Nfld. & Labrador

The ArtsNL Awards are 35 years old. We're toasting our artists ... from a safe distance

Novelist Bridget Canning reflects on the impact that Newfoundland and Labrador's annual arts awards have had on nurturing performers, writers, dancers and artists.

Writer Bridget Canning reflects on the impact of ArtsNL

Bridget Canning was ArtsNL's 2019 Emerging Artist of the year. In an essay for CBC, she got in touch with others who have won awards. (Ritche Perez)

Last December, a meme about 2020 made the rounds: "July 4th on a Saturday, Halloween on a Saturday, 4/20 basically the whole month. 2020 is gonna be lit!"

It got shared a lot. The new Roaring '20s.

Instead, 2020 has been more of a wail than a roar. Potentially "lit" events limped by with little fanfare. Most of us realized quickly that any big plans we were making had to change. One of my good friends was putting together her parents' 50th wedding anniversary, but the "golden" party had to go.

Gold marks 50 years, according to those lists of gift ideas that companies like Hallmark put out. If you've ever looked at such a list, they can offer an easy way to buy a present — something paper for Year 1, something tin for 10. They're a theme for decorating the party room or what to put on the cake.

For the province, 2020 marks 35 years of the ArtsNL Awards. (The Arts Council of Newfoundland and Labrador formed 40 years ago.) 

As part of ArtsNL's mission to foster and promote the arts, every year they announce the ArtsNL Awards — a way of recognizing artistic accomplishments and preserving our living culture.

The awards for 2020 will be announced in St. John's on Tuesday afternoon. (Read about the finalists here.) 

If we were going by those anniversary themes, 35 years is "coral," which feels significant — after all, coral reefs are vital ecosystems that withstand harsh ocean elements. Coral is too valuable to treat as a commodity and when it's under threat, it can be a devastating situation. Maybe that's a little too on the nose for a party theme.

Celebrating at a fragile time

So how does one celebrate when togetherness is limited and everything feels fragile? My friend who was planning her parents' anniversary spoke to those close to her family and gathered testimonials. They discussed the past, the work put in out of love, and what the future might hold. If we can't be together, we can reflect on what connects us.

In the spirit of marking milestones, I spoke to a few past ArtsNL Award winners about what awards mean, how winning felt, and the state of the things here at home. 

Actor, writer and director Ruth Lawrence was the 2011 ArtsNL Artist of the Year. (Ritche Perez)

Ruth Lawrence — a writer, actor and filmmaker — won the 2011 ArtsNL Artist of the Year and the 2005 Rhonda Payne Theatre Award (White Rooster Theatre, Before the War, Little Orphans).

"Someone said awards are for your parents. There's a huge truth in that," she said.

"I remember the award ceremony was in Gander and I was about an hour away and my sister called and said, 'We're in Gander with Mom, I just wanted to let you know so you're not surprised,' and I was like, oh no, there's nothing worse than your mother watching you lose. So when I won, I was shocked, but my mom leapt to her feet and started clapping and honestly, it made everything worth it."

Lawrence's mother had been brought up in St. Jacques, a small community on the south coast of Newfoundland.

Oh no, there's nothing worse than your mother watching you lose.-Ruth Lawrence

"When I first went into the arts, she was unsure what that meant. And so that was in some ways a recognition for her that I was having success in what I was doing. And it meant the world to me — it means a lot for our parents when we have a measure of success," she said. 

"I know there are a lot of people who say that there shouldn't be awards, but that kind of recognition from your community is a huge honour. When I was nominated, I did a lot of thinking about what it meant. Regardless if I won or not, because I was up against some pretty stiff competition, what I decided was that if the community or a number of people felt I deserved that kind of recognition, then it meant I was at a place in my career where I needed to start giving back. So I decided I would start mentoring more vigorously. I needed to start thinking about how I could provide the same opportunities that I'd been offered to other people."

'Meant as much as winning a Juno'

When it comes to receiving recognition, Laura Winter has insight from two perspectives. She is part of the Juno-winning children's music group the Swinging Belles, and winner of the 2018 Arts in Education Award. 

Laura Winter, one of the three Swinging Belles and a teacher at Bishop Feild Elementary in St. John's, won the 2018 ArtsNL Arts in Education Award. (Ritche Perez)

"I'm in that kind of unique position of being an educator with one foot in the arts community as a musician. The Arts NL Award meant as much to me as winning a Juno," she said.

Winter said that as a teacher, she works in a profession where there is not a lot of recognition. 

"Over the years, there have been wonderful families and the love from the kids who give you positive feedback every day and that's why you're a teacher. But to get that Arts NL award for Arts in Education — knowing the focus I have on art in my classroom and to have that recognized in a different realm – it meant a lot to me," she said. 

"I like to think I bring the arts into my world as a teacher — visual, movement, drama, music, storytelling — if there's one place we're going to see all the 'arts' in action, it's in the classroom," she said.

"I think it's such a deeply important part of education."

'A hope and dream of mine'

Visual artist Jordan Bennett speaks on the joy of seeing your community members succeed. He was winner of the 2014 BMO Bank of Montreal Visual Artist of the Year Award and 2011 CBC Emerging Artist Award.

Jordan Bennett received both the 2011 ArtsNL Emerging Artist Award in 2011, and the ArtsNL Visual Artist of the Year Award in 2014. (Ritche Perez)

"Arts awards are a great means of supporting artists and getting recognition from your community," he said.

"The Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council awards had been a hope and dream of mine as a young artist growing up in the province. All throughout art school I would wait for the time of year that the award nominees would be announced, in excitement for my fellow colleagues and mentors, to see names of artists I didn't know and then nerd out in learning about their practices."

Bennett said it's been "an absolute honour" to be nominated and receive NLAC awards through his career. 

Growing up in Stephenville Crossing, we didn't have a whole lot of artists in the community creating art for a living, so to be able to do that and inspire future artists from my home means a great deal.- Jordan Bennett

"To be put forward for any award that recognizes your practice in any form or discipline is an absolute honour. For me, it was a way to represent myself and my community," he said. 

"Each time that I was nominated for an award I was among friends. When I won the Artist of the Year in 2014, I was absolutely floored; I was away on residency in Australia at the time and even though I was having a great time at an artist residency, I truly wanted to be home to celebrate and visit with family and friends. But I was honoured that my parents were able to attend the gala to accept the award on my behalf."

'Fabulous to have that kind of support'

In a conversation about awards and how they're decided, Pam Hall offers a view into how criteria have evolved. A visual artist, filmmaker and writer, she won the 2014 Arts NL Hall of Honour Award. Her works include illustrations for Down by Jim Long's Stage and collaborating on Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge.

"I come from a generation where we didn't have arts awards, so there's part of me that looks at the current environment and goes, 'Oh my god, it's fabulous to have that kind of support for younger artists and emerging artists.' I think this stuff is important to the making of cultural work," said Hall. "But I also see awards and juries and prizes as part of a kind of capitalist celebrity culture that I don't support a hundred per cent."

Hall says awards that are peer-assessed are important. 

"On the other hand, I watched the Canada Council define excellence in this country for decades before that term included women, people of colour, Indigenous artists. I was on the status of the artist committee to add to that the notion of training and include apprenticeship, mentorship and being taught by elders. Before that it had only included 'professional training in a university,'" she said. 

Pam Hall, who has been a mainstay in the visual arts in Newfoundland and Labrador decades, won the ArtsNL Hall of Honour Award in 2014. (Ritche Perez)

"I have a mantel in my living room that holds a cracked and mended vase that I got from my mother when she died, a stack of whale bones I collected on a beach near Dildo, and my little statue of a walrus balancing on one foot by Elias Semigak, which was the artwork that year. I love that piece of work and what it represents."

I also see awards and juries and prizes as part of a kind of capitalist celebrity culture that I don't support a hundred per cent.- Pam Hall

Hall noted that the awards she has won from local peers, including from ArtsNL as well as Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador, reflected where she was in her career. 

"I think it's interesting that [they] were long-haul or lifetime achievement awards. I never got Emerging or Artist of the Year because I was already fairly well-established by the time those awards came along," she said.

"The endorsement I got from my community through those awards meant a lot because it meant somebody saw me after all this time. Someone here … at home … where I live and work."

'A fundamental thread'

Moving from speaking on the impact of recognition on a personal level, Calla Lachance, executive director of Neighbourhood Dance Works, discusses how public recognition connects us socially. Neighbourhood Dance Works — known for the Festival of New Dance and works including What Remains — won the 2018 Arts NL Patron of the Arts Award. 

Calla Lachance is the executive director of Neighbourhood Dance Works, which won the 2018 ArtsNL Patron of the Arts Award. (Ritche Perez)

"The artist's work exists on many levels — from the initial thought in someone's head, to why they are compelled to make that work, to rigorous process and then the practice of sharing it with an audience," Lachance said. 

"Having a moment to celebrate it with the public is another way to realize the artistic qualities of the work and the impact of it in the community." 

She added, "Any kind of work, whether you're a writer or dancer or film maker, there has to be some acknowledgement that creative action — being engaged with our minds and our bodies and materials and with research and collaboration — is the fundamental thread that link artists to their work and their practice."

'Bursting at the seams with exceptional talent'

When it comes to capturing a moment, Internationally acclaimed writer Lisa Moore — author of books including Alligator, February and Caught — paints a picture of when she won the 2005 ArtsNL Artist of the Year award.

She gives an apt description for the co-operation between artistic genres. 

I was wearing a white, synthetic fun-fur stole that tied at the front with a satin bow and when I did win, I ended up nervously sharing with the audience that my mother asked me if it were a toilet seat cover.- Lisa Moore

"I remember, as I was walking into the auditorium … my friend Mary Lewis asked me if I had a speech prepared in case I'd won, and I said no, because I was absolutely certain I wasn't going to win. I was wearing a white, synthetic fun-fur stole that tied at the front with a satin bow and when I did win, I ended up nervously sharing with the audience that my mother asked me if it were a toilet seat cover," she said. 

"Winning the award was a great honour — one I didn't expect because there is so much talent in the province."

Moore said she cannot imagine how juries make such difficult decisions.

"The support from my peers meant everything to me and touched me deeply, but I know that every one of the nominees deserved to win. The province is bursting at the seams with exceptional, dedicated, uber-talented artists, as everybody knows," she said. 

Lisa Moore, author of several bestselling books, received the ArtsNL Artist of the Year in 2005. (Ritche Perez)

"I think the awards really speak to the arts community here — there's so much cross-pollination between disciplines. Music, visual art, writing, theatre, film, dance — hope I didn't leave anyone out! — many artists work in all the disciplines, collaborating with each other, and that's part of the reason it's such a supportive and tight-knit community," said Moore. 

"I think that's really obvious when you look at the arts here, a cohesiveness and generosity between artists."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 


Bridget Canning


Bridget Canning was raised on a sheep farm in Highlands, N.L. She now lives in St. John's. Her first novel, The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes, was shortlisted for the BMO Winterset Award. Her latest book is Some People's Children.