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)
Department of Theatre alum Charles Ross will livestream his popular interstellar romp The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy at 5pm Monday, May 4, to help support an emergency fund for students experiencing financial hardship due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coordinated through The Farquhar at UVic, this is a special opportunity to watch the Victoria actor and active Theatre alum condense 12 hours of cinema into a 75-minute re-enactment of the plots of three Star Wars films (Star Wars IV, V and VI) while raising money to support students.
Click here for the livestream link to this free performance.
UVic theatre alumnus Charles Ross will livestream his popular interstellar romp through Star Wars on May 4 to help support an emergency bursary fund for students affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Image: Courtesy of Charles Ross.
The UVic COVID-19 Emergency Bursary was established in April to help domestic and international students, at the graduate and undergraduate level, who are in financial need as result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Money raised will go toward students who have lost their jobs, face housing issues or have trouble paying for food, tuition or the technology needed for online or remote learning. The fund also supports mental health services, child care and transportation costs for students affected by the pandemic.
The emergency fund was established with $200,000 from the university and $140,000 from the BC government. Other contributions include $67,000 from the UVic Students’ Society, $50,000 from the UVic Alumni Association and $98,000 in individual donations from hundreds of alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the university.
So far, more than 2,000 students have applied to the emergency bursary, and UVic anticipates the demand will exceed $1 million. Fundraising is continuing and all gifts are welcome. Viewers are asked to donate to the UVic COVID-19 Emergency Bursary.
The livestream performance coincides with the popular annual “May the Fourth be with you” celebration of the Star Wars series. Ross has toured his world-famous production around the globe, entertaining more than a million fans in London’s West End, at the Sydney Opera House and off-Broadway in New York. Performed with permission of Lucasfilm Ltd, the show is fast-paced, funny and suitable for ages six to Yoda.
Most recently, Ross performed his One-Man Pride & Prejudice on April 18 as part of the ongoing #CanadaPerforms series developed by the National Arts Centre.
He’s written in almost every genre imaginable and seen his work adapted for film. He’s won multiple awards and inspired a new generation of writers. He’s been a student and a teacher, and now internationally renowned storyteller and best-selling author Richard Van Camp can add the designation of Distinguished Alumni of the Faculty of Fine Arts to his list of accolades.
No stranger to UVic since his graduation with a BFA in 1997, the Edmonton-based Van Camp returns to campus during Alumni Week to offer the public talk “My Life As An Author”, receive his Distinguished Alumni Award, visit undergraduate classes and have a frank conversation with current grad students. But before all that happens, he took time to chat with us about his life in words.
2020’s Distinguished Alumni Award winner Richard Van Camp (photo: William Au)
All are welcome to join Richard Van Camp at his public talk, from 2:30-4pm Monday, February 3, in room 159 of UVic’s Fraser building.
A near miss into politics
A proud member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Van Camp came to UVic’s acclaimed Writing department as a graduate of the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton, before later getting a Master’s in Creative Writing at UBC. But his original intention was not to become a writer, but to go into politics instead.
“I was studying land claims at Aurora College in Yellowknife but had started writing book and music reviews for the Yellowknife newspaper, The Prss Independent,” he recalls. “I was also writing poems and short stories that my English instructor, Ron Klassen, was reading in his spare time. I owe Ron so much because he told me not to get into politics because I was a writer.” (Ron, the Canadian literary scene owes you a debt!)
It was Klassen who encouraged him to attend the En’owkin Centre: not only has their program specialized in Indigenous writers and artists for the past 30 years, but En’owkin also has a vibrant partnership with UVic, which smoothed the path to Victoria for Van Camp.
Once here, he studied with some of the department’s literary legends like WD Valgardson, Marilyn Bowering, Jack Hodgins and Stephen Hume, but was also inspired by his fellow students — many of whom went on to literary acclaim themselves, including Billeh Nickerson, Aislinn Hunter and Teresa McWhirter.
A story for every genre
Given his vast — 24 books in 24 years — and diverse literary output — including two novels, five collections of short stories, two children’s books, four baby books (the first of which, Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns was given to every newborn baby in BC in 2008), six graphic novels and four seasons with CBC TV’s North of 60, plus a feature film adaptation of his novel, The Lesser Blessed, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival — Van Camp seems to revel in taking on new challenges. Was that something he learned as a student?
“It was the En’owkin Centre that encouraged all of us to work in every genre,” says the award-winning writer. “I am continually surprised that so many creative writing institutions limit you when selecting the genres you wish to explore. The one thing I always mention when I teach is, ‘The story is the boss.’ It’s up to you to help decide if the story that’s chosen you is best relayed as a short story, novella, graphic novel, movie, poem, prose piece, mind blur, photo, video, etcetera.”
Between writing contracts, Van Camp has taught creative writing at UBC, Emily Carr University and has held writer-in-residence positions at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University. He’s also been quite diverse in the delivery of his works: all of his children’s books are available in Braille for free, anywhere in the world, and his baby book, Little You, was published in Bush Cree, Dene and South Slavey.
Helping the next generation
As the 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, Van Camp now joins the ranks of previous Fine Arts DAA winners, including Banff Centre managing director of performing arts Nathan Medd (BFA ’01), country music stars Twin Kennedy (BMus ’08), visual artist Althea Thauberger (MFA ’02) director Glynis Leyshon (BFA ’73), author Esi Edugyan (BA ’99), lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield (BA ’67), filmmaker Mercedes Bátiz-Benét (BFA ’02), poet Carla Funk (BFA ’97), musician Paul Beauchesne (BMus ’88), author Deborah Willis (BA ’06), environmental designer Valerie Murray (BA ’78), author Eden Robinson (BFA ’92) and visual anthropologist Andrea Walsh (BA ’91).
And while many of his works feature strong characters mentoring youth — notably his graphic novels, which have tackled issues ranging from gangs, sexual health, restorative justice, peace-making, mental health and suicide prevention — Van Camp also feels it’s important to give back himself.
“Alumni should be looking out for and promoting other alumni,” he says. “We’re a family and we deserve to help new writers the same way I was helped while on campus. I’m also grateful for [UVic’s Torch] alumni magazine that arrives to our home in Edmonton. I find I’m starving to see what everyone’s up to.”
With his latest short story collection, Moccasin Square Gardens, released in 2019 from Douglas & McIntyre, and his public DAA talk titled “My Life As A Writer”, does Van Camp have any advice for current Writing students?
“With 24 books out these past 24 years and five books on the way, working with 12 different publishers and working with two different literary agencies, I feel I can share my experience of how to make a great living as an author today and, at the same time, talk about the challenges writers can face balancing family, touring, writing and deadlines,” he chuckles. “I can’t wait to share the story about how I was fired by one of my publishers . . . only to return years later with a book that changed all of our lives forever.”
And what does it mean to him, personally and professionally, to be named a Distinguished Alumni?
“I wouldn’t be the writer or human being that I am today had it not been for UVic,” he admits. “I’m so grateful for the mentorship, the friendships and the guidance I received while there. I will always say yes when UVic calls me to return to help.”
The Faculty of Fine Arts and Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) at the University of Victoria 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, culture, biodiversity and healthy communities.
This program is open to all current graduate students who have completed most of their course requirements in UVic’s Fine Arts faculty, with practice in any visual, written, musical or performance media.
For the previous 2018-2019 residency, emerging artist Colton Hash produced a series of interactive art applications centred on the Salish Sea.
Colton Hash with his “Resonant Disintegration” sculpture
About the position
The Artist-in-Residence intern will interact with Fine Arts faculty members and scientists at ONC as well as with other individuals using the world-leading ocean facilities to ignite cross-disciplinary exchanges. The artist will learn from and engage with the current research, connecting it to their own practice, and to wider societal and cultural aspects, creating a body of work to be presented at the end of the program. Regular interaction with scientists at ONC will be arranged, and the interaction with ONC will inform their graduate work (MA, MFA or PhD program).
The selected artist will actively engage with researchers on a variety of ocean science themes that may include:
- understanding human-induced change in the northeast Pacific Ocean
- life in the environments of the northeast Pacific Ocean and Salish Sea
- interconnections among the seafloor, ocean and atmosphere
- or seafloor and sediment in motion.
The ONC Artist-in-Residence program is established to:
- explore arts or the potential of alternative cultural practices in the area of the visions and challenges around oceans, as well as philosophical, aesthetic, and ethical aspect 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
- reveal interconnections between indigenous ways of knowing, scientific research and the arts
- and help envision the potential long-term impacts of ocean changes on humanity.
The period of the residency will be from September to December 2020, or January to April 2021. A cost-of-living stipend of $2,000/month CDN ($8,000 total) is currently available to be paid to the selected artist, and can be held in conjunction with other graduate funding.
During the residency, academic supervision will continue with the regular supervisor(s) in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Following the residency, a public exhibit or performance of the resulting art will be displayed or performed in summer / fall 2021. This showing/performance will be promoted by ONC, UVic and the faculties of Fine Arts and Science.
Please send applications to ONC’s Dwight Owens at (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject line “Ocean Networks Canada Artist in Residence Program.”
The application should include your CV, a concise portfolio of previous relevant artistic work, a letter of motivation for the residency and a 500-word project proposal with a separate project-costs budget (up to $2,000 currently available). The application period closes on February 28, 2020.
Applications will be reviewed by representatives of UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Ocean Networks Canada, and students may be contacted for an interview or to supply further information.
About the residency partners
About ONC: 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.