“When Colette was perhaps 11, she was one of about 25 children to attend a session by Ruth Faison Shaw,” her mother said. (Ms. Shaw is credited with introducing finger painting to the U.S. as a component of art education.) “When the children finished their paintings, Ms. Shaw held up Colette’s and asked to speak to her mother. She then told me that Colette demonstrated an amazing amount of talent and that I had a serious responsibility to promote this talent.” She immediately enrolled both her daughters in Saturday art classes at Charlotte’s art museum.
Ms. Urban went on to earn a BFA in visual arts in 1980 from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and an MFA from the University of Victoria two years later.
“From the very beginning she did mixed media, performance-based [work]; even in the 1970s she did a video piece,” said her friend Katherine Knight, a NSCAD classmate and the filmmaker who in 2009 made the documentary Pretend Not To See Me: The Art of Colette Urban. “She made quirky objects. It was standout, like nothing I’d ever seen. It invited you to come along. She had this quality of always embracing life in a big way. I saw her as a mentor; she was always steps ahead of me.”
Ms. Urban went on to teach and her résumé includes positions at the University of Victoria, the University of Western Ontario and Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.
“She kind of lived her work,” Mr. Mahon said. “She taught from within. She was a born teacher.” She could find the university restrictive, and so used her wry sense of humour to shift and open up institutional engagement – such as renting a parking lot to showcase her students’ work.
“Colette taught without teaching,” said visual artist Shinobu Akimoto, a former student. Her first course with Ms. Urban was called: Moving heavy furniture or how to make a fire. For the first class, Ms. Urban took students for a few rounds of mini-golf. For the second, they went to a local Salvation Army shop to buy something to make into art pieces.
At first, Ms. Akimoto balked at this unconventional pedagogy. “I remember thinking: ‘What the hell is this?’ – as an undergrad so keen to learn something.” But she continued through a semester of off-site, offbeat classes. “Everyone came along wherever Colette would lead us and made impressive work – we were all engaged in such sophisticated discussions.”
Ms. Urban lived in an old house in St. Mary’s, just outside London, and it was an important gathering space for her students and teaching assistants, who included Ms. Akimoto, Lisa Baldissera, now chief curator at Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, and Christy Thompson, now an artist and administrator at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
“She was very gentle and completely wacky,” Ms. Thompson said. “She had an alternative way on making things happen. Not magic, but a way of taking something ordinary and making it extraordinary.”
This alchemy of transforming and recontextualing all manner of quotidian objects and situations was consistent throughout Ms. Urban’s artistic and teaching careers.
“She would take some fairly ordinary means – objects from a junk store or emporium – and find a way to make them arresting, wonderful and strange, to show that the world is a remarkable place,” Mr. Mahon explained. (Not surprisingly, she admired artists such as Louise Bourgeois.) “Colette really found the world to be a funny place and she took that seriously.”
For Ms. Knight, Ms. Urban’s most memorable projects include The Bare Performance, “in which she was dressed as a bear. She wore a fabulous headdress, where one side was a bear, and the other side open; it was her face. She walked backwards into the woods as a bear, and came out as a woman.” Interpretation was left open-ended, filtered through the viewer’s perceptions even as it was fuelled by the artist’s intentions.