Scrolling through Twitter, I spotted a meme that joked about being a grandparent 20 years from now and telling stories to children about surviving the trauma of the year 2016. Indeed it seems to be a year that will require a special notation in the history books. Consider some of the headlines of the past year: the Brexit vote, the Zika virus, the election of Donald Trump, the plight of Syrian refugees, the death of Fidel Castro, the Pulse Nightclub shooting and, of course, the deaths of too many icons to count.
Numerous articles have been and will be written about the year that took David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Carrie Fisher and George Michael from us. In Canada too, we lost pop culture heavyweights such as Leonard Cohen, Rene Angelil, Vanity and Alan Thicke. In the midst of these towering figures there are some names that may get missed, artists who might not have held as much fame but whose work was impactful and transformative and whose absence will be missed. This week I dedicate my column to remembering some of the Canadian artists we lost in a year that took so much.
A pioneer of abstract art in Canada, painter and sculptor Marcel Barbeau passed away on January 2 at the age of 90 following a lengthy battle with Parkinson disease. He was one of the members of the artistic dissident group Les Auotomatistes and one of the last living signatories of Refus Global, a 1948 artists manifesto many view as a one of the first signals of the impending Quiet Revolution. It decried the conservative limits of Quebec society, broke with the Catholic Church and demanded more artistic and educational freedom. Barbeau's work can be found in many public and private collections including the National Gallery of Canada. Barbeau was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 2000 his daughter Manon made a an NFB biographical film about his life entitled Barbeau, libre comme l'art.
The man who created and was the former director of one of the largest art fairs in the country passed away on January 14 after a sudden heart attack at the age of 61. Linel Rebenchuk was a self-taught musician who immigrated to Canada from Romania after living for a year in Italy. After struggling to make it from odd gigs and working as a pizza delivery man, Rebenchuk opened the Sui Generis Gallery in North Vancouver. In 1997, he organized the Vancouver Art Fair with 45 local and regional galleries. Opened in 2000, The Toronto International Art Fair was an immediate success. Later renamed to Art Toronto, last year the fair boasted 21,000 visitors in its 4-day run and $19 million worth of art changed hands.
After a four decade career, modernist abstract painter Douglas Haynes died at the age of 80 following a battle with leukemia. Throughout his career he experimented with a number of styles and mediums including cubism, printmaking, sculpture, an experimental split diamond series and even playing the banjo. In the 1960s, he co-founded Focus Gallery, Canada's first artist co-op. He also taught at the University of Alberta for 25 years. A collection of his work lives at the Art Gallery of Alberta along with two towering paintings in Edmonton's City Hall.
Writer, theatre/performance artist, opera director, visual artist, scholar and mentor Aiyyana Maracle passed away at the age of 60. Categorized as a male at birth on Six Nations territory in Southern Ontario, Maracle began her gender transition at the age of 40. She is credited with helping to nurture the Indigenous contemporary art scene in Vancouver. After moving back to Six Nations she became the co-facilitator of Gender Journey, a peer support group. She was featured in the documentary Transgender Parents by Remy Huberdeau.
Legendary writer Austin Clarke passed away after a long illness at the age of 81. Born in Barbados, he moved to Toronto in 1955 to study at the University of Toronto. He worked as a newspaper reporter, taught at Yale University, served as Cultural Attache of Barbados in Washington D.C., was a General Manager of the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation and a member of the Ontario Censor Board and the Immigration Board. This all came before he settled into his full and accomplished career as one of Canada's most acclaimed novelists. Over five decades, Clarke wrote 11 novels, 8 short story collections, 6 memoirs and 2 long poems. He was the recipient of the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Prize and the Order of Canada plus 4 honorary doctorates.
Following a sudden heart attack and subsequent coma, rapper King Reign died at the age of 40 years old. He had been creating and releasing music for 12 years under the moniker King Reign (Reign is an acronym that stood for "Rhyme Energy in God's Nature"). His writing explored themes of love, drug abuse, bullying and racial stereotypes. Reign was a member of the Hip Hop group Brassmunk and their album Fewturistic was widely celebrated and nominated for a Juno. Over the years, he collaborated with numerous Canadian Hip Hop artists including Shad, Kardinall Offishall, Maestro Fresh Wes, Saukrates, Rich Kidd, Boi-1da and Drake.
Stage, screen and TV actor, director and teacher Sandi Ross passed away at the age of 67. Born in Minneapolis, she moved to Canada in the 70's. Beyond her prolific work on the stage and screen, Ross was a leading voice in the fight for film, television and theatre diversity. One of the founding members of Obsidian Theatre Company, Ross worked on the first national symposium for non-traditional casting for the Canadian Actors Equity Association and was the founding editor and producer of Into the Mainstream, a national casting directory of visible and audible minorities. Ross became the first woman and first person of colour elected president of ACTRA Toronto. She won the Crystal award from WIFT and in 2012 was named by ACTRA as its woman of the year.
Artist manager, community worker, model, actor and restauranteur Howard Matthews passed away at the age of 81. He was the husband and partner of acclaimed singer Salome Bey, aka"Canada's First Lady of the Blues." Their home and restaurant were viewed as necessary Toronto stops for many local and international artists, athletes and politicians. In the 1950's Matthews co-founded The First Floor Club, an upstairs after-hours jazz club and later became the co-owner of The Underground Railroad Restaurant. Matthews was one of the co-founders of CAN: BAIA (Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action). His daughters Saidah Baba Talibah ("SATE" )and Jacintha tuku Matthews are celebrated singers in Toronto.
The body of critically acclaimed Inuit artist Annie Pootoogook was found in the Rideau River on September 19th. She was 47 years old. Pootoogook came from a family of artists in Cape Dorset and used her life experiences as her primary source of inspiration for her drawing. Initially told that her art would never sell, Pootoogook went on to exhibit in solo shows in Toronto, at the Montreal Biennial, Documenta 12 in Germany and win the Sobey Art Award. Her work has been purchased by collectors and major museums such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and she is credited with transforming the way that Inuit art is received.
Theatre dramaturge and playwright Iris Turcott died from cancer on September 22nd, 2016 at the age of 62. Throughout her career she worked with writers such as Judith Thompson, Tomson Highway, Anusree Roy and Daniel MacIvor. Known as a champion of Canadian writing, she was also celebrated for checking big egos and supporting the work of emerging creators. Turcott dabbled in acting and directing and also co-founded a young people's company called Playbill Theatre. She was the company dramaturge at the Canadian Stage and Factory Theatre and also worked at the Stratford Festival. Turcott taught at the National Theatre School of Canada and with Keith Turnball co-edited Canada On Stage: Scenes and Monologues. She was awarded the George Luscombe Award for mentorship in theatre and was selected as Playwrights Guild of Canada's Honourary Award recipient for her work.