Three years ago, a nationwide study revealed that the average annual income of a professional visual artist in Canada was around $23,000. So the disbursal at a ceremony Tuesday in Toronto of eight cheques worth $25,000 each had to rank as a major payday for pretty much every laureate named as a recipient of the Governor-General’s Award for excellence in visual and media arts.
All eight honorees – four men, four women – attended the ceremony, organized since 2000 by the Canada Council for the Arts as an annual event recognizing lifetime achievement in various artistic practices and idioms. Artists from Ontario represented the single largest bloc of winners, four in total, with representatives from British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec completing the roster.
Veteran abstract painter Ron Martin, 68, and photographer Geoffrey James, 69, were honorees from Toronto, while 65-year-old Diana Nemiroff, gallery director, scholar and former curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, was recognized for “outstanding achievement.” Royden Rabinowitch, 68, who divides his time between Belgium, England and Waterloo, Ont., was honoured for his almost-50-year career as a sculptor.
Also honoured was Czech-born, Montreal-based Jana Sterbak, 56, who created a stir in 1991 with her exhibition at the National Gallery of Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic, a dress made of sewn flank steak that subsequently spurred a similar creation by Lady Gaga for her 2010 appearance at the MTV Music Video Awards. (Fellow laureate Nemiroff was instrumental in mounting the NGC show.) Since then, Sterbak has become one of the country’s best-known artists internationally, her work in video, sculpture, installation and performance the subject of several retrospectives. A version of the flesh dress was shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2009. Sterbak currently teaches art history at Concordia University.
Each year the winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in fine crafts is included among the G-G laureates. (The Bronfman is funded from a $1.5-million endowment created by the Bronfman Family Foundation in 2006.) The 2012 winner is Calgarian Charles Lewton-Brain, a 55-year-old professor at the Alberta College of Art and Design and an acclaimed goldsmith-artist known for his invention of “fold-forming,” a technique in metal-smithing allowing for “the rapid development of three-dimensional surfaces and structures.”
Saskatchewan-born Margaret Dragu of Vancouver, 58, was recognized for her 40-year career as a performance artist, choreographer and her work in video, film and installation art. She’s also a personal trainer. “I’m grateful for this award so I can make more art,” she told a crowd of about 60 at the Tuesday ceremony, describing her body as an instrument for “mothering, cleaning, sex, drugs and rock-’n’-roll ... meditation, fasting, gorging, loving and forgiving.”
Jan Peacock, 56, a professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in Halifax since 1982, received her award for her achievements in video and installation art. In 1997 she received the $10,000 Bell Canada Award for outstanding achievement in video art.
All the winners will be honoured March 26 at a formal ceremony in Rideau Hall in Ottawa, at which they’ll each be presented with a special-issue medallion by Governor-General David Johnston. The National Gallery hosts an exhibition of works by the laureates March 30 to June 17. TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto plans a free, one-night screening March 21 of several of Jan Peacock’s works, including Reader by the Window (1993) and Bystander (2009).
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