
"Empowering students to think independently but work collectively helped them to recognize that diversity strengthens the community, and that working together can be a powerful tool to enhance the greater good."
Strain enjoyed a happy childhood in Kenora home with her mother, Isabella, and maternal grandmother (both homemakers) and her father, Edgar, a local businessman. She was eager to explore anything creative from an early age and learned fabric arts from her grandmother and mother.
She learned drawing, painting, and the elements of design from her father, and revelled in collaborating with him on artwork and construction projects.
Strain was drawn to creating three-dimensional fabric art and sculpture. The expert seamstress worked with everything from fabrics to leather and suede, burlap, silk, plastic, vinyl, even cardboard.
Known for her larger-than-life creations, she helped develop the design and oversaw production on many winter parade floats and, along with her students, was at the centre of a number of festival displays and events over the years.
"She had three or four projects on the go, but she’d be planning for the next great idea," adds Gregg. "She’d build a float with a two-storey (tall) dog and figure out how to animate it, and also be the one to wash all the students’ mittens when the parade was over."
The recipient of the Teaching Excellence Award in 2013 for her work in the arts department at Murdoch MacKay, her passion for arts education and commitment to students inspired many of them to pursue post-secondary education in fine arts and creative communication programs.
Patricia Osmond met Strain when she was hired as art teacher at the school. The two became fast friends.
"Megan was generous financially and with her time and energy," says Osmond.
"She funded much of the supplies that were used in the art program, as well as equipment, tools and supplies for special projects. If you were fortunate to be the recipient of a gift from Megan, you knew it would be special, thoughtfully useful or humorous, and wrapped beyond beautiful."
"No one was invisible to her," adds friend and colleague Norine Hochkievich. "Much like she thought of the students as her kids, she thought of the community as an extension of the classroom and her opportunity to teach students to be active citizens by sharing their time and talents to make it a better place."
A whirlwind of creative energy, Strain wore out several pairs of running shoes in a year. She also created an impressive number of fleece hats, mitts and stuffed toys with assembly-line efficiency, which she donated anonymously to Winnipeg and Kenora women’s shelters, hospitals, children’s organizations and the local public health unit’s family visit program.
Diagnosed with cancer in fall 2019, Strain returned to Winnipeg for treatment, working on sewing projects to keep her mind and hands busy. Many more creations resulted, which were donated to organizations and to friends’ and relatives’ children.
"Megan touched so many people in her life, and those conversations she took time to have with her students — her encouraging words and her poking to get the most out of the people in her life — gifted many of us that knew her to be better people, to think more of others and to give from the heart," Hochkievich says.
"Because that is what she gave of herself and that is what she expected from us."
St. Boniface community correspondent
Janine LeGal is a community correspondent for St. Boniface who also writes the These Old Houses column for our Community Homes section.