Colette Urban “was a little bit on the edge of everything,” says Patrick Mahon, an artist and professor with the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Western Ontario, who taught with her for 11 years.
Not just in her art practice; she also found her home on the geographic rim of a continent. “Newfoundland was big enough for her, was colourful enough for her,” Mr. Mahon said.
Indeed, as a performance artist who presented work from Lisbon to Rotterdam to Saskatoon, who dressed in feather jackets and 1960 camouflage pantsuits and helmets and animal heads, who might exchange stories and secrets or found art materials one-on-one with an audience, and who thought riding-a-live-elephant big, Ms. Urban needed a lot of space.
“Over the course of her career, Colette developed an unparalleled body of performance and installation works that were at once autobiographical and engaged with larger societal issues, such as sexual and cultural identity, the role of women and consumerism, among others,” said Melanie Townsend, curator at Museum London. “Her works were usually assembled from the components of mass-produced objects, resulting in fun and fantastic costumes and props that helped her to question the role of the ‘art maker’ while her typically collaborative performances often unwittingly turned the audience into the performer.”
Ms. Townsend met Ms. Urban in 1999, but was already aware of her reputation. “I was visiting the Art Gallery of Windsor, where Colette was installing her Big Guy – an installation comprised of a massive pair of striped pants and a pair of house slippers, with a big toe poking out of one of them. At the time, the scene of our introduction seemed almost bizarre, her work strange within the gallery space. But in retrospect, the encounter was perfectly normal – perfectly normal, that is, within the context of Colette’s practice, one full of examples of clever, and humorous, pieces and performances that toy with our expectations of art and art-making.”
Ms. Townsend most recently worked with Ms. Urban on Colette Urban: Incognito, a large retrospective exhibition, and publication, of her life’s work, which will open this fall.
“If she ever got upset by anything, she rarely showed it, seemingly content to take things as they came, even her cancer, which she faced with such incredible grace and dignity,” Ms. Townsend said.
“Like any person, she was sometimes insecure about her choices: her decision to retire early from teaching, to move permanently to her beloved Newfoundland, to run a residency program for artists, to live her dream. But despite any possible apprehensions, Colette was the kind of person who always took the leap of faith.”
In May, 2012, Ms. Urban was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and just last month received the VANL-CARFAC Excellence in Visual Arts Long Haul Award.
She died June 16 of bowel cancer at her home in McIvers on Newfoundland’s west coast.
Constance (as an adult, always Colette) Joyce Urban was born Jan. 29 in Denver, Col., to Wilfrid (Bill), a purchasing agent for a prefab construction company in Greensboro, N.C., and Dorothy (McKenzie), whose work included editing a medical journal at the University of California San Francisco, and whose interests, tellingly, included designing her clothes, sometimes with unusual fabrics. She had one sister, Julie, two years younger. The Urbans divorced when the girls were teenagers, and they lived with their mother in Charlotte, N.C.
“Colette’s tale of her introduction to performance art came when she was eight years old, and I was 6,” said Julie Urban. “That summer, Colette and I attended a day camp in northern Michigan called Circus Camp. One day on the bus with our camp compadres, we were playing a dare game to see who could make themselves turn the reddest. When it was Colette’s turn, she pulled her red sweater up over her face, making herself very red indeed. Colette was immediately teased by the others for this action, but she was quite proud of herself and later saw this as a moment of brilliance. She claimed this incident helped steer her toward performance art.”
This wasn’t the only time she showed such promise.