“But the piece that inspired me to make the film was Recalling Belvedere,” said Ms. Knight. “It was a long extended metaphor. She saw Newfoundland as a rock and the rock was compared to an elephant. She had a replica of her biscuit-tin house on her head, she was draped in a cape, which was the Newfoundland landscape, and she rode an elephant. … It was house on land on rock, which was an elephant. Elephants always come home, they are always about community, and she felt that’s what Newfoundland was.”
Ms. Urban had first come to Newfoundland on a two-year contract with Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook. That was about 20 years ago, and she never really left.
In 2007, she retired and moved to Meadows, to an old house heated by one small wood stove, and then bought and developed Full Tilt, a multidisciplinary artist retreat and exhibition venue (plus organic farm) in McIvers.
“Who would leave a university tenure track position to start such a precarious and courageous adventure?” asked Ms. Akimoto. “I know she went through lots of doubts and anxieties but she would not have been happier anywhere else.”
Full Tilt’s two residence spaces would host artists from Berlin, Australia, Pittsburgh and Tokyo, while its own environs became the site of several new projects for Ms. Urban. Her works have also been performed or exhibited nationally and internationally, from St. John’s to Toronto to Banff and Vancouver, as well as in Rome, Rotterdam and Cumbria, in Britain.
Her other travels included many adventures with her mother, such as spending six weeks in a tiny vintage trailer in Florida, or cat-sitting for a friend in England.
“There was a lightness about being with her,” said Mr. Mahon. “I don’t mean we never disagreed or that everything was always easy. Her life in Newfoundland was a challenge. She quit her job, and was without a lot of resources. But I could see what she accomplished. She was trying to do something difficult and she found the light and the lightness. I was with her two weeks before she died and we were laughing about all kinds of things.”
“She said to me that although giving up teaching was a bad decision financially, it had let her do what she wanted to do and she didn’t feel cheated,” said Ms. Knight. “‘Make sure you do what’s important to you and do it now, don’t wait.’ That’s what she said to me.”
“My mother had always known Colette as this ‘weird’ teacher whom I loved, and she even met her when we visited her at this spooky artist residency in Rotterdam in 2003,” said Ms. Akimoto.
“We all slept together in a tiny cold room on dodgy mattresses. In Japan, where I am originally from, we never refer to teachers without the title sensei [teacher/mentor]. To this day, my mother compliments, “Colette-sensei is so strange, no one else could do things that she has done, therefore she is very, very special and you are so lucky to have met her.”
Incognito runs from Oct 19, 2013 through Jan. 6, 2014 at Museum London. An opening reception and celebration of Ms. Urban’s life is planned there for Friday, Nov. 1.
Ms. Urban, who never married nor had children, leaves her parents and her sister, Julie.