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The Globe and Mail

Exhibit shines spotlight on the faces of Canadian writers

Sheila Heti is one of 150 authors who sat for a portrait as part of the ILLUMINATION show.

Mark Raynes Roberts

You may know their words, but what about their faces?

Artist Mark Raynes Roberts finds it "both hilarious and fascinating" that most Canadians can't recognize our homegrown literary talent. The multidisciplinary artist's latest project, ILLUMINATION, is a series of portrait photography and hand-engraved crystal that shines the spotlight on Canadian writers in celebration of CanLit and craft. Three interrelated exhibitions will run in Toronto at the Gardiner Museum, Harbourfront Centre and the Toronto Reference Library.

A couple of years ago, Roberts casually set out to capture Canada's literati in black and white portraiture as a side project. He thought at the time that it might take him five years to reach 100 authors, but says the project got away from him.

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Through industry connections, 30 sittings ballooned to 150 – the final number decided after Mary Osborne, executive director of the Writers' Trust of Canada, reminded Roberts of the country's forthcoming 150th anniversary of Confederation.

"I tried my best, given the circumstances and timing, to make it as Canada-wide as I could," Roberts says.

He stresses that the collection of portraits isn't a "best of" but about "celebrating writers from all genres, persuasions and at different levels in their career path," although the series does feature formidable names.

Margaret Atwood and Conrad Black, Sheila Heti and John Ralston Saul. Globe and Mail columnists Ian Brown, John Doyle and Elizabeth Renzetti also weigh in on what motivates them to pick up the pen.

Roberts was also inspired to work within his favourite material and created 12 crystal-cut works based on CanLit passages about light.

"That was a way to add my own voice," he explains. "The sculptures are not about trying to replicate what the author was writing about, but I took the passage as a stepping-off point … to celebrate them again."

Through the prism of crystal and the words that accompany his photography, Roberts hopes to get at what is fundamental to any craft: "that subconscious flow state, where five hours go by and you don't know how you've been working so long; that drug that keeps you there.

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"Every writer, artist, musician or sportsman knows this magical place," he said.

Leading up to Canada's 150th in 2017, Roberts is also keen to start a dialogue about how the magic of our country's creativity is facing the challenges of a hostile marketplace; how the craft sensibility, cultural sector and the publishing world intend to adapt with evolving digital technology. "One side of this project is prodding that question: How do artists and writers and creative people survive?"

Writers are one cornerstone of the creative industry, Roberts argues. They help us understand our culture inwardly and reflect our character internationally.

"This is an opportunity to herald writers who very often work in solitude," he says.

Ultimately, he wants to donate the portraits to Canada, as a birthday present.

"It's a time capsule of writers at a really integral time in publishing."

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Or, at the very least, it's a chance to put a face to the name.

Roberts's crystal works for ILLUMINATION: Portraits of Canadian Literature appear Oct. 26 to Nov. 11 at the Gardiner Museum; his photographs appear until Nov. 1 at the Toronto Reference Library; and until Nov. 1 as part of the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront Centre.

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