Skip to main content

A theatre director, fiddler and fair-comp advocate, prolific actor/writer/director, established visual artist and masked country crooner make our list of names you should know

Philip Akin, Miranda Mulholland, Deragh Campbell, Brian Jungen and Orville Peck were among the most exciting Canadian artists of 2019.Graphic by Danielle Webb/Globe and Mail / Shaw Festival / Getty Images

The past 12 months witnessed a remarkable, and at times controversial, year for Canadian culture. While The Globe and Mail’s artist of the year is Margaret Atwood, Globe Arts writers couldn’t help but spotlight a handful of other talents who made 2019 such an exciting and invigorating year.

Margaret Atwood, The Globe’s 2019 artist of the year, dominated the literary world and global culture

Philip Akin

Phil Akin ended his run as head of Obsidian Theatre with productions of Anna Ziegler's Actually and Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over.David Cooper/Shaw Festival

This fall saw Philip Akin direct his last two plays as the head of Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre, but he went out guns blazing. Akin’s productions of Anna Ziegler’s campus-rape drama, Actually, and Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, a tragicomic parable about racism, had a scorching urgency unlike anything else we’ve seen so far this season. Part of that was due to the scripts: Both Ziegler and Nwandu deal with the issues of race and class in very different, but equally powerful ways. But they wouldn’t have had half their impact without Akin’s masterful direction.

It’s what we’ve come to expect from the 69-year-old actor-turned-director, whose past credits include a stunning Shaw Festival revival of Athol Fugard’s autobiographical apartheid play “Master Harold” … and the Boys in 2017 and another in 2012 of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, both of which netted him Dora Mavor Moore Awards.

His two latest triumphs, however, served to remind us of what Akin, as Obsidian’s artistic director, has brought to Canadian theatre. A co-founder of the company in 2000 and its leader since 2006, he has built it into arguably the country’s most prominent black theatre. He has upped its profile – and helped finance its productions – by forming alliances with many other companies, both large and small (the Harold Green Jewish Theatre was his partner for Actually). While bringing the work of the world’s best black English-language playwrights to Toronto audiences, he’s also nurtured black Canadian talent, most recently with Obsidian’s Darktown initiative.

Like Akin himself, an in-demand director when he isn’t working for his own company, Obsidian on his watch has become ubiquitous – and a guarantee of vital and thought-provoking theatre. Martin Morrow

Miranda Mulholland

Miranda Mulholland released solo album By Appointment or Chance in 2019, while championing IP policy that is fair to artists.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In November, musician Miranda Mulholland was in Washington to receive an award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Center – a Global IP Champion award. “IP” is intellectual property, the dry-sounding area of cultural policy that Mulholland has made a vital arena for several years. It all started with a galvanizing speech to the Economic Club of Canada in 2017 about digital companies ransacking the financial landscape of musicians, using outdated regulations to amass vast wealth. Since then, Mulholland has given testimony before the standing committee on Canadian heritage and to the World Trade Organization in Geneva.

Her message is as consistent and true as her fiddle-playing: The digital revolution changed everything about how music is consumed and how artists are remunerated. While we have access to a vast amount of music, musicians are underpaid, or never paid, when their work is commercialized by new technology. This year, Mulholland created a digital toolkit for Canadian artists to intervene in the federal election and advocate for fair compensation.

Advocacy for the artistic community brings praise from peers, but not much else. While advocating, Mulholland has simultaneously continued a remarkable career as musician and entrepreneur. She is a member of Harrow Fair, a duo with Andrew Penner, touring and recording consistently. She established the Muskoka Music Festival (originally the Sawdust City Music Festival), which will have its fourth annual flowering in 2020. And in 2019, she recorded the solo album By Appointment or Chance, a gorgeously spare but intense interpretation of traditional and contemporary folk tunes. John Doyle

Deragh Campbell

Deragh Campbell gave a trembling and tremendous performance in Kazik Radwanski's Anne at 13,000 ft.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian film industry needs as many pure, unrelenting forces of nature as it can get. And Deragh Campbell – performer, director, writer, advocate – is as powerful a whirlwind as the community has encountered in years. Her staggering talents could be glimpsed in so many corners of 2019, if you knew where to look.

There was her trembling and tremendous lead role in Kazik Radwanski’s drama Anne at 13,000 ft., whose TIFF premiere this past September towered over so much of the festival’s other domestic work. There was her triple-threat work in MS Slavic 7, in which she starred, co-wrote and co-directed with long-time collaborator Sofia Bohdanowicz. And there was her outspoken campaign to broaden the potential of this country’s most resource-strapped artists, facing no less an opponent than the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA).

As is the case with so many independent Canadian films, MS Slavic 7 was only glimpsed by a few curious audiences during its brief theatrical run this fall. But with Anne at 13,000 ft.'s release set for 2020 in both Canada and the United States, there is reason to hope that more and more audiences will come to recognize Campbell’s extraordinary talent, and her essential presence in a landscape that has always required someone to speak to difficult truths and harsh realities. Barry Hertz

Brian Jungen

An installation of Brian Jungen's sculptures, titled Friendship Centre, displayed his work as a mock basketball court at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past summer.Aaron Wynia/The Globe and Mail

The wit and wisdom of B.C. artist Brian Jungen weren’t exactly a well-guarded secret prior to 2019. His career already included the country’s top art prizes (the Sobey in 2002 and the Gershon Iskowitz in 2010); he’s shown across Canada and internationally, and placed works with major national collections including those of the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada. But this year, in a summertime AGO show entitled Friendship Centre, curator Kitty Scott solidified Jungen’s reputation as the country’s most pertinent visual artist.

Named for the facility that is the heart of many an Indigenous community, and displayed in a mock basketball court, the ambitious career retrospective revealed the breadth of his practice, the mastery of his technique and the complexity of his themes.

In Jungen’s dexterous hands, popular consumer goods become prized museum pieces: He picks apart Nike running shoes to create Northwest Coast masks, sews together TaylorMade golf bags to raise totem poles or turns stacks of plastic lawn chairs into whale skeletons. Of European and Dane-Zaa ancestry, Jungen deconstructs – and reconciles – settler and Indigenous cultures, but he also makes timely comments about consumerism, sports competition and the environment.

This year, Jungen emerged as the artist Canada needs now. Kate Taylor

Orville Peck

Masked country crooner Orville Peck's debut album Pony helped him land a feature in the New York Times.Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

At Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall earlier this month, Orville Peck remarked to his audience that he’d had “quite a year.” Did he now? Does a masked, gay country crooner ride a horse through Brooklyn for a New York Times feature story? The answer is yeehaw.

In a year in which country music was upheaved by the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Old Town Road rapper Lil Nas X, the mysterious Peck attracted elite attention – in part because of his moody debut album, Pony, and in part because of his hip persona and stylish bunkhouse evening wear. He and his tasselled eye mask won over the Vogue-reading people at a recent Dior men’s fashion event in Miami, and he’s sold out prestigious venues such as Los Angeles’s Troubadour nightclub on the strength of homoerotic torch ballads and an audacious presence much more charismatic than his pedestrian, moonlit baritone.

On his 1975 song Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way, Waylon Jennings protested the Nashville establishment and wondered about rhinestone suits and the same old tunes: “Where do we take it from here?” Previously a performance artist and punk-rock drummer, Peck found new inroads. And although his staying power remains in question, his story-fuelled songwriting is no gimmick. By attracting fans to a genre that historically has not courted the Brokeback Mountain set, Peck has led legions to water. Once there, the decision to drink was all theirs. Brad Wheeler

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.