TV host and designer Steven Sabados honours the high school art teacher who taught him that sometimes you have to colour outside the lines in life.
By Bill Harris
Photos: KC Armstrong
Steven Sabados came from a family that enjoyed being creative. His parents encouraged self-expression — he was always building, making or painting something — but they didn’t foresee art as a potential career for him. “My mother really wanted me to become an electrician,” Sabados recalls. “I took classes all through high school — I can still rewire a cottage. Thank God I still have that. My mother was always saying, ‘You need a trade!’”
Wiring skills aside, there have been lots of bright lights in Sabados’s career. He chose an artistic path thanks in large part to Glenda Tennyson (then Wallace), who was his art teacher from Grades 9 to 12 at A. N. Myer Secondary School in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Flash forward nearly four decades — Sabados is not only still painting but a highly sought-after designer and much-loved TV personality whose resumé includes popular shows such as Designer Guys, Design Rivals, Steven and Chris, and The Goods. But before Sabados met Tennyson, he didn’t realize that so many job opportunities existed in the creative world.
As an ardent art lover, Tennyson explains that it was both her great pleasure and duty to expose students to as many kinds as possible. “I tried to open their eyes. I kept saying to them, ‘Whatever you want to do with your life, you have to have a passion for it, you have to really want it. If you want to do art, yes, you can do it, but you have to really pursue it.’”
It took time for the young Sabados to carve out, or even envision, what his career would look like. He describes himself as a “massive loner” in high school, someone who didn’t fit in. However, that wasn’t true in the art room — it was his second home. And, with Tennyson by his side, Sabados was pushing his creative boundaries and thinking outside the box.
“I remember her as a cool artsy lady, with flowing skirts and lots of jewelry,” Sabados says. “She had it down pat.”
The retired teacher, who now lives in Vancouver, laughs upon hearing Sabados’s description. “Oh, that’s wonderful — I’ll have to tell my son that,” she says. “You’ll be pleased to know that I’m still way out there. I’m in a retirement home and they don’t know what to do with me.”
Back when Sabados was in school, clicking on YouTube to find out how to do an art project was not an option — instead, that meant plenty of trial and error. But when an idea popped up, Tennyson would tell Sabados to go for it, put his own spin on it and then do it bigger.
And, how about the time Sabados wanted to make a plaster body cast? The everencouraging Tennyson said, “Sure! You have the ability, just come in after school and do it.” Sabados convinced a friend to be “a willing victim,” as he puts it. All went reasonably well until he made the plaster torso too thick and it took him several hours to free his trapped schoolmate.
“The other student was a good sport but I couldn’t stop laughing,” Sabados says. “I certainly didn’t want that project to end up with a trip to the ER.
“The final result wasn’t pretty, but the cast sat out in the front foyer of the school for the longest time as part of an art installation. So it gave me a cool factor.”
Although no one could have predicted Sabados’s success, his former teacher saw his potential and followed his career path, from his education in the Fanshawe College fine arts program in London, Ont., to design, as well as his many TV shows.
It can be interesting to compare how we once saw ourselves against how others remember us. While Tennyson did not dispute the accomplished designer’s assertion that he was a “loner,” she did say that in addition to being a good artist, Sabados had great people skills. So much so that Tennyson paired a student who had difficulty focusing and would become disruptive as a result with Sabados, because he was so kind and caring that he would have a calming effect.
“At times I felt more like a psychologist or psychiatrist than an art teacher,” Tennyson says. “But in an art room, you can go around and talk to each student, because they aren’t sitting in rows doing math. It was important to make the classroom a happy, welcoming place so that they could create.”
Tennyson’s ability to embrace the wider world through art began at a young age. She was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Canadian parents. Her father was an engineer who was working there at the time.
She missed big chunks of class time in her youth due to polio, for which she had nine operations. In an effort to catch up, she was sent to Branksome Hall — a Toronto independent school where she boarded.
After a brief spell at Stephens College in Missouri, Tennyson transferred to upstate New York’s Syracuse University where she received her bachelor of fine arts in design. “The reason I did not go to university in Canada is because, at that time, you could not get an art degree unless you took art history,” she says. “But I didn’t want art history — I wanted a hands-on art degree.”
After university, Tennyson lived with her parents, who had moved back to Toronto. She attended teachers’ college and soon was teaching Grade 3s at Frankland Community School, followed by Grade 7 and 8 art at Hodgson Middle School, both in the Toronto District School Board. She also worked as a tour guide for the newly established Toronto Board of Education Centre, where she explained the art displays throughout the facility.
When Tennyson married in 1962, she moved to Welland, Ont., where she became an art consultant for the District School Board of Niagara public schools. She loved that job because it involved instructing teachers how to teach art. Unfortunately, Tennyson abruptly left her position for a reason that certainly speaks to the era.
“In 1965, I had to quit because I was four months pregnant,” she recalls. “Even though I was married, you had to quit teaching. That’s how much times have changed.” Tennyson raised her family for the next decade before deciding to return to education. In 1976, she became head of the visual arts department at A. N. Myer. “I taught there until 1990, when I had to go on disability,” Tennyson recalls. “I miss teaching to this day, I absolutely loved it.”
After all these years, when asked what he would like to say to his former teacher, the TV personality responds: “Number one, thank you for the support. If it weren’t for having Mrs. Wallace, or that program, I wouldn’t have known the extent of what art and being creative could be. “That classroom was my refuge. She gave me a calm space where I could be myself, which I couldn’t be outside. I am so grateful that she saw something in me and took me under her wing. It brought me through.”
Tennyson is taken aback by those words. “This is going to make me cry, you know that,” she says. “It really is such a nice thing for him to say, my goodness.
“I have followed him, and I’m honoured that he has honoured me. I think he’s a terrific guy. So tell him, if he ever comes to Vancouver, to please look me up.”
In this profile, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.