Novelist Eden Robinson mixes Indigenous mythology with contemporary issues

It’s a good time to be a trickster. Long an essential archetype in mythologies around the world, tricksters delight in using their special abilities to flout the rules of convention and undercut the efforts of gods and mortals alike. And, given our chaotic times, it’s no surprise that tricksters are back in fashion—consider the popular representations of Loki in The Avengers, Maui in Moana, and Mr. Anansi in American Gods, to name just a few.

Trickster business

Celebrated author Eden Robinson

The trickster is also lighting up the Canadian bestseller list, thanks to the efforts of award-winning Haisla novelist, Creative Writing alumna and Faculty of Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Award-winner Eden Robinson (BFA ’92). Her latest novel, 2017’s Son of a Trickster, quickly became one of last year’s “it” books, landing on almost every Canadian “best-of” book list and shortlisted for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

But it doesn’t stop there: after receiving the $25,000 Writers Trust Engel/Findley Award in 2016 for her body of work (which at the time included two novels, a memoir and a book of short stories), Robinson also received the $50,000 Writers Trust Fellowship in 2017. This spring she was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in the BC Book Prizes, the highly anticipated second book in her Trickster trilogy—Trickster Drift—is set for release in October of this year, and Son of a Trickster has just been optioned as a television series by Sienna Films, producers of the television show Cardinal and the film New Waterford Girl.

“It’s all a little surreal,” Robinson admits. “I mean, awards are essential to your profile, to feeling like you’re part of the literary world, but having your peers spotlight your work is an incredible feeling, and that faith is important going for-ward. When you have a lot of self-doubt, it’s important to reflect on the fact that people believe in you, and your work and your future work.”

Back to Kitamaat

Robinson left Vancouver in 2003 to return to Kitamaat Village in Haisla territory on BC’s central coast (not to be con-fused with the much larger nearby Kitimat), where she grew up. She came to University of Victoria in the late ‘80s on the recommendation of her cousins, who were already enrolled here. “And my dad really liked the fact that the Creative Writing department had an internship program, where you could work in the summer,” she says, before pausing and breaking into her long, loud laugh that has become famous in CanLit. “But I was placed in government positions, so I just did a lot of photocopying.”

When asked about writing professors who influenced her, Robinson rattles off a list that includes Mark Anthony Jarman, Dave Godfrey and W.D. Valgardson, but admits that she wasn’t necessarily a big success right out of the gate. “I got a zero out of 10 on an assignment from one of my poetry professors, so it made me really question whether I was actually a writer—but, as the semester went on, I eventually crossed the five out of 10 threshold.”

The prof? None other than iconic poet Robin Skelton, who founded the department. “But it all worked out: I ended up doing two more workshops with him, and he turned out to be highly influential in the way I use language,” she says.

The last time Robinson spoke with the Torch was back in 2001, just after her debut novel Monkey Beach was shortlisted for both the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Giller Prize. At the time, she mentioned that it was in her third-year writing class that she first discovered the joy of writing. Is that sense of joy still there, five books and nearly 20 years later?

“Right now?” she asks with a wry laugh. “I’m just getting into the first draft of the third novel, and it’s a bit bumpy. Once you get hot and start powering through, though, there’s nothing as much fun.”

Unfolding a trilogy

“Jared is definitely a character for our times,” Robinson says. “We’re in a time of massive flux and chaos, and it’s hard to process all the crazy things that are happening; tricksters thrive on that—they try to make jokes out of it. They’re very big characters, and they’re a lot of fun to write.”

“Flux and chaos” is a good way to describe an era highlighted by protests over issues ranging from pipelines and reconciliation to murdered and missing Indigenous women. She is a strong advocate for the rights of Indigenous women and against the Northern Gateway project. Robinson also penned a widely read op-ed for the Globe and Mail about the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion—although she stops short of being seen as a voice for all causes.

“Kinder Morgan doesn’t directly affect my territory, but I’m very sympathetic to people’s concerns,” she says. “I’m willing to lend my voice and my support to certain causes, but it’s the peo-ple from the affected communities who should be the ones get-ting the spotlight. I find a lot of issues are like that—I’m willing to listen, I’m willing to learn, but I don’t want to overstep my role.”
Indigenous voices

She’s similarly cautious about being seen as the leading Indigenous authorial voice. “The writers coming up now give me a lot of hope because they’re very comfortable speaking their minds—politically, socially and personally—and a lot of the things they’re talking about are longstanding issues. They’re letting it all go, and if there’s clapback, there’s clapback.”

Robinson’s characters in Son of a Trickster similarly avoid one-size-fits-all activism: some are politically astute and ready to put themselves on the line for causes they believe in, while others sim-ply want to party. (They are small-town BC teenagers, after all.)

“I know from personal experience that a lot of people around here aren’t tuned into anything that’s going on, whether in the world or the Twitter-sphere,” she says. “They’re mostly concerned with their own lives, their families, their work. I’m just trying to reflect more of a spectrum than a specific point of view.”

No spoilers!

When asked about her forthcoming novel, Trickster Drift, Robinson says. “I’m one of those people who spoil things—I like talking about Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead before anyone has seen it—but I don’t want to spoil my own book. So let’s just say Jared tries to escape magic by going to Vancouver but it becomes an increasing presence in his life: he becomes a trickster himself.”

Trickster Drift also introduces a whole new character in Jared’s aunt. “She’s an eccentric writer who is also somewhat political, Not that she’s based on anyone!” says Robinson, with one of her trademark laughs.

Annual Visual Arts BFA show fills building with art

Always one of the most exciting events of the year for the Department of Visual Arts, the annual Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) graduating exhibit is back and ready to showcase the work of nearly 40 emerging artists.

This year’s exhibit is titled Good Grief! and kicks off with a special opening reception at 7pm Friday, April 20. Expect to see over 50 pieces of art by the BFA students on view, ranging from sculpture and painting to drawing, photography, digital and multimedia. The pieces below are just an example of the kind of work that will be on view.

Good Grief! runs 10am to 6pm daily from April 20 to 28 in UVic’s Visual Arts building — if you can’t make the opening, be sure to pop in while the exhibit is on.

The annual BFA exhibit is a highlight of the year in Fine Arts. Much like School of Music students with their final concerts and Theatre students with their mainstage performances, the BFA show is an important milestone in the training of Visual Arts students.

“The work represents the self-directed nature of our program, where students learn to invest in their own research using a variety of artistic mediums to bring their projects to fruition,” says Visual Arts professor and faculty supervisor Megan Dickie.

The show is free, open to all members of the public and is fully wheelchair accessible.

Click on the images below to see the pieces in full.


Victoria artist Rick Leong joins Visual Arts faculty

When the call went out in search of a new professor for the University of Victoria’s Department of Visual Arts, applications came in from across the country — yet the latest person to join the celebrated teaching faculty is an alumni artist who ultimately came from our own backyard. Starting July 1, 2018, the Victoria-based Rick Leong will become UVic’s new assistant professor in painting and drawing.

Rick Leong

“It feels like an incredible privilege to come back to a place where I learned so much as a student, to be able to contribute to the education and formation of the next generation of artists in this community,” says Leong. “While I grew up in many different places, I never really felt attached to any one place until I found Victoria.”

A painter who uses the language of landscape to explore experiences of space and place, Leong’s practice is drawn from observation and influenced by historical Chinese art forms.

“I believe in fostering innovation through interdisciplinary experimentation, and that painting and drawing can form a powerful foundation from which to explore ideas and methods,” he says. “I’m passionate about painting, but I’m also always looking for ways that painting can inform explorations in other media.”

After receiving his BFA from UVic’s Visual Arts department in 2003, Leong earned his MFA from Concordia University in 2007 — after which his thesis work was acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. A finalist in the Royal Bank of Canada’s Painting Competition (2008), he has also had notable solo exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Montreal’s McClure Gallery and the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax, as well as participating in many group exhibitions at various Canadian and international spaces.

Being based in Victoria hasn’t slowed Leong’s career at all, with work held in the permanent collections of the Canadian Art Foundation, Canada Council Art Bank, Foreign Affairs Visual Art Collection, the Collection de Prêt d’oeuvres d’art, Musée National des beaux-arts du Québec and the AGGV, among others.

“The island is definitely the place I call home, and it is in large part because of the people and relationships that I have made here,” he says. “Home is where your community is.”

Leong’s “Hidden Hunger” (2016)

Leong joins the current full-time Visual Arts teaching faculty alongside Cedric Bomford, Megan Dickie, Daniel Laskarin, Kelly Richardson, Jennifer Stillwell, Robert Youds and Paul Walde,

“Known for his immersive layered paintings, Rick Leong is an artist of national repute and his work represents a unique voice in Canadian painting,” says Visual Arts chair Paul Walde. “He joins a department with a rich history in painting, boasting distinguished alumni and faculty in this area of research, and we have no doubt that he will enhance this reputation both here in Canada and abroad.”

Leong is looking forward to having “a positive impact” on Visual Arts students.

“It is incredibly rewarding to think that what we do as teachers creates a stronger community of creatives through individual development as well as fostering community relationships,” he says. “I will strive to enrich students’ education experience, encourage diverse perspectives and voices, and contribute to the Visual Arts Department’s goals of excellence and innovation.”

Leong’s latest solo exhibition will open at Montreal’s noted avant-garde gallery, Parisian Laundry, on May 31, 2018.

Currently marking its 50th anniversary, UVic’s Department of Visual Arts has produced such acclaimed contemporary artists as Governor General’s Visual Arts Award winner Kim Adams, Sobey Prize winner Christian Giroux, Aimia/AGO Photography Prize winner Erin Shirreff, sculptor Jessica Stockholder, photographer Althea Thauberger and 2017 BMO 1st Art! Invitational national prize winner Xiao Xue.

When Art Meets Science

Ever wanted to have an intimate, interactive moment with a baby orca? A new student-created sculpture allows viewers to have just that, while also learning something about the threats currently facing our local killer whale population.

“Resonant Disintegration” is an intermedia installation created by Visual Arts/Computer Science undergraduate student Colton Hash. Featuring a life-size representation of three-year-old J53, the youngest surviving female of the endangered southern resident orcas, the eight-foot-long hollow sheet-metal sculpture is suspended by wires to simulate an aquatic environment.

After cutting, shaping and welding it, Hash then submerged the piece in a quiet bay off Esquimalt’s Saxe Point to achieve a rust-textured coating that allowed it to be “physically infused with a sense of local place and local water,” as Hash says. But creating the physical sculpture was only half the concept: he also wanted to fuse ocean data and climate change concerns into his sculptural installation. As a result, when installed, a projected visualization of climate data plays across the surfaces of both the whale and the room, while underwater recordings of passing freighters fill the space with a disturbing rumble.

“When people enter into the interactive space, their movements are recorded by a motion sensor and, as they approach the whale, the background noise and the speed of the climate data slows down, so they have somewhat of an intimate moment with the sculpture,” Hash explains.

Add in a microphone and another set of speakers playing the same sounds from inside the whale, all connected by a real-time computer program, and the whole effect becomes both beautiful and haunting.

Colton Hash with his “Resonant Disintegration” sculpture

“Because it’s a hollow object, it acts as a resonating chamber, and the contact microphone picks up vibrations that create a feedback loop and cause the sculpture to make its own sound,” says Hash. “Essentially, the sculpture is responding to underwater noises, as well as the interactions of the viewer.”

While visually appealing, Hash’s sculpture is firmly rooted in science—entirely appropriate, given that he’s also working toward a minor degree in environmental studies. The project data is gathered from the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, located on the UVic campus. It includes variables such as precipitation, ocean temperatures and ground surface temperatures, all of which impact the health of different aquatic systems. The audio recordings are taken from UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada hydrophone stations in the Salish Sea.

“Climate change is happening and it’s already having devastating impacts on species we love, such as orcas,” says Hash. “This whole installation is an attempt to create a reflective and emotionally driven space where people can be present with their feelings. In this world of social media and information saturation, we’re not really allowing ourselves the time to reflect on how we’re feeling about the state of the world.”

While Hash’s sculpture is not currently on view, a short film documenting its creation and intention recently won both first-place prizes at UVic’s Research Reels video showcase during March’s Ideafest, earning him $1750 in cash prizes. He was also just awarded the Jorgensen Legacy Artist Bursary, courtesy of the Victoria Visual Arts Legacy Society.

“I’ve always loved sculptures honoring animals that are important to us,” he continues. “Obviously, there’s a lot of fascination with orcas around Victoria . . . but there’s a real disconnect between how they’re shown in art and the reality of their rapidly declining numbers.”

While there are no immediate viewing dates lined up for the installation, Hash is hoping to exhibit it again in the near future.

“It offers the chance for people to engage spiritually and emotionally with the art and the issues,” he says. “Art has the ability to engage on those levels more than through intellectual or scientific information, which often seems overwhelming.”

Learn more

Only 76 orcas remain in the endangered southern resident killer whale population, which forages for chinook salmon in its core range off southern Vancouver Island. The primary cause of their decline is chronically low chinook numbers, although pollution and noise disturbance from vessels are contributing factors.

Three UVic researchers were recently awarded a total of $935,000 in federal funding to study the impact of underwater noise on southern resident killer whales and on the chinook salmon that make up almost 80 per cent of their diet. Read the story.

UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada operates world-leading cabled ocean observatories for the advancement of science and the benefit of Canada. These observatories collect data on physical, chemical, biological, and geological aspects of the ocean over longer time periods, supporting research on complex Earth processes in ways not previously possible.

Fine Arts and Ocean Networks Canada currently have a call out for a new ONC Artist-in-Residence project. Visit the page to find out more about this fusion of art and science, running May to October 2018, with an April 27, 2018 application deadline.

UVic’s annual Department of Visual Arts BFA graduation exhibit will feature the work of 40 emerging artists and showcase the exciting interdisciplinary work being created by students. The free exhibit runs 10am to 6pm daily, April 20–28, in the Visual Arts building, and opens with a 7pm reception on Friday, April 20.


Call for Artist-in-Residence Ocean Program

The Faculty of Fine Arts and Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, are sponsoring an Artist in Residence program. The concept strengthens connections between Art and Science to broaden and cross-fertilize perspectives and critical discourse on today’s major issues such as the environment, technology, oceans, cultural and biodiversity and healthy communities. This program is open to local, national and international applicants.

The Artist in Residence will interact with Fine Arts faculty members and scientists at Ocean Networks Canada as well as with other individuals using the world-leading ocean facilities to ignite cross-disciplinary exchanges. Open to artists working in any visual, written, musical or performance discipline, this residency is suitable for an early- or mid-career artist.

The Artist will learn from and engage with the current research, connecting it to the Artist’s own practice, and to wider societal and cultural aspects, creating a body of work to be presented at the end of the residency. The selected Artist will actively engage with researchers on a variety of ocean science themes, that may include:

The ONC Artist in Residence program is established to:

  • explore arts or alternative cultural practices’ potential in the area of the visions, challenges, philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical aspects of the ocean and the impacts humans have on it;
  • add a complementary artistic and creative perspective to ocean science, the societal ramifications of its exploitation, and its cultural aspects; and
  • help envision the potential long-term impact of ocean changes on humanity.

The residency period can start any time between May and December 2018 and last for up to eight months. A cost-of-living stipend of up to CAD $2000/month will be paid to the selected Artist. Following the residency, a public exhibit of the resulting art will be displayed, performed and promoted by ONC and the Faculty of Fine Arts.

Please note: the application period closes on 27 April 2018.

If interested, please send your application to at Ocean Networks Canada with the subject line “Artist in Residence Ocean Program.” The application should include your CV, a concise portfolio of previous relevant artistic work, and a letter of motivation outlining your project proposal for the residency. Applications will be reviewed by representatives of Fine Arts and Ocean Networks Canada, and artists may be contacted for an interview or to supply further information.

About Ocean Networks Canada: Established in 2007 as a major initiative of the University of Victoria, Ocean Networks Canada operates world-leading ocean observatories for the advancement of science and the benefit of Canada. The observatories collect data on physical, chemical, biological, and geological aspects of the ocean over long time periods, supporting research on complex Earth processes in ways not previously possible. The observatories provide unique scientific and technical capabilities that permit researchers to operate instruments remotely and receive data at their home laboratories anywhere on the globe in real time. These facilities extend and complement other research platforms and programs, whether currently operating or planned for future deployment.

About the Faculty of Fine Arts: With experiential learning at its core, Fine Arts provides the finest training and learning environment for artists, professionals, and students. Through our departments of Art History and Visual Studies, Theatre, Visual Arts, Writing and School of Music, we aspire to lead in arts-based research and creative activity and education in local, national, and global contexts. We integrate and advance creation and scholarship in the arts in a dynamic learning environment. As British Columbia’s only Faculty exclusively dedicated to the arts, Fine Arts is an extraordinary setting that supports new discoveries, interdisciplinary and diverse contributions to creativity, and the cultural experiences of the students and communities we serve.