While the prestigious Molson Prize may not ring any immediate bells, a quick glance through the list of previous winners reveals a who’s-who of Canadian culture: Margaret Atwood, Glenn Gould, Richard Wagamese, Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Bill Reid, Mary Pratt, Jack Shadbolt, MG Vassanji, Margaret Laurence, Denys Arcand, Arthur Erickson . . . with over 100 luminaries representing Canada’s intellectual and cultural heritage, it’s like the ultimate CBC guest list.

One category missing from this list of prestigious artists, writers, composers, architects, choreographers and academics, however, is theatrical designers.

But that has now changed forever, as theatre professor and legendary production designer Mary Kerr becomes the first designer to be named a Molson Prize Laureate in the prize’s 56-year history.

Mary Kerr in her office at UVic’s Department of Theatre, surrounded by her various designs, 2016 (UVic Photo Services)

A gifted artist and inspiring mentor

From the iconic likes of Expo 67, Expo 86 and the 1994 Commonwealth Games to nearly every professional stage in the country, Mary Kerr’s visionary theatrical designs have transformed Canadian culture over the past five decades.

“We are so fortunate to have Mary’s talents here at the University of Victoria,” says Vice-President Academic and Provost Valerie Kuehne. “Not only is she an exceptionally gifted artist, she’s also an inspired teacher and mentor. Her work elevates UVic’s position as a national leader in fine arts and brings positive attention to the cultural strengths of Canadian art and production design on the global stage.”

The Molson Prize, which honours contributions to Canada’s cultural and intellectual heritage, is only the latest honour for the theatre professor. Kerr is also a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Royal Society of Canada and has represented Canada at numerous international theatrical design competitions over the past 30 years.

“This award is an important way for other designers to gain heart: they can see their work is being received equal to painting or sculpture,” says Kerr. “To me, good theatre is a vision quest: it can change your life.”

Two prizes of $50,000 are awarded each year, one in the arts and the other in the social sciences or humanities. This is the third Molson Prize for UVic and its first in the Faculty of Fine Arts. John Borrows (Law) received a Molson Prize last year and Angus McLaren (History) received the university’s first in 2008. Funded from a $1-million endowment by the Molson Family Foundation, the Molson Prizes are administered by the Canada Council for the Arts in conjunction with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

People worldwide witnessed the pagentry of Mary Kerr’s designs during the televised closing of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria (Image provided courtesy of Mary Kerr)

A career as diverse as Canadian culture

Given her background in dance and sculpture, and her celebrated career as a production designer in Canadian and international theatre, dance, opera, feature film, television, exhibition and special events design, Kerr’s oeuvre is as diverse as Canadian culture itself.

“If we’re lucky, we get the culture we deserve to create in—and I was lucky,” says Kerr, looking back over her 50-year career. “It was exploding, it was exploring, it was a time to break the rules and be authentic.”

From designing the internationally televised opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria to creating sets for The Tommy Hunter Show, from working on opera stages around the world to working with children’s entertainers Sharon, Lois and Bram, Kerr has forged her own path through hundreds of projects and numerous awards and nominations.

“If I’m happy with what I’ve done, I move on,” she says philosophically. “While it is work, I don’t just think of it as craft or technique. Hopefully, each show I do—each challenge I’m given, each puzzle I solve—is a movement of growth and creation.”

Not that her work has been limited to Canada: iconic ballet star Rudolf Nureyev invited Kerr to design productions at the Paris Opera Ballet, where he was artistic director—the first Canadian to receive such an honour—and her one-woman musical about Marc Chagall’s wife, Bella—Bella, the Colour of Love (which she co-wrote)—was commissioned and produced for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia, before touring to New York, Poland and Toronto.

Her production designs have been described as “kinetic sculpture on stage” and are characterized by experimentation with architectural concepts, scale, materials, colours and often satiric cultural commentary on the human condition.

“Einstein said, ‘creativity is intelligence having fun’—that captures my life practice,” says Kerr. “I’m not that interested in realism; I’m interested in exploration, illusion, what’s going on in someone’s mind . . . that’s what I love about theatre, the ability to bring some kind of transformation and healing to the audience.”

Case in point? Her visionary designs for the 2007 National Arts Centre production of Copper Thunderbird, based on the life and works of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, which were later the focus of an exhibit at UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery. This groundbreaking exhibit paired Kerr’s sketches, models, costumes, process photographs and nationally broadcast video of the production alongside Morrisseau’s own paintings.

“In some ways, my work was a bridge between Canadian art and Canadian theatre, because there weren’t a lot of theatre designers who came from an art background in the 1970s . . . stylized theatre wasn’t being done that much when I started. But I didn’t know what I should or shouldn’t do: I just did. In retrospect, I didn’t realize how experimental or unusual my work was at the time.”

Mary Kerr’s production designs for the 2007 play Copper Thunderbird helped bring the life and work of Anishinaabe artist Norville Morisseau to life at the National Arts Centre, and were the focus of a 2008 exhibit at UVic’s Legacy Art Gallery (National Arts Centre)

Mentoring the next generation

Kerr’s work has been the subject of a documentary film (Mary Kerr: the Creative Process) and is housed in many collections including The Mary Kerr Collection at the Metro Toronto Library and the Paris Opera Archival Museum. She was also recently chosen by her peers to have her work shown as “Canada’s Design Legend” at the 2019 Prague Quadrennial International Design Competition. But it hasn’t always been easy.

“Women primarily designed costumes—not sets—when I started out,” she says. “I was often scorned by the professional male designers who felt women were not technical enough to design sets. The director was considered the ‘conceiver’ behind the show, but I work as an equal creator: a visual dramaturge.”

And while opportunities for women have improved, Kerr still feels called to raise awareness in the next generation of designers, and to remind women today what they can achieve in the field. That’s part of what she has brought to her students in UVic’s theatre department since 1998, where she teaches courses in the sociology and semiotics of contemporary and historical fashion, costume and stage architecture, theatrical aesthetics and “Ways of Seeing”.

At the same time, Kerr also guides students through the process of conceiving and designing costumes and sets for productions at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre, and regularly mentors students after graduation to successful design careers in Canada and around the world.

As noted in the Molson Prize nomination letter, international opera designer Michael Levine says that Kerr “has always been a leading light in the field of set and costume design, both in Canada and abroad. Her work is bold and brave and thrilling to watch. She has inspired many designers to follow her path.”

As production designer for the 2012 UVic Phoenix Theatre production of Euridyce, Kerr’s artistic vision encompassed every aspect of the stage. (Photo: David Lowes)

Ways of seeing

It should perhaps be no surprise that two previous recipients of the Molson Prize—visionary thinkers Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye—were two of Kerr’s own mentors as a student.

“I based my ‘Ways of Seeing’ UVic class on McLuhan’s method,” says Kerr. “We’d all be sitting around in a circle and he’d just talk—we’d rarely say anything—and his mind bounced around like a wonderful hummingbird, or maybe a big eagle. It totally fascinated me that learning wasn’t something you found in a book but something you put together in your mind . . . it was a very different way of approaching it. Frye, he was more of an academic, but he was also a mystic.”

Given that she’s still guided by the influence of her own mentors, what advice does she offer her own students? “Learn the rules and then break them. Be fearless and authentic in your art.  Do not copy. Be an original. Be a compassionate and curious human first, an artist second and only then perhaps a production designer.”

Over 22 million people attended Vancouver’s Expo 86 and were thrilled by the colourul spectacle of the Canadian Pavilion’s First Theatre, with production design by Mary Kerr (Image provided courtesy of Mary Kerr)

Theatre in a time of crisis

Finally, with international productions at a halt because of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Kerr is currently working on a collection of essays and stories about her life and experiences as a designer—which, combined with the Molson Prize, has offered the opportunity for reflection.

“In Buddhism, they talk about the Kalachakra wheel—when the wheel of the world turns, things change—and some say that’s what’s going on right now. Will theatre come back the way it was? I don’t think so—and I don’t think it should,” she reflects.

“I keep wondering what McLuhan, who could see to the edge of the earth, would be saying or doing in this precarious time. He called artists the ‘early warning systems of a culture’ . . . so how can we warn and help today?”

Whatever the future holds for theatrical presentations, it’s a safe bet Mary Kerr will be there on the edge herself, envisioning a dynamic and colourful design.

Playful and bright, Kerr’s production design was an ideal match for the fairy tale classic, The Wind In The Willows, staged at UVic’s Phoenix Theatre in 2007. (Photo: Tim Matheson)