This western Newfoundland artist lived at full tilt. Now, she's being remembered at The Rooms

Colette Urban gained international renown for her art. Now, her time in the Bay of Islands is being celebrated.

Colette Urban's creative legacy celebrated with posthumous exhibit

Colette Urban was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2012. (Submitted by Ingrid Percy)

An artist of international renown who brought together artists and locals alike at her adopted home in the Bay of Islands is now being celebrated at The Rooms, with a posthumous solo exhibit.

At Full Tilt: Colette Urban in Western Newfoundland explores Urban's artistic legacy from the last years of her life, when she left her teaching position at Western University in Ontario in 2007 to settle down in the small community of McIvers.

There, she redefined retirement by creating an artist residency, renovating old houses into guest suites, establishing an organic farm, running a car storage business and a list of other pursuits that combined her entrepreneurial and artistic spirits.

"She had this big vision to create the Full Tilt Creative Arts Centre, and she wanted to bring other artists to werestern Newfoundland. She wanted other artists, and people from all over the world, to experience what she was experiencing," said Ingrid Percy, a longtime friend, and professor of visual arts at Grenfell Campus.

"It was a kind of crazy, but wonderful, idea."

Urban performs a piece entitled Bare. (The Rooms)

'She took risks'

Even before her full-time arrival in the Bay of Islands — Urban had previously bought a house in Meadows and spent summers there for years — she was well known in the Canadian art world, for her performance art, which pushed boundaries and buttons. 

She created her own fantastical costumes, often of animals, to perform. She tap danced on caps, sparking small explosions. She rode an elephant while dressed up as her saltbox house in Meadows, holding a cannon that shot sparkles.

Far from being gimmicky, Urban articulated serious ideas, shot through with humour, about society.

"She took risks, and often it was really wild. She was very experimental," said Matthew Hills, who curated the exhibit at The Rooms.

"A lot of times she dealt with gender issues, expectations of the role of women in society. I think she was far ahead of her time, and it's stuff that we're working through now, culturally and socially."

In a scene captured in the documentary about her, Pretend Not To See Me, she wore a headpiece, again of her Meadows house, awkwardly obstructing her view. 

"Women are often connected to the home," Urban said in the film. "The female is trapped within the house, gazing out on the world. And for me, Meadows is that house."

Rural life, contemporary art

That may sound like a lot to take in, but people who knew Urban said she had the ability to transcend the trappings of contemporary art, and she often held events and openings in the Bay of Islands that embraced people from all walks of life.

"It was kind of mind-blowing," said Percy, recalling one event where performance artist Gerri Lynn Mackey crawled out of a dryer before a crowd.

"You'd have these very cutting-edge, contemporary art practices happening in this very small, rural community, and the local people would come as well as artists."

Urban got involved in everyday rural life, too; she held a council seat on McIvers town council, and helped create a trail with a lookout over the Bay of Islands, now called the Colette Urban Memorial Walking Trail.

"She was excellent to work with," said former McIvers mayor Warren Blanchard, "very co-operative and well spoken."

In an era where artists in urban centres often scrape by, Urban's embracing of a different way to live and create art provided a model for others, said Hills.

"Artists have to find ways to make work, and I think rural settings offer opportunities. I think she was a trailblazer in that regard," he said.

Urban, left, dresses up in an owl costume for a performance piece called Hoot, alongside longtime friend Ingrid Percy. (Submitted by Ingrid Percy)

'My spiritual home'

But five years after getting Full Tilt up and running, Urban's trailblazing came to a premature end in the place she loved most.

​"She just loved the Bay of Islands. And when she eventually did get ill, with Stage 4 cancer, she said to me, 'You know, this is my spiritual home. This is where I want to die,'" said Percy.

Sadly, Urban got her wish, and died in her McIvers home in June 2013, at the age of 61. 

She took risks, and often it was really wild. She was very experimental.- Matthew Hills

At the foot of the bed she died in was the Long Haul Award, given to her by the association Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador, for her contributions towards the N.L. arts scene.

"It meant so much to her that she was recognized by her community," said Percy.

Close friends attempted to carry on, but "it was really too big of a project for any one person to take on," said Percy.

Her properties were sold, save for her original home in Meadows, which remains in her friends' hands and still serves as an informal museum to her memory.

Rooms recognition

Six years later, the formal recognition of the show at The Rooms comes as a welcome honour to her friends and colleagues.

"Oh man, she would just be so happy," said Percy. "So happy to be recognized, but also so happy to share her work with everybody."

Rose Noel: Limited Possession is one of Urban's photographs from a larger series in which she posed with vehicles as a play on old pin-up calendars. (The Rooms)

The show, much like Urban herself, defies any one category, encompassing photographs, sculptures, and her performances: scenic views of the Bay of Islands exist alongside videos of her walking through the woods in a bear costume.

Together, it speaks to the legacy of an artistic dynamo.

"What she left us is her artwork, but also this feeling that you can be big and bold and brave and do really cool things, and the community will get behind you, and enjoy it, and love it," said Percy.

Aside from her own work, Hills pointed to prominent artists and curators who worked with Urban and continue to push the Newfoundland and Labrador arts scene forward as part of her legacy, from recent Governor General's award-winner Marlene Creates, to the founder of the Bonavista Bienniale, Catherine Beaudette.

"Her influence is palpable in the province," Hills said.

At Full Tilt: Colette Urban in Western Newfoundland runs at The Rooms until April 21.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is the producer and host of Atlantic Voice, a CBC Radio 1 show showcasing documentaries and storytelling from the east coast. She is based out of CBC Corner Brook.