Inuit art promoter Ryan honoured

Terry Ryan, who managed the Cape Dorset artists' co-op in Nunavut and is now director of Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, has been honoured for his 50 years of work in promoting Inuit art.

Haida sculptor, Quebec filmmaker earn Governor General's Awards

Terry Ryan, who managed the Cape Dorset artists' co-op in Nunavut and is now director of Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, has been honoured for his 50 years of work in promoting Inuit art.

Ryan won the award for outstanding contribution to Canadian art, a special award given at the same time as the Governor General's Awards for Visual Arts, which were announced Tuesday in Montreal.

The winners of the Governor General's Awards for career achievement in visual or media arts are:

  • Haida sculptor Robert Davidson of White Rock, B.C.
  • Filmmaker André Forcier of Longueuil, Que.
  • Painter Rita Letendre of Toronto.
  • Video artist Tom Sherman of Liverpool, N.S.
  • Photographer Gabor Szilasi of Montreal.
  • Painter Claude Tousignant of Montreal.

The Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in the fine crafts went to glass sculptor Ione Thorkelsson of Roseisle, Man.

Each Governor General's Award winner receives $25,000 and a work by artist Tony Urquhart, a 2009 recipient of the honour. The awards will be presented March 31 at Rideau Hall.

Supernatural Eye, a 2006 aluminum sculpture by Robert Davidson. ((Kenji Nagai/Collection of the artist))
Ryan has aided three generations of Inuit artists develop and sell their work.

He began in 1960 as an arts adviser for the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset. The position, which was supposed to be temporary, soon became a life's vocation.

As general manager of the co-op, he sourced stone for carvings, initiated visiting artists and fine craft programs, developed a network of dealers across North America and Europe and managed the production of Cape Dorset's annual print catalogue.

He worked with the original artists of the Inuit co-op, including Pitseolak Ashoona and Kenojuak Ashevak, and has helped nurture a new generation of print-makers and carvers such as Annie Poogootook. Ryan founded the Dorset Fine Arts marketing and distribution centre in Toronto, where he is now director.

"There's a recognition not only of the art of the Inuit — that's well established — but that those who have worked with Inuit over the years and who are still in the North. [It] gives them some recognition, some expressed appreciation for their effort," Ryan told CBC News after Tuesday's announcement.

Davidson is a renowned Haida artist known for his masks and totem poles, which combine traditional imagery with modern techniques.

"Art was the medium that helped us reconnect with cultural values — the values that were hidden away in the closet, outlawed by the laws that governed us," Davidson said. "The art was the medium that woke us up to ceremony — that woke us up to Haida song and dance."

Born in Hydaburg, Alaska, Davidson grew up on Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and began carving at age 13. Davidson said he moved into carving naturally because of the kind of life people lived on Haida Gwaii.

"It wasn’t a ready-made society. We were in a small fishing village, people made things all the time. It was a natural progression for me," he said.

He worked for a short time with legendary artist Bill Reid and then studied at the Vancouver School of Art. In 1969, he carved and raised the first totem in 90 years on Haida Gwaii, an event he sees as a watershed in the lives of the Haida.

"Looking back, there was no talk about songs and dances until I carved that first totem pole in Masset," Davidson said.

"What that did, it became a catalyst, it  was a magnet for all the elders of the time to talk about what had to be done to make the totem pole right."

His work, including jewelry and baskets, has been collected by the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada.

Jeanne Lessard, avenue du Palais, Saint-Joseph-de-Beauce, Beauce, 1973, gelatin silver print, by Gabor Szilasi. (Collection of the artist)

Forcier made his entry onto the Quebec and international scenes with Bar Salon in the early 1970s.

Known as an enfant terrible of Quebec film, he created cult masterpieces such as L'eau chaude, l'eau frette, Une histoire inventée and  Le vent du Wyoming, which combine a poetic eye and a sense of the absurd.

Letendre, born in Drummondville,Que., was associated with Quebec's Automatists. In the 1960s she worked in Europe and Israel, and later was based in Los Angeles and New York.

She has a reputation as an outstanding muralist for works such as Sunrise, created for Ryerson Polytechnic (now a university) in 1971. Her more recent work on canvas explores the effects of light and bursts of colour.

Video artist Tom Sherman is currently a professor in video art at Syracuse University. He is considered a leader in Canadian video art and research and author of Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the Information Environment.

Although he'd trained as a sculptor, Sherman said he was drawn to video in 1970, when it was not developed as an art form.

"It was the immediacy. It was the ability to play things back immediately. …The great strength is its realism and its quickness," he said. He said he sees a new kind of "literacy" in video, now that YouTube has encouraged so many to explore it.

"For me it’s a great environment, just not a unique environment anymore," he said.

Sherman co-founded Fuse Magazine, represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1980 and has been the subject of several major exhibitions.

He said it was a "fantastic honour" to be recognized with an award.

"It's a kind of licence to be an artist. We get so little respect and so little thanks. To get recognition like this, I feel I can be myself," Sherman said. 

Szilasi immigrated to Canada from Hungary in 1957 and was employed as a photographer by the Quebec film office from 1959 to 1971.

He is known for his documentary-like explorations of Quebec communities and his images of architecture, passing eras, rural life and urban landscapes. Szilasi said he was drawn by the hospitality of these places.

"They appealed to me because of their openness. I didn’t feel any discrimination because of my accent. I just like their hospitality and I think they are wonderful people," he said.

"I always wanted to express something about society in a visual way.  I don't know how to paint or how to draw, so photography was a logical choice," Szilasi added. 

He has influenced a generation of younger photographers through teaching at a Montreal college and Concordia University, but said it was wonderful to have the recognition of his peers after 50 years in photography.

Three-footed bowl, 1993, cast glass by Ione Thorkelsson, winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award. (Collection of the artist)

Tousignant is an abstract artist recognized for his images of vibrant circles and his explorations of colour, especially the series Accélérateurs, Gongs, and Dyptiques.

He has had numerous retrospectives, most recently at Montreal's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Thorkelsson studied architecture, but learned blown-glass techniques in the 1970s and soon set up her own studio.

Initially, she created vases, perfume bottles and other vessels but in 1983, she began exploring the natural world, creating sculptures of birds, insects and bones.

Her work has been exhibited around the world and collected by the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.