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Introducing the 2018 winners of the Governor-General’s visual-arts awards

Since 2000, the annual Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts have honoured a small group of Canadian artists and arts professionals who’ve built remarkable careers.

The $25,000 prizes recognize artistic achievement and outstanding contribution across media and disciplines, in fine and applied arts. Past winners include documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and metalsmith Kye-Yeon Son, as well as Kim Ondaatje and Tony Urquhart, who with the late Jack Chambers founded the artists’ advocacy group CARFAC. This year’s eight honourees have shaped Canada’s creative landscape with their work in ceramics, film, photography, installation, performance and curation, to name just a few of their talents.

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Since the Governor General’s Awards celebrate exceptional careers in the arts, The Globe and Mail asked the winners to share lessons from their working lives.

Glenn Alteen, curator and director

Canada Council for the Arts

What is the best advice about art or art-making that you ever received?

Trust your gut instinct, but question the motivation.

What should a young artist know about an art career in Canada?

Persistence can often take you farther than talent.

Glenn Alteen, The Blue Cabin Residency, 2015.

Which artist, gallery or organization is underappreciated?

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Jeneen Frei Njootli. She is a performance and sound artist and I like the way she approaches her work and how she transforms materials.

How do you define success in your work?

New work is produced that might otherwise never have existed.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

Bored.

Bruce Eves, visual artist

Canada Council for the Arts

What is the best advice about art or art-making that you ever received?

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Never ever use art-speak – using it doesn’t make you sound more intelligent and profound, it has the entirely opposite effect. And avoid the herd mentality at all costs. Learn to connect the dots.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

Whenever I’m stuck, I write down every idea for a month – regardless of how dumb they may seem at the time – and then, in the end, follow through on the one that scares me the most.

Bruce Eves, Work #500: Self-portrait #47 (Tasteless), 2001, laser print on paper, image size: 22.86 cm x 30.48 cm (overall 40.64 cm x 50.8 cm).

Outside of the visual arts, whose work inspires you most?

Quentin Crisp and his peers – my forebears – with nerves of steel, so tough that their confrontational stance demanded a grudging respect and the cojones to risk arrest because of their very existence. I wish I was that brave.

How do you define success in your work?

Success should never be measured monetarily or in terms of popularity; success should be defined as not fearing failure. Success should be thought of as an ability to redefine forms, break new ground, the will to push the envelope.

Sandra Semchuk, photographer

Canada Council for the Arts

What do you do when you’re stuck?

Spend time in the wider than human – swim, be in the forest, photograph, make videos, write, begin the work.

Sandra Semchuk, I am afraid of + what you fear, 2010-12, two Light jet photographs, 58.42 cm x 119.38 cm each print.

When you’re not making art, what do you most like to do?

Be in the wild.

What does all good art do?

Makes us more alive, more awake.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

A tree.

How do you define success in your work?

When it communicates.

Wyn Geleynse, media artist

Canada Council for the Arts

Why do you do what you do?

I had no other talents.

Wyn Geleynse, In The Privacy Of Your Own Home, 1985.

What is the best advice about art or art-making that you ever received?

“You know Wyn, you don’t have to paint.”

What should a young artist know about an art career in Canada?

It is not about career, it is about art.

Which artist, gallery or organization is underappreciated?

Every artist-run centre in Canada.

What does all good art do?

Engage, enrage, challenge and make you smile.

Spring Hurlbut, visual artist

Spring Hurlbut, After Malevich: The Moment of Dissolution, Nutmeg #2, 2016, photography / archival pigment print, 64.14 x 64.14 cm.

When you’re not making art, what do you most like to do?

I am fascinated by silent movies. The actors in silent movies are forced to convey emotion through gestures and facial expressions, as opposed to the use of dialogue in Hollywood movies today. In silent movies, the essence of human actions, whether through comedy or tragedy, comes across in a much more elemental form.

How do you define success in your work?

For my installation Le Jardin du Sommeil (The Garden of Sleep), I placed over 100 antique metal children's beds in rows on a hillside in Parc de La Courneuve. My intention was to make an association between sleep and death. A gentleman walked by and enthusiastically declared “Père Lachaise!” which we all know is the central cemetery in Paris. He got it! This is success.

Adrian Stimson, visual and performance artist

Canada Council for the Arts

Why do you do what you do?

Simply because I love it. Being an artist is about opening yourself to seeing the world, from the micro to the macro, to examine and critically think through ideas. Then we get to go through a process of creation. That process can be frustrating and fun, yet in the end, you get to realize your visions.

Adrian Stimson, Shaman Exterminator Sunrise 2, 2005, performance still.

What is the best advice about art or art-making that you ever received?

If it is not fun, why do it? This does not mean that it all has to be light and superficial; sometimes the most fun things are the most heavy and serious.

What should a young artist know about an art career in Canada?

It’s a lot of work, you are basically an entrepreneur, you are your own administrator, communications/media, resource development, procurer, manufacturer and maker. Then you have to get it out there, which means a lot of self-promotion, finding curators and writers to talk about your work, finding public and private galleries, finding a gallery that may want to represent you. Or you can be extremely lucky and be picked up right away by an influential gallery and/or curators who do a lot of this for you. Either way, be prepared for a long haul.

Midi Onodera, media artist

Canada Council for the Arts

Midi Onodera, Nobody Knows, 2002, video, 3:15 minutes

Why do you do what you do?

I have always been in love with television and the movies. Being a media artist allows me to explore the moving image on my terms, through my lens.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

When I’m stuck on something, I take a few steps away and focus on something else. I love video games, which can be quite distracting.

What should a young artist know about an art career in Canada?

Be passionate about what you do and learn when to compromise. Don’t burn bridges, and make every relationship count.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

If I wasn’t an artist, I would have probably found a career as a chef. I put myself though OCAD as a cook, and loved it.

Jack Sures, ceramic artist

Canada Council for the Arts

What is the best advice about art or art-making that you ever received?

That I could successfully pursue a career in the arts. My professor convinced my parents that I should pursue this rather than studying medicine or law.

What should a young artist know about an art career in Canada?

It does not generally pay well, but it is rewarding in many other ways.

Jack Sures, What do you do with a pot, 1988.

What artist, gallery, or organization is underappreciated?

I believe in supporting local artists and galleries. The CARFAC organization has done a great deal for artists.

When you’re not making art, what do you most like to do?

Golf.

What does all good art do?

It makes you think about the process, or it moves you to respond aesthetically.

An exhibition of the GGAVMA winners is on view in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada through Aug. 5.

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