It's hard to be an artist in the Yukon (or anywhere). How can a brand new art prize help?

Finalists for the first ever Yukon Prize for Visual Arts, which will award one artist $20,000 this weekend, weigh in before the winner is revealed.

Finalists for the first ever Yukon Prize for Visual Arts weigh in before the winner is revealed this weekend

The 2021 Yukon Prize for Visual Arts finalists. Top (L-R): Amy Ball, Krystle Silverfox, Sho Sho "Belelige" Esquiro. Bottom (L-R): Veronica Verkley, Ken Anderson, Joseph Tisiga. (Yukon Prize for Visual Arts)

For the first time ever, the Yukon Prize for Visual Arts will be handed out Saturday in Whitehorse. As its name suggests, the award is a regional one, and it intends to celebrate top artists from the territory in a biannual affair. The inaugural crew of finalists reveals a wide-ranging breadth of talent. On the shortlist: Tlingit carver Ken Anderson; multidisciplinary artists Amy Ball, Krystle Silverfox and Joseph Tisiga; fashion designer Sho Sho "Belelige" Esquiro and sculptor Veronica Verkley.

The event was co-founded by Julie Jai and David Trick, part-time Whitehorse residents who are personally sponsoring the prize. A $20,000 purse will be delivered to the weekend's big winner, with the remaining finalists receiving $2,000 each. As for the business of selecting the champion, that will be carried out by a three-person jury of notable curators from outside the Yukon: Ryan Doherty (Contemporary Calgary), Gaetane Verna (Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery) and Candice Hopkins. 

That trio was also responsible for selecting the six-person shortlist, and work by the finalists is now appearing at the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse. That exhibition, which opened Sept. 18, may travel elsewhere in the country in the months to come. And the notion of bringing Yukon Prize artists to the rest of Canada happens to be one of the competition's founding principles.

Installation view of Suspended Animation by Veronica Verkley at the Yukon Arts Centre. (Photo: Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre)

The award will, of course, benefit a single artist, giving them whatever creative freedom $20,000 might buy. But it also seeks to boost the profile of Yukon art beyond the region's borders.

The territory is uniquely flush with creative talent. Based on data from the 2016 long-form census, it's home to more artists per capita than most places in Canada. (The Yukon ranks third in the country, behind Nunavut and B.C.) But special to the Yukon, most of those folks are visual artists.

Still, maintaining an art practice isn't simple anywhere, even if you're living among a high concentration of like-minded individuals. And per the organizers' vision, the prize aims to ease a few of the challenges facing locals. It's a bid to forge ties with the Canadian art world at large — galleries, collectors, curators, artists. And should the outsiders accept the invitation and have a look, there's every hope that the existing art community will benefit from the exposure, creatively as well as financially. 

The pros and cons of making art up north

Making new connections is crucial to an artist's growth, says finalist Veronica Verkley. "I think it's really helpful to be part of a big community — to be connected with other artists, with galleries, that whole community. You just get more fired up than if you're just by yourself," she says, though at the same time, remote living sometimes benefits locals as much as it challenges them. 

15 years ago, Verkley left Toronto for the north. The artist was drawn there by a job at the Yukon School of Visual Arts, and she's a founding faculty member of that particular institution. She's lived "off grid" for the most part, making her home in a cabin outside Dawson City. "There's pluses and minuses," says Verkley of working in relative solitude. "There's a lot of mental space to just do whatever you want." But as much as she thrives off the freedom, there is such a thing as being too isolated, and she says it can be difficult as a Yukon-based artist to plug into what's happening in contemporary art more widely.

Meeting other local artists isn't the challenge, she says. "Everyone is very connected and supportive of each other. What's harder to come by in a small community is to get more critical feedback," says Verkley, and on that point, she sees the creation of the Yukon Prize for Visual Arts as a real step toward that end. 

'Take a second look at the Yukon'

But first, you have to get everybody's attention, and many of the shortlisted artists have faith the prize will do just that. "I feel like a lot of people look at the Yukon as a tourist destination rather than a home," says finalist Krystle Silverfox. "I really hope that this prize makes people take a second look at the Yukon." Fellow shortlister Joseph Tisiga (who was among the 2020 winners of the Sobey Art Award) is optimistic. "I'm kind of hoping in a way that this prize … shows people that there's really interesting and complicated work that's being made by Yukoners — speaking to the Yukon community, but also even more broadly, more nationally." 

That variety is on display in the shortlist exhibition, and Tisiga says he's excited just to be included in the mix. His own contribution includes an installation of 25 astroturf panels: fuzzy green canvases on which he's counted time with cigarette butts. They spell a mix of poetic fragments ("terrified w/ a belly full of dynamite"), activist slogans ("land back") and Enya lyrics.

Joseph Tisiga. Untiled series of 25 astroturf panels, 2020. (Joseph Tisiga)

The work appearing in the show takes a range of forms. Esquiro, a member of the Ross River Dena Council, is known internationally for her work as a fashion designer, and she's included a jacket in the exhibition — one incorporating the sort of natural materials she often sources off the land: moose hair, for example, and seal skin. Verkley's contribution is Suspended Animation, a life-size horse with articulated joints that's been assembled from found materials. It's a clumsy beast, waiting to come to life; if enough gallery visitors pool their strength, it can be hoisted up by rope.

The biggest issue facing Yukon artists?

"Maybe this [prize] will lead to work being shown elsewhere in the country or outside of the country," says Ball, another finalist. The artist had been living abroad until just before the pandemic hit. Raised in Dawson City, where she's currently based, she'd been living and working in Berlin, and before that, Montreal, where she studied art at Concordia University. 

"There are issues everywhere," says Ball, talking about the challenges facing artists. But there are some problems that are unique to the Yukon, and those problems go beyond the scope of what an art prize might solve. 

"Working space, for sure, is a big issue," says Ball, who is currently without a permanent studio. She and several other local artists had previously banded together to rent an old commercial building called Jimmy's Place. But the spot wasn't properly winterized, and finding it too expensive to heat properly, Ball says her collective was forced to leave. 

Installation view of Sho Sho "Belelige" Esquiro's "Day of the Dead" jacket at the Yukon Arts Centre. (Photo: Mike Thomas/Yukon Arts Centre)

Locals often rent hotel rooms as art studios, she says. "Right now, there's nothing," says Ball. And never mind studio space — it's difficult enough to get a roof over your head. Silverfox, who has roots in Selkirk First Nation, splits her time between the Yukon and B.C. What's kept her from making the territory her full-time residence? "The housing crisis!"

"It's not exactly easy to move up here," says Silverfox, calling from a hotel in Whitehorse. She'll be relocating to Dawson soon, to take a position at Yukon SOVA, but even with that job lined up, suitable accommodation isn't certain. 

It's a fact of life that's actually driven Verkley away from the Yukon in recent months. She says she had to vacate her long-time property when a gold-mining operation moved onto the land. "I had a tiny, tiny studio beside my cabin, and now I don't have anything for awhile," says the artist, calling from B.C. She plans to winter in the Kootenays while hunting for a studio large enough to house the monumental ideas she's spinning. 

'I think it's already helping the community'

Should they win, Ball and Silverfox both imagine they'd put the prize money toward a studio. "$20,000 isn't going to buy a building, obviously, but maybe it could help," says Ball.

But no matter who wins on Saturday — and never mind the various hurdles facing folks who practice art in the Yukon — all six finalists are encouraged by the fact the prize even exists. "Just to get an acknowledgement from the community as a whole? I think it's wonderful," says Esquiro. "And not only that, it's creating space and opportunity," she says — opportunity that extends to more than this year's nominees. 

When the prize was announced, 107 artists applied. Every one of those submissions would have been reviewed by the jury. Ken Anderson reflects on what a boon that could be for a local artist. "Maybe they didn't get selected as a finalist, but that doesn't mean that their work didn't get noticed," he says.

"I think it is already helping the community," says Verkley, echoing his sentiment, and should the prize continue as planned, with a new edition happening every other year, even more local artists will have a chance to connect with another round of curators, she says. "I think it's helping more people than just the finalists."

Says Anderson: "I think that's a great thing. I think the whole process of [the prize] definitely brings light to the artistic community up here, especially in visual arts."


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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