New Visual Arts professor creates Avatar Grove film project for IMAX screens

Visual Arts professor Kelly Richardson with one of the old-growth trees in Avatar Grove (photo: Ken Wu)

Internationally acclaimed artist and new Visual Arts professor Kelly Richardson will be one of five digital media artists featured in the upcoming XL-Outer Worlds large-format film project, which will be shooting at Port Renfrew’s Avatar Grove / T’l’oqwxwat in summer 2018 and released on IMAX screens across Canada in 2019.

The Ontario-born artist has been living in the UK since 2003, and teaching at Newcastle University since 2013, but decided to move to Vancouver Island specifically upon seeing BC’s old-growth forests first-hand during her time as a UVic Visiting Artist in the fall of 2016.

“I was overwhelmed by my experience of those ancient stands, which was a huge influence in my decision to apply for a professorship at the University of Victoria,” says Richardson. “I couldn’t believe those ancient stands still exist at all anywhere in the world, let alone here. My upcoming projects will feature the old-growth forests in this region and I hope I can contribute to efforts to raise awareness about their outstanding beauty and the plight to protect what remains.”

Hear more about the project in Richardson’s January 9 interview with CHEK TV. The story was also reported in the January 10 edition of the Sooke News Mirror, the January 11 Canadian Art news roundup, the January 13 issue of the Saanich News, a large spread in the January 14 Times Colonist, the January 16 broadcast of CBC Radio’s On The Island (no link available), the January 17 edition of the Peninsula News Review and the news section of Galleries West magazine.

Vancouver Island’s old-growth forests have a long history of artistic representation, whether as the medium and inspiration for centuries of Indigenous works or the iconic paintings of Emily Carr. Known for creating hyper-real digital films of rich and complex landscapes manipulated using CGI, animation and sound, Richardson’s work fuses 19th century painting, 20th century cinema and 21st century scientific inquiries, Richardson creates works with strong environmental themes, asking viewers to consider what the future might look like if we continue on our current trajectory of global environmental crisis.

Kelly Richardson (photo: Colin Davison)

“I want viewers to be immersed within an old-growth forest that’s been shifted into an area of science-fiction, a potential future,” she says about her project. “That perception will allow us to view ourselves in our current situation with some measure of hindsight and clarity, and hopefully realize what we’re doing, where we’re headed, and why.”

The XL-Outer Worlds project celebrates the 50th anniversary of the IMAX, a Canadian invention, and Richardson’s film will be shot by Christian Kroitor, the grandson of IMAX inventor Roman Kroitor. Featuring four other Canadian media artists (Michael Snow, Oliver Husain, Lisa Jackson, and Leila Sujir), the commission focuses on short films creating a larger-than-life landscape that forms an outer world.

Viewers engaging with Richardson’s work (photo: Ruth Clark)

Highly in-demand as an artist, in 2017 Richardson was involved in 14 solo and group exhibitions across Canada and in China, France, the UK and the US. Her works have been widely acclaimed in North America, Asia and Europe, and have been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, and Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, as well as by museums around the world.

Her video installations have been included in the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and she was previously honoured at the Americans for the Arts National Arts Awards alongside Robert Redford, Salman Rushdie and fellow artist, Ed Ruscha.

Richardson’s old-growth project will be created with the participation of the Ancient Forest Alliance (AFA) who, together with the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded the protection of Avatar Grove — called T’l’oqwxwat by the local Pacheedaht First Nation — which is home to one of the most spectacular and easily accessible stands of monumental old-growth trees in BC.

Avatar Grove’s monumental scale matches the scope of Richardson’s work (photo: Ken Wu)

“The old-growth forests around Port Renfrew — still largely endangered — are clearly continuing to impress increasing numbers of people,” says AFA executive director Ken Wu. “Not only tourists, businesses, and news media, but now a renowned artist of Kelly Richardson’s caliber. Her work has garnered major media attention, moved critics and reached popular audiences, all while raising environmental themes in powerful ways.”

The campaign to protect Avatar grove, spearheaded by the AFA and the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce — a ground-breaking alliance of environmental activists and the local business community — has significantly fueled a provincial movement of businesses, labour unions, city and town councils, and environmental groups calling on the British Columbian provincial government to protect old-growth forests and to ensure a sustainable, second-growth forest industry.

Sandra Meigs joins Canada’s academic elite

Contemporary artist and newly retired Visual Arts professor Sandra Meigs has been named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC)—Canada’s highest academic honour.

Sandra Meigs, 2017 (UVic Photo Services)

The title has been bestowed on only 2,000 Canadians in the 134-year history of the RSC, and has just one criterion: excellence. The peer-elected fellows of the society are chosen for making “remarkable contributions” in the arts, humanities and sciences, and Canadian public life.

“Academians are largely associated with scientific and theoretical knowledge, and I’ve always believed that visual art offers a special kind of knowledge—a knowledge giving form to imaginative discovery,” Meigs says in this September 7 article in UVic’s Ring newspaper. “I feel lucky to be able to meet with this large community of thinkers.”

As one of Canada’s leading contemporary artists, Meigs’s work has been presented at more than 100 solo and group exhibitions put on by some of Canada’s most culturally relevant institutions. In 2015, she won both a Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts and Media and the Gershon Iskowitz Prize for professional artists.

“Through her work and commitment to students, Sandra Meigs inspires the next generation of artists and strengthens the Faculty’s core mission of artistic practice and scholarship,” says Dean of Fine Arts, Dr. Susan Lewis. “On behalf of the Faculty of Fine Arts, I extend my congratulations to her on this richly deserved honour.”

Meigs retired in July 2017 after 24 years with UVic’s Department of Visual Arts and has been at the forefront of the studio-integrated learning model now used by many art schools across Canada. Her work has been shown in close to 100 exhibitions, including solo exhibits across Canada, and internationally in Europe and Australia.

“En Trance” by Sandra Meigs (Photo: Winchester Galleries)

She’s recognized as a critically acclaimed visual artist who creates vivid, immersive and enigmatic paintings that combine complex narratives with comic elements. Drawing inspiration from philosophical texts, theory, popular culture, music, fiction, travels and personal experience during her 35-year artistic career, she creates visual metaphors related to the psyche.

Her latest exhibit, “Room for Mystics,” will run at the Art Gallery of Ontario from October 18 to January 13, 2018; part of the Iskowitz Prize, there will also be a exhibit publication and it will feature a collaboration with UVic School of Music professor Christopher Butterfield. An advance look at some of this new work ran at Victoria’s Winchester Galleries back in January 2017 as the exhibit “En Trance.”

But even though she’s retired, Meigs will still remain part of UVic’s Fine Arts community. Now a Professor Emeritus, she believes the university is home to some of Canada’s foremost artists—but is missing one crucial component.

“The University of Victoria should be proud of its Faculty of Fine Arts, but the Visual Arts department is in need of a real, on-campus contemporary art gallery to pursue our creative research and teaching,” she says. “UVic is one of the few universities in Canada that does not have its own contemporary art gallery. Our recitals and concerts at the School of Music are renown, and performances at the Phoenix Theatre are a magnet for the public—whereas Visual Arts has no such venue on campus to showcase its research and teaching.”

Meigs is the fifth Fine Arts professor to be named a Fellow, joining colleagues Harald Krebs (Music), Mary Kerr (Theatre), Joan MacLeod (Writing) and Tim Lilburn (Writing), as well as RSC College member Dániel Péter Biró (Music) and RSC Medal winner Jack Hodgins (Writing, retired).

The Royal Society of Canada was established in 1883 as Canada’s national academy for distinguished scholars, artists and scientists. Its primary objective is to promote learning and research in the arts, humanities, and natural and social sciences. The society has named 72 current, former and adjunct UVic faculty members as fellows over the years.

“Imagination and play, the exchange of ideas and forms, and a sense of wonder and discovery are some of the aspects of academia that inspire,” she says. “I’d be interested in generating a project with an RSC fellow from any other area. Projects are best born when there’s no expected outcome, when there’s just a spark of creative impulse. It just takes making a connection.”

 

Swimming into the past

Despite unseasonably cold winds and unusually choppy waves, intermedia artist Paul Walde dove into the waters of Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake on July 8 and, after months of preparation, completed the first stage of The Tom Thomson Centennial Swim.

Paul Walde swimming on July 8 (Photo: Clayton McKinnon)

 

Emily Denison plays flugelhorn for the swim (Photo: Andrew Wright)

Occurring on the 100th anniversary of iconic Canadian landscape artist Tom Thomson’s drowning in Canoe Lake, Walde was accompanied by an eight-person synchronized swim squad, a five-person brass band playing Walde’s own 45-minute composition written for the occasion, a film crew and a flotilla of a dozen boats, including six canoes custom-painted in Thomson’s signature green.

“The scariest part was when it was really choppy. I got lost and disoriented and blown off course.” Ironically — and unintentionally — Walde ended up in the part of the lake where Thomson’s body was found and Walde almost had to call for help; but, by spotting the tall white totem pole erected beside the Thomson memorial cairn on the shoreline, he was able to reorient himself and complete his swim.

“Landscape painting is about beauty,” Walde said in this Toronto Star article. “But the landscape is dangerous. It doesn’t care if you live or die. That was the very limit of what I could do. For me, to be in the water where he died — that was powerful.”

With the site- and temporally-specific portion of the project now complete, Walde — chair of the Visual Arts department — turns his attention to the equally labour-intensive next stage: viewing, editing and preparing the footage for exhibit.

Chris Solar and Joe Leslie (Photo: Andrew Wright)

“The gallery video will be very different from the swim itself,” he explains, comparing it to his 2013 piece, Requiem for a Glacier. ”It’s not a concert video that simply documents the event, but will be a more poetic, immersive experience that ties together the various film and sound recordings. What will make it really unique is my perspective: what I’m seeing and hearing in the water, my sense of disorientation. I’m using Thomson to frame this activity, but at the same time I’m reframing him; it goes both ways.”

Walde feels the timing was right for this project on a number of levels: not only the centenary of Thomson’s death, but also his own age (“I’m 49, how much longer could I really wait to do this?”) and recent advancements in technology.

“There were a lot of ideas I had for the piece that we just couldn’t do 20 years ago: we wouldn’t have been able to have a flying drone or put a camera on my bathing cap and shoot 4K video.” As a result, the final exhibit will include surface, underwater body-cam and overhead footage, as well as recordings both underwater and of the accompanying band, and scenes of the locations featured in Thomson’s paintings.

Walde with synchronized swimmers (Photo: Andrew Wright)

Walde was accompanied on his July 8 swim by a number of other Canadian academic artists, including University of Ottawa visual arts chair Andrew Wright, Fanshawe College visual arts chair Gary Spearin, Ottawa artist Adrian Göllner and recent Visual Arts alumni Brandon Poole and Laura Gildner; also witnessing the performance was Christopher Regimbal, senior exhibitions coordinator for the National Gallery of Canada.

When it comes to choosing his art projects, Walde takes the long view. ”My career is about following these kind of ideas. The ones you can’t shake are the ones you end up doing — this one was gestating for 20 years.”

When asked about future plans, Walde just laughs. “Once this one is complete, you mean? I’d like to do a forest fire piece. I’ve been thinking about that for a couple of years now.”

Graduating Visual Arts project a bold step forward

Xiao Xue with her walking camper

It sounds like a riddle: what has six legs, was built for camping and can walk on its own? The answer, however, is no joke — it’s actually the incredibly complex final project of Visual Arts BFA graduate Xiao Xue.

Aptly titled “Something to Ponder On: A Walking Camper,” Xue’s project is exactly that: a classically Canadian Slumber Queen truck camper unit, enhanced by six electric-powered robotic legs which allow it to walk independently. Inspired by a fascination with insects and a friend’s prosthetic leg, Xue has created a remarkable piece that truly gives the viewer something to ponder on.

“Xiao’s walking camper is a highly sophisticated artwork that brings together her poetic, even poignant, vision with matching research and technical skills,” says Visual Arts professor Daniel Laskarin, one of Xue’s instructors. “This piece is among the finest that any graduating student anywhere might produce. Xiao has that combination of independence, imagination, and willingness to learn that made her a great student and a very promising young artist.”

Scroll down for a gallery of images of the project.

An international student from Urumqi — a 1,400-year-old Chinese city of three million on the border of Pakistan and Russia — Xue came to UVic with practically no pre-existing art background. As such, she’s an ideal example of the invaluable skills a fine arts education offers: by combining creative thinking and critical evaluation with hands-on learning, collaborative partnerships and sheer determination, she has not only achieved the practical goal represented by her project but has also earned herself admission to the MFA program at the University of Guelph.

“I make structures with revealing structures,” she explains. “In nature, all organisms that rely on a parasitic relationship need a host to survive and, once deceased, they are no longer seen if they are apart from the host. This similar parasitic relationship not only applies to objects in human society, but it’s fairly common in social relations as well.”

Originally a student in the Art History & Visual Studies department, Xue transferred to Visual Arts after taking the first-year studio elective. “If you want to work in a discipline, the end result should be contributing to the field yourself — but I couldn’t see myself contributing anything unique to art history. I’m more interested in doing than just knowing, and that’s what Visual Arts offers.”

Be sure to watch this short video of Xue’s camper going for walk to get the full effect:

 

No question, Xue’s piece was the hit of this year’s graduating BFA art show in April. Constructed at a cost of approximately $4,200, her 2,400-pound walking camper was financed through a combination of crowd-sourcing, scholarships, bursaries and out-of-pocket expenses. She also had the assistance of a fellow student in UVic’s Mechanical Engineering department, the support and sponsorship of local machine shop Rainhouse (“This project wouldn’t have happened without them”) and the resources of the Visual Arts department itself. “It was a consistent learning experience with the [Visual Arts] technicians. I had a great four years spending time with them.”

Xue describes the seven-month project, undertaken alongside her other classes, as “a non-stop troubleshooting process” involving hundreds of hours of sketching, welding, woodwork, electronics, 3D modelling, maquette construction and people management. “I start with the final image in my mind and then reverse-engineer it based on what I can’t afford.”

But Xue downplays her artistic accomplishment in favour of a more philosophical outlook. “People say ‘Oh, this is so amazing’ but then they go and drive a machine that goes 60 miles an hour and has air conditioning and a gearbox,” she says. “We’re living in a very impatient age. It’s the best time in history — you can achieve so much in life — but a lot of people complain about our technology and engineering without realizing how much work goes into it, and who is actually doing the work. It’s crazy how cheap technology is: they certainly wouldn’t be able to build their own car for $50,000.”

All of which offers a final insight into Xiao Xue’s walking camper: its slow pace also provides the viewer a meditative opportunity conducive to pondering.

 

Music research leads to REACH Award

She has helped uncover the forgotten works of suppressed composers and played alongside the likes of the National Orchestra of Taiwan and the Moody Blues. Now, the research and creative practice of School of Music flute professor and music scholar Suzanne Snizek is receiving renewed attention with the news that she is among the 10 recipients of UVic’s inaugural REACH Awards.

Music professor Suzanne Snizek (UVic Photo Services)

“This is a tremendous honour,” says Snizek. “I am very thankful to my colleagues who took the time to nominate me, and happy that my work has been recognized in this way.”

Combining the Teaching Excellence Awards with the Craigdarroch Research Awards, the REACH Awards celebrate the extraordinary teachers and researchers who lead the way in dynamic learning and make a vital impact at UVic, in the classroom and beyond.

“The REACH Awards mark a new era of recognition for our university,” says UVic president Jamie Cassels. “By honouring research and teaching together, we acknowledge how they’re inextricably linked for the betterment of our students, our university, our partners and collaborators, and society at large.”

Snizek, who received the Award for Excellence in Artistic Expression on May 25 at an evening ceremony at the Royal British Columbia Museum, is an expert in “suppressed music” — classical music silenced under the Nazi regime because of the composers’ ideologies, aesthetic or Jewish heritage. Many of these works are exceptional, but are rarely performed to this day.

“If it’s a good piece of music, it should be played,” says Snizek, who was delighted when one of her music students picked two suppressed pieces for an end-of-year recital. “One of the challenges for this music is that it gets ghettoized again as ‘suppressed music.’ So I’m trying to present it on its own terms, and include it in my teaching here so students can encounter this music for themselves.”

You can listen to some samples of Snizek playing suppressed music here.

Indeed, Snizek has dedicated much of her academic career to bringing this suppressed music back to life. Through audio recordings, publications, performances and lectures around the world, she’s part of a global effort to bring these forgotten treasures back into our musical and historical consciousness, and to remind us what can happen when the rights to free speech and artistic expression are violated.

Snizek’s research was originally inspired by the illegal detentions at Guantanamo Bay in the early 2000s. “The inherent cruelty and injustice of ‘indefinite detention’ has always been particularly unacceptable to me and so was a natural starting point for my research.” Unfortunately, she says she isn’t shocked that issues of personal and artistic suppression are still as relevant today as in the World War II era.

“It doesn’t at all surprise me, but it does concern me,” she admits. “None of this is just dry history, it all has a very real human impact: in generations of family trauma, in artistic production — or lack thereof. In 1940, the war was going quite badly for the Allies, and many felt the world was at the point of coming to an end . . . just listening to the news today can generate empathy for their despair.”

Research aside, she has also been pleased with student response to this body of work. While awareness of history and context differs greatly according to the individual — “I had one student who told me he knew nothing about the Holocaust . . . [as well as] participants in UVic’s I-Witness Holocaust Field School” — Snizek says there has been a great deal of interest in discovering a previously unknown potential repertoire.

Given her international academic and performance background, she also credits the School of Music with nurturing “a healthy, supportive atmosphere” among its students. “The sense of nurturance and the personal attention students receive in our Music department is quite unique. I think we do an exceptionally good job in that area.”

As both a flute performer and music scholar, she says there’s no denying the global impact of a small group of people can make with this kind of work. “There is growing interest in ‘recovering’ these composers, and attitudes have markedly improved even since 2005. People are far more aware now,” she says.

“In the Netherlands, for example, just two musician-researchers managed to recover a large number of excellent musical works and were also successful in disseminating them through recordings, live performances and by making the scores accessible to other musicians. And there are similar centres in Los Angeles and London that have developed strong platforms and networks for promoting these works.”

Snizek has also experienced the emotional impact of her work first-hand. “When I first played through Hans Gál’s Huyton Suite, which had been written during his internment in 1940, it was rather intense,” she admits. “I had closely read his internment diary, met and interviewed his daughter and stayed for a couple of weeks on the Isle of Man where he had been interned . . . so I was coming at this piece of music from a deeply experiential level.”

Learn more about Snizek and her students via her Flute Studio Blog.

Applied Theatre offers hope to many

Most people likely see theatre as a form of entertainment, but for anyone working with global refugees and internally displaced persons, theatre can also offer a sense of hope and community.

Consider the global impact of the work of UVic applied theatre PhD student Taiwo O. Afolabi. A graduate fellow with UVic’s Centre for Global Studies and a Queen Elizabeth Scholar with UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, Afolabi arrived in Canada two years ago. His research focuses on artistic practices among internally displaced persons (IDPs) in IDP communities or camps to create awareness for the plight of displaced persons.

Applied theatre PhD candidate Taiwo Afolabi

“Theatre can raise consciousness,” says Afolabi. “Coming to one workshop might change someone’s perspective, whereas I can write five articles that might never be read.”

The Nigerian-born scholar had already travelled to the likes of Burkina Faso, China, Denmark, Iran and the USA and before choosing to pursue doctoral studies in UVic’s Theatre department; indeed, he came to UVic specifically to study with renowned Department of Theatre professor Warwick Dobson.

“For me, applied theatre is all about relationships and interactions,” he explains. “Relationships are powerful because they involve us, and those interactions make us responsible and actionable. Once we start understanding peoples’ reality, it brings us closer to their experience — not just theory, but their actual experience. We can start living it.”

The applied theatre program in the Department of Theatre is no stranger to international projects: consider the recent field school to India led by PhD candidate Matthew Gusul, or the efforts of Theatre professor Kirsten Sadeghi-Yekta, who has led projects in Brazil, Cambodia, Nicaragua and The Netherlands.

Locally, Afolabi has been working with both the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society and the Intercultural Association of Greater Victoria, and will be participating in a World Refugee Day performance at Victoria City Hall on June 20.

Following completion of his PhD, Afolabi hopes to travel to throughout Africa — specifically to Eastern, Southern and Western Africa — to map and document what local people are doing to preserve their culture. “Moving from different countries gives you a broader perspective on the world and practices,” he says.

In this article from UVic’s Ring, Afolabi discusses his artistic practices around internally displaced persons or communities. He talks about how a “lived experience” – through the audience’s firsthand experience of culturally specific activities and performances, ranging from dance and music to drumming and magician acts – “has the capacity to make it personal, beyond theory.” This kind of empathy, he says, generates “a profound response.”

“So much memory and knowledge resides in the body and in theatre we can bring it out,” he explains. “And sometimes people give solutions that don’t work for a complex issue because we are distanced from it. With the ‘lived experience’ [of theatre], even if it’s only for a second, you can come to that point. It can give you something that you won’t forget.”

Afolabi is participating in a panel about migration and refugee performances as part of Forgotten Corridors: Global Displacement and the Politics of Engagement — the 10th annual conference of the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Running May 15 to 18 and hosted by UVic’s Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI), this is the first time the conference has been held on the west coast of Canada.

Afolabi was interviewed for this TC story

“We’re building community and building relationships between refugees from different cultural backgrounds,” Afolabi said in this Times Colonist article about the Forgotten Corridors conference.

Afolabi explains that he uses dance, music and drama to give displaced people a sense of empowerment and allow them to engage in “self-celebration, self-expression and self-documentation,” rather than simply being treated like victims.

Forgotten Corridors seeks to expand the examination of global displacement by looking beyond the world media focus on the Mediterranean: are other displaced groups being left out of the discussion? How do financially strapped countries such as India and Kenya accommodate thousands of guests for protracted periods of time? What can theatre teach us about the experiences of internally displaced persons? What do Australia’s offshore detention camps reveal about personal impacts of sending those in search of a safe home to languish in limbo?

By bringing together more than 200 activists, scholars, policy makers and other experts from all corners of the world to share knowledge, experiences and strategies as they relate to global displacement, Forgotten Corridors also dovetails with UVic’s new International Plan, launched in the fall of 2016. It is also one of four signature series events by UVic to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary.

For his part, Afolabi hopes to start conversations at Forgotten Corridors that will act as “sparks” for people to then take home with them.

“When we start understanding the reality, it brings us closer to the experience,” he says. “Applied theatre has the capacity and potential to bring these issues closer to us. We can start living it.”