Sandra Meigs wins $50,000 prize

It’s shaping up to be quite the year for Department of Visual Arts professor Sandra Meigs. Hot on the heels of being named one of eight recipients of the Governor General’s Awards for Visual and Media Arts in March 2015—an honour that saw her work featured in a special curated exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada this past summer—she has also just closed All to All, her most recent solo exhibit of new work, at Toronto’s acclaimed Susan Hobbs Gallery. And now, Sandra Meigs has been announced as the winner of the $50,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the AGO for 2015.

Meigs (photo: Michelle Alger)

Meigs (photo: Michelle Alger)

“When I got the call about the prize I was at a rest stop on the 401 on my way to London, where I was going to do grad visits at Western,” Meigs explains from Ontario. “I’m told I said ‘I can’t believe it’ four times. The news just seemed to have dropped out of the sky as some sort of magical gift and settle into my GPS as the next stop on my way.”

In addition to the cash award, the Gershon Iskowitz Prize comes with a solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario and a further $10,000 towards a publication on Meigs’ work.

“The Gershon Iskowitz Prize recognizes artists who have made a significant contribution to the field of visual arts in Canada,” notes Dr. Susan Lewis, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts. “The Faculty congratulates renowned painter Sandra Meigs on this latest career achievement. Her creative body of work has a tremendous impact and influence on the contemporary visual arts scene. Her art informs her teaching and mentorship of students in our Faculty. The Fine Arts student experience is distinguished by the expertise and commitment that she brings to fostering a dynamic learning environment here at UVic.”

Describing winning the award as “a career highlight,” Meigs says the timing for it is ideal. “It couldn’t come at a better time for me since All to All took me two years to complete. And I am now ready and fresh to start something anew.”

"All to All", the latest solo exhibit by Sandra Meigs

“All to All”, the latest solo exhibit by Sandra Meigs

News of Meigs’ prize win was picked up by the Globe and Mail, CBC News, Canadian Art magazine, the Times Colonist and CBC Radio’s All Points West.

Meigs—currently on a semester of study leave—joins the celebrated ranks of past Gershon Iskowitz Prize winners like Jack Shadbolt, Gathie Calk, Shary Boyle, Michael Snow and Kim Adams.

Adding to the surprise of the announcement is the fact that artists do not apply for this prize. “I was blown away,” she admits with a laugh. “There was no nomination process—the decision was made by a curator, two Iskowitz Foundation trustees, and an artist from the Canadian arts community who agreed unanimously on their choice. The prize is given in recognition of, but also to further, an artist’s career—particularly an artist who is at a crucial turning point in advancing his or her work.”

The jury consisted of curator Lesley Johnstone, art collector Jay Smith, curator/critic Sarah Milroy and former Visual Arts student and 2014 Governor General’s Award winner Kim Adams. In a statement, Johnstone described Meigs’ work as “comical and sad, materially rich and socially engaged, psychologically intense but also somehow playful, her work continues to surprise us with each new project. Hers is a unique voice and her influence within the Canadian art milieu is strongly felt.”

For her part, Meigs is relieved the solo AGO exhibit won’t be mounted until 2017, given her recent focus on All to All, which she describes as “a very intense and joyful work.”

Watch this video of Sandra Meigs' latest solo exhibit, All to All

Watch this video of Sandra Meigs’ latest solo exhibit, All to All

“I’ll have two years to develop the new work for the AGO exhibition and I’m not sure right now what I will make,” she admits. “I know I’ll be keen to start as soon as I get back home. And having the AGO as a venue will also give the work a huge boost, not only because it will afford it a large space to show in—for which I have been yearning for some time—but also because my ‘fan base’ is in Toronto so I can not only show to them, but also reach out to a huge audience of AGO gallery viewers who might otherwise not get to know my work.”

Sandra Meigs’ work has been described as expressive, eclectic and interdisciplinary; her paintings are known for their unique approach in combining complex narratives with comic elements in large scale works such as The Basement Panoramas and Strange Loop. She is dedicated to painting and refers to the possibilities of enchantment that painting presents through colour and form. For Meigs, the very authenticity of one’s experience offers proof that what is imagined when looking at a painting is as real as anything else that one experiences in the world. In addition to painting, she has also woven sculpture, film, sound, and other media in her works.

As for the prize money, Meigs says she’ll use it to fund the pieces for the AGO exhibit. “New work always ends up costing a lot to produce, whether it’s research travel, studio costs, production materials, or for services one needs at various stages of the production.”

Prize creator & Canadian painter Gershon Iskowitz

Prize creator & Canadian painter Gershon Iskowitz

Meigs also has high praise for the prize originator himself. “Canadian painter Gershon Iskowitz had the foresight to create this prize and the AGO to oversee its mandate,” she says. “Perhaps I will someday be able to leave such a legacy. I follow in the footsteps of so many great artists who have received this prize and I am extremely grateful.”

The Gershon Iskowitz Foundation joined with the AGO in 2007 to raise awareness of the visual arts in Canada. Canadian painter Gershon Iskowitz (1921-1988) recognized the importance of grants to the development of artists and acknowledged that a grant from the Canada Council in 1967 enabled him to formalize his distinctive style. The AGO is home to the artist’s archives, which include early works on paper, sketchbooks and ephemera, and holds 29 paintings by Iskowitz, spanning from 1948 to 1987, in its permanent collection.

Behind the mask

You might think that wearing a mask is a way to hide from others, but Department of Theatre alumna Kate Braidwood discovered while she was studying here at UVic that masks are a fun and engaging way to express herself on stage.

Phoenix alumna Kate Braidwood

Phoenix alumna Kate Braidwood

Now, as the co-founder of the multi-award winning WONDERHEADS physical theatre company, Braidwood works with her husband Andrew Phoenix to create playful characters through full-face masks. They then integrate these “wonderheads” into performances fraught with exquisite visual storytelling.

LOON, which opened the Phoenix Theatre’s 2015/16 season on October 14, is just one of the acclaimed productions for which this international touring theatre company is known. LOON tells the story of Francis, a lonely janitor with a child-like imagination and a wild fascination with the moon. Unfortunately, Francis hits an emotional rock bottom and he feels like there’s nowhere to go but up . . . and up! It’s a surprising mix of physical theatre, comedy and pathos, all wrapped up in a peculiar, but beautiful, love story.

With their creative use of full-face masks, expressive physical movement and inventive lighting and sound cues in place of words, WONDERHEADS’ shows have been compared by CBC Radio to watching “a living cartoon for lovers and dreamers.” (Watch this online trailer.) With “Critics Choice” and “Best Show” awards ranging from Vancouver to Orlando, they have been successfully changing audience’s perspectives on the nature of theatre and storytelling across North America.


Watch this 2-minute time-lapse video of the full 50-hour process

Braidwood and Phoenix create all of their full-faced, oversized masks from scratch. First they sculpt the head and facial expression out of modeling clay. The head is then covered with liquid rubber to capture expressions into a casting mould, and strips of plaster-soaked cloth are laid around this rubber to construct a hard exterior shell. When it’s dry, the rubber mould is filled with strips of papier-mâché to create the actual mask. The final mask is given eye and air holes, painted lovingly with rosy cheeks, or freckles or whatever is needed for the character, and then topped with a hairdo.

Braidwood attributes much of her direction in life to her studies in the Department of Theatre’s Acting Specialization program. “My time at UVic played no small part in my journey that led to founding WONDERHEADS,” she says. “It was at UVic that I first performed with masks. I was lucky to have Peter Balkwill [of Old Trout Puppet Workshop fame] as a movement teacher at the time, and creating vocal masques in Jan Wood’s class shed light on the path to devising and creating my own original work.”

Love is in the air at LOON (Second Glance Photography)

Love is in the air at LOON (Second Glance Photography)

After graduating in 2003, Braidwood trained at Dell’Arte International, a physical theatre school in California, where she met Andrew  Phoenix. “During the process of creating our first show together, we happened to fall in love,” she recalls. “We got married, and when it came time to create our next show we thought ‘love’ would be a fitting theme. But LOON isn’t just about love; it’s also about loneliness, loss, and letting go. It’s about remembering how a person or experience helped shape who we are, and how we keep them in our hearts as we move on.”

Now based out of Portland, Oregon, and as Co-Artistic Director of her own theatre company, Braidwood is also appreciating other aspects of her education. “The program at the Phoenix trained us to have a wide range of skills in the theatre, and the importance of being multi-faceted is integral for me today now that I run my own company,” she says. “When I moved on from the Phoenix, I kept the experience in my heart, and it is an honour to return to share my work with current students.”

LOON runs at 8pm daily to October 24 (except Sunday, Oct 18), plus a 2pm matinee on Sunday, October 24, at Phoenix Theatre. Tickets range from $15 – $45 and can be purchased here.

Visual Arts student fuses bikes & art

Cycling is much more than a hobby for fourth-year UVic Visual Arts student Kyra McLeod. The former Team Canada BMX racer has been commissioned to turn a concrete wall into a cycling-themed public art piece for UVic’s Sustainability Week (running October 13 to 16). “It sounded really unique and totally appealed to me, so I was all for it,“ says McLeod.

Kyra McLeod (right) with Susan Kerr (photo: Paul Marck)

Kyra McLeod (right) with Susan Kerr (photo: Paul Marck)

The 2.5 by 20-metre wall space is part of the Campus Bike Centre in the lower level of University Centre—a reclaimed car parking lot now devoted to bike racks, storage lockers and a bike loan centre. McLeod is designing the mural to reimagine space and objects, incorporating structural elements of the wall—such as pipes and heating radiators—into her artwork.

“I want to create a series of movements and relate it to cycling and the progression of the city towards sustainability,” she says. “I take a lot of inspiration from architecture. When I saw the wall, I really wanted to create a sustainable environment that would build from what already existed there. I wanted the mural to speak back to the actual surface of the environment it relies on.”

Members of the campus community, the media and the general public have been watching McLeod create the project throughout the week in the Campus Bike Centre, where she feels right at home. Explaining that she has “pretty much always been on a bike,” McLeod says she started racing when she was eight years old and is now among more than 2,000 UVic students, faculty and staff who cycle to campus.

McLeod being interviewed by Shaw TV during Sustainability Week

McLeod being interviewed by Shaw TV during Sustainability Week

In fact, it was her love of bikes that first brought her to Victoria. “I was actually racing in the equivalent of the world cup for BMX in Victoria when I was about 14, and I knew then that I was going to live here. Even at that age, I liked the campus and just knew I would be coming here.”

But it wasn’t just the campus environment that attracted her; she also felt the Department of Visual Arts was the right fit for her own creative practice. “I’ve always drawn and painted,” says McLeod, who has studied with professor and famed Canadian painter Sandra Meigs. “Art has always been a part of my life. I wanted to go to a school that was less technically focused and more idea-based, which UVic is known for.”

While McLeod’s mural is a first of its kind for both her and the campus, it’s a great example of the kind of dynamic learning that happens here on a regular basis. “It’s my first piece of public art and I’m really excited it’s at UVic,” she says. “I love my school and I want to give something back. I really hope it paves the way for future student work on campus and serves as an example to future Visual Arts students to make a contribution to campus and show their skills.”

—with files from Paul Marck

Study of Syrian artifacts offer different viewpoints

When news broke in August that Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Asaad had been killed by ISIS for trying to protect his country’s cultural legacy from destruction and looting, it sent a chill through the heart of Art History and Visual Studies professor Marcus Milwright. An archaeologist and professor of Islamic art and architecture, Milwright has worked extensively in Syria—including the ancient city of Palmyra, the UNESCO World Heritage Site for which Khaleed al-Asaad was the head of antiquities.

Dr. Marcus Milwright with some of the important Middle Eastern artifacts in Special Collections

Dr. Marcus Milwright with some of the important Middle Eastern artifacts in Special Collections

“I have a feeling of revulsion and horror at the murder of an 82-year-old man, whose only desire was to protect the antiquities of a site he loved,” says Milwright of al-Asaad’s beheading on the steps of his own museum. “From news reports, I gather he was killed for not divulging the whereabouts of the material that were taken out of the Palymyra museum before ISIS arrived in the city.”

Fortunately for both Milwright and his students, UVic’s Special Collections has a small but important collection of Middle Eastern antiquities that will forever be protected. “Syria is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of great sites from every single period of human history. It’s important for people to realize that these sites are vitally important for world history, not just the history of Syria,” he stresses. “Archaeology is very much about context—once things have been blown out of the ground or illegally put onto the art market, much of the information they can give us about the past is gone.”

12th-14th century glazed ceramic shards from Syria (Balis and Damascus), most from the collection of Erica Dodd.

12th-14th century glazed ceramic shards from Syria (Balis and Damascus), most from the collection of Erica Dodd.

Milwright hopes his focus on Islamic art and architecture here on campus will offer some positive dimensions to our understanding of current events in the region. “These objects are vitally important for teaching,” he explains. “Students gain first-hand experience of the material and visual qualities of manufactured objects—glazed ceramics, metalwork, glass, paintings—from different periods and geographical regions. This allows for discussions of techniques of manufacture, raw materials, craft practices and the evolution of style, as well as economic aspects revealed through distribution from site of manufacture to places of use.”

Milwright has spent time researching in numerous sites in the region, ranging from Damascus and Aleppo to Palmyra, Hama, Busra, Krak des Chevaliers, Qasr al-Hayr East and Rusafa. His most extensive

Facsimile of Maqamat manuscript produced in Iraq in 1237

Facsimile of Maqamat manuscript produced in Iraq in 1237

archaeological work has been in the ancient city of Raqqa, now the centre of ISIS operations. “Raqqa’s museums and archaeological sites have most probably been extensively looted,” he says. “It’s very difficult to get reliable information, but there is evidence of systematic destruction of archaeological sites.” Milwright is also quick to point out the difference between the kind of collateral damage that happens in any conflict and the ISIS destruction of ancient Islamic and Muslim sites for propagandistic purposes.“It’s only after the conflict is finished that we’ll have any sense of what we’ve really lost.”

As such, he stresses the importance of student “handling sessions” with the kind of objects that are currently being destroyed or sold on the black market. “When one is able to handle an object made in medieval or ancient times, it really helps bring that period of history alive. The analytical skills used in such sessions are ones that could build toward careers in art history, museums, the art market and heritage sectors.”

Cuneiform clay tablet from Iraq, late third millennium BCE, from the Brown Collection.

Cuneiform clay tablet from Iraq, late third millennium BCE, from the Brown Collection.

But until it is deemed safe to return to Syria, Milwright is content to work here. “I am continuing to research the cultural heritage of the country through the publication of archaeological finds from Raqqa and the translation of Arabic texts about crafts in the country,” he says.

And while it’s easy to reel in horror at headlines, Milwright also takes it as a reminder of the essential nature of university research. “The only thing we can do is make this material as available as possible through teaching and research, both in classes and public venues.”