When Lisa Steele's name was read as the winner of the Long Haul Award for lifetime achievement at the Untitled Art Awards reception in Toronto on Wednesday night, the video artist, activist and teacher was too far away to hear the applause. Steele and her husband, artist Kim Tomczak, were on vacation in Venice, on a trip with Lisa's brother, Jim, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Philadelphia.
Venice with her brother, who is an expert in all things Venetian, is an experience that has been on Steele's wish list for a while, but, over the past year or so, that list has been edited and underlined with some urgency, due to a bout of breast cancer. In September, her treatment finished, and she was given the all-clear. The following week, she was back in the saddle at the University of Toronto, where she is the associate chair of the Visual Studies department.
She will admit that the pace is a little crazy, but that's the way she does things; it's the way she always has, and presumably it's the way she always will. Her art work of the past 30 years has the same intensity, whether it is the naked display of her body and its scars, in the 1974 tape Birthday Suit (each scar bearing a tale of its own, narrated by the artist); her uncanny enactment of the title character in 1980's The Gloria Tapes (where Steele plays a timid single mother making the journey from victimhood to self-respect); the hectic monologue of The Ballad of Dan Peoples (the 1976 film in which Steele performs the part of a Southern man recalling, in a rollicking, Faulkner-like stream of consciousness, the hardships and beatings of his childhood); or See Evil (1985), made with her third husband, Tomczak, a penetrating documentary account of the censorship wars in Ontario in the 1980s, and their impact on Toronto's community of artists. Her extraordinary capacity for empathy is obvious in her performances, but there is a scrappiness to Steele that is perhaps her most distinctive feature. Her name fits her perfectly.
When we met for lunch last week, she was a trifle flustered as she awaited the verdict of the jury. The Long Haul Award -- "It sounds like an old horse," she said with a little moan.
In fact, the title of the award fits Steele perfectly. Hers has been a journey with lots of bumps and curves, but, fortunately, no ruts. She grew up in Kansas City, Mo. Her mother was a travelling saleswoman who toured the Midwest in her Oldsmobile '98, selling supplies to convent hospitals. (She died suddenly when Lisa was 15, and the artist would later make a videotape titled A Very Personal Story, an exquisitely intimate work, recounting the day of her loss.) Her father, too, made his living on the road, as a "tin man" selling home improvements.
In 1968, Steele, who had been studying art and English literature, came to Toronto from Kansas City in the wave of draft dodgers, travelling with her then-husband, Chuck Wall, a bass player with the Downchild Blues Band. Like many Americans who came to Canada on that tide, they drifted from job to job.
"I was fired from Frenchie's Open Kitchen after three days as a waitress," she recalls. "It was the only job I was ever fired from."
She took orders for ads at The Toronto Telegram. Her husband and their friends washed windows. She spent a few months working for Johnstone Terminals out in Vancouver, filling in shipping forms all night in their offices under the Cambie Street Bridge. Back in Toronto again, she worked as a model in art schools, gradually forming attachments with a group of artists forming A Space (Ian Carr-Harris, Marian Lewis, Stephen Cruise, John McEwen), and editing book reviews for The Canadian Whole Earth Almanac. "A lot of my friends got into stripping to make money," she recalls. "They would do the circuit through Ontario and into Quebec.
"There were the old burlesque halls in Toronto in those days -- the Brass Rail and the Victory on Spadina. We went there with the guys sometimes."
By the early seventies she had become a feminist. "My friend Janice Spellerberger and I -- we were your worst nightmare," she remembers with a laugh today. "We would rage about how women would soon be having babies in test tubes, and then where would men be?"
Somewhere along the way, she started to take photographs and make films. "I was the first gender-equity hire in the art scene," she says, her pride spiked by irony, recalling the job she landed at A Space teaching video.
By that point, Steele had also started working part-time at Interval House on Spadina Avenue, counselling women and children who had been the victims of abuse. She worked there for 14 years. "In those days," she says, "they used to refer to it as the house for runaway wives. The whole discussion of violence against women was not yet happening. Men would come to the door and they would say, 'Give me my wife.' " Artistically, she grew by fits and starts. "One of the hardest things to say about myself was that I was an artist," she recalls. It was the Toronto curator Peggy Gale, then in the education department at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who broke her in on the idea, curating her work into the landmark 1974 show Videoscapes.
Steele's early videos drew from her other professional experiences.
The protagonist of The Gloria Tapes, for example, is a composite of the women she met in the rounds of her counselling, and Steele's nuanced portrait of female self-doubt and dependency is heartbreaking. Some Call It Bad Luck (1982) mines similar territory, dramatizing a police enquiry into a man's violent death, and the harassment of the vulnerable female suspect by male authorities.
The year 1980 brought the formation of V-Tape in Toronto. An artist collective devoted to the medium of video, it has since blossomed into an important distribution facility. Steele was a key player, and she remains the creative director today; Tomczak is executive director. In 1980, she also began teaching at the Ontario College of Art, where she stayed until her move to the University of Toronto in 2001. As well in that year, with the artist Clive Robertson (with whom she founded Fuse magazine), she gave birth to her daughter, Leroux; the couple parted 14 months after the birth. (She had also been hitched to the late video artist Colin Campbell.) In 1983, she paired up with Tomczak, beginning a long collaboration -- both amorous and artistic -- that persists to today.
Their opening volley was the soon-notorious video/performance titled In t he Dark (1983), a video of the couple making love in plain daylight, which they accompanied with live spoken narrative -- hers recalling her mother, and Tomczak's about the impact of pornography on young men. It would be a favourite of the censor board. Later collaborations would grapple with censorship, homophobia, free trade and gender stereotyping in the media.
Their most recent video reflects, she says, "a return to the body as a source of information," addressing in particular the process of aging, and the journey toward death, a destination she has managed to swerve and avoid. Speaking of the video, facetiously titled We're Getting Younger All the Time (2001), Steele remarks on her husband's stillness, which is notable notwithstanding the time-lapse tempo of the video run backward at breakneck pace. (The two are pictured on-screen, side by side.) In contrast, Steele seems to be "jumping all over the place," alive with twitches, ticks and a thousand little adjustments -- a crackling livewire emitting the occasional shower of sparks, restless and searching for release.