Skip to main content

Colette Urban for Obit. Credit: Jillian Parsons Limited Possession - 2011 Performance project documenting the car storage operation at Full Tilt Newfoundland. The images were reproduced in a 2012 edition calendar accompanied by quotes from Marilyn Monroe. This project was exhibited at Grunt Gallery 2011.

Colette Urban "was a little bit on the edge of everything," says Patrick Mahon, an artist and professor with the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Western Ontario, who taught with her for 11 years.

Not just in her art practice; she also found her home on the geographic rim of a continent. "Newfoundland was big enough for her, was colourful enough for her," Mr. Mahon said.

Indeed, as a performance artist who presented work from Lisbon to Rotterdam to Saskatoon, who dressed in feather jackets and 1960 camouflage pantsuits and helmets and animal heads, who might exchange stories and secrets or found art materials one-on-one with an audience, and who thought riding-a-live-elephant big, Ms. Urban needed a lot of space.

"Over the course of her career, Colette developed an unparalleled body of performance and installation works that were at once autobiographical and engaged with larger societal issues, such as sexual and cultural identity, the role of women and consumerism, among others," said Melanie Townsend, curator at Museum London. "Her works were usually assembled from the components of mass-produced objects, resulting in fun and fantastic costumes and props that helped her to question the role of the 'art maker' while her typically collaborative performances often unwittingly turned the audience into the performer."

Ms. Townsend met Ms. Urban in 1999, but was already aware of her reputation. "I was visiting the Art Gallery of Windsor, where Colette was installing her Big Guy an installation comprised of a massive pair of striped pants and a pair of house slippers, with a big toe poking out of one of them. At the time, the scene of our introduction seemed almost bizarre, her work strange within the gallery space. But in retrospect, the encounter was perfectly normal – perfectly normal, that is, within the context of Colette's practice, one full of examples of clever, and humorous, pieces and performances that toy with our expectations of art and art-making."

Ms. Townsend most recently worked with Ms. Urban on Colette Urban: Incognito, a large retrospective exhibition, and publication, of her life's work, which will open this fall.

"If she ever got upset by anything, she rarely showed it, seemingly content to take things as they came, even her cancer, which she faced with such incredible grace and dignity," Ms. Townsend said.

"Like any person, she was sometimes insecure about her choices: her decision to retire early from teaching, to move permanently to her beloved Newfoundland, to run a residency program for artists, to live her dream. But despite any possible apprehensions, Colette was the kind of person who always took the leap of faith."

In May, 2012, Ms. Urban was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and just last month received the VANL-CARFAC Excellence in Visual Arts Long Haul Award.

She died June 16 of bowel cancer at her home in McIvers on Newfoundland's west coast.

Constance (as an adult, always Colette) Joyce Urban was born Jan. 29 in Denver, Col., to Wilfrid (Bill), a purchasing agent for a prefab construction company in Greensboro, N.C., and Dorothy (McKenzie), whose work included editing a medical journal at the University of California San Francisco, and whose interests, tellingly, included designing her clothes, sometimes with unusual fabrics. She had one sister, Julie, two years younger. The Urbans divorced when the girls were teenagers, and they lived with their mother in Charlotte, N.C.

"Colette's tale of her introduction to performance art came when she was eight years old, and I was 6," said Julie Urban. "That summer, Colette and I attended a day camp in northern Michigan called Circus Camp. One day on the bus with our camp compadres, we were playing a dare game to see who could make themselves turn the reddest. When it was Colette's turn, she pulled her red sweater up over her face, making herself very red indeed. Colette was immediately teased by the others for this action, but she was quite proud of herself and later saw this as a moment of brilliance. She claimed this incident helped steer her toward performance art."

This wasn't the only time she showed such promise.

"When Colette was perhaps 11, she was one of about 25 children to attend a session by Ruth Faison Shaw," her mother said. (Ms. Shaw is credited with introducing finger painting to the U.S. as a component of art education.) "When the children finished their paintings, Ms. Shaw held up Colette's and asked to speak to her mother. She then told me that Colette demonstrated an amazing amount of talent and that I had a serious responsibility to promote this talent." She immediately enrolled both her daughters in Saturday art classes at Charlotte's art museum.

Ms. Urban went on to earn a BFA in visual arts in 1980 from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and an MFA from the University of Victoria two years later.

"From the very beginning she did mixed media, performance-based [work]; even in the 1970s she did a video piece," said her friend Katherine Knight, a NSCAD classmate and the filmmaker who in 2009 made the documentary Pretend Not To See Me: The Art of Colette Urban. "She made quirky objects. It was standout, like nothing I'd ever seen. It invited you to come along. She had this quality of always embracing life in a big way. I saw her as a mentor; she was always steps ahead of me."

Ms. Urban went on to teach and her résumé includes positions at the University of Victoria, the University of Western Ontario and Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.

"She kind of lived her work," Mr. Mahon said. "She taught from within. She was a born teacher." She could find the university restrictive, and so used her wry sense of humour to shift and open up institutional engagement – such as renting a parking lot to showcase her students' work.

"Colette taught without teaching," said visual artist Shinobu Akimoto, a former student. Her first course with Ms. Urban was called: Moving heavy furniture or how to make a fire. For the first class, Ms. Urban took students for a few rounds of mini-golf. For the second, they went to a local Salvation Army shop to buy something to make into art pieces.

At first, Ms. Akimoto balked at this unconventional pedagogy. "I remember thinking: 'What the hell is this?' – as an undergrad so keen to learn something." But she continued through a semester of off-site, offbeat classes. "Everyone came along wherever Colette would lead us and made impressive work – we were all engaged in such sophisticated discussions."

Ms. Urban lived in an old house in St. Mary's, just outside London, and it was an important gathering space for her students and teaching assistants, who included Ms. Akimoto, Lisa Baldissera, now chief curator at Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, and Christy Thompson, now an artist and administrator at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

"She was very gentle and completely wacky," Ms. Thompson said. "She had an alternative way on making things happen. Not magic, but a way of taking something ordinary and making it extraordinary."

This alchemy of transforming and recontextualing all manner of quotidian objects and situations was consistent throughout Ms. Urban's artistic and teaching careers.

"She would take some fairly ordinary means – objects from a junk store or emporium – and find a way to make them arresting, wonderful and strange, to show that the world is a remarkable place," Mr. Mahon explained. (Not surprisingly, she admired artists such as Louise Bourgeois.) "Colette really found the world to be a funny place and she took that seriously."

For Ms. Knight, Ms. Urban's most memorable projects include The Bare Performance, "in which she was dressed as a bear. She wore a fabulous headdress, where one side was a bear, and the other side open; it was her face. She walked backwards into the woods as a bear, and came out as a woman." Interpretation was left open-ended, filtered through the viewer's perceptions even as it was fuelled by the artist's intentions.

"But the piece that inspired me to make the film was Recalling Belvedere," said Ms. Knight. "It was a long extended metaphor. She saw Newfoundland as a rock and the rock was compared to an elephant. She had a replica of her biscuit-tin house on her head, she was draped in a cape, which was the Newfoundland landscape, and she rode an elephant. … It was house on land on rock, which was an elephant. Elephants always come home, they are always about community, and she felt that's what Newfoundland was."

Ms. Urban had first come to Newfoundland on a two-year contract with Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook. That was about 20 years ago, and she never really left.

In 2007, she retired and moved to Meadows, to an old house heated by one small wood stove, and then bought and developed Full Tilt, a multidisciplinary artist retreat and exhibition venue (plus organic farm) in McIvers.

"Who would leave a university tenure track position to start such a precarious and courageous adventure?" asked Ms. Akimoto. "I know she went through lots of doubts and anxieties but she would not have been happier anywhere else."

Full Tilt's two residence spaces would host artists from Berlin, Australia, Pittsburgh and Tokyo, while its own environs became the site of several new projects for Ms. Urban. Her works have also been performed or exhibited nationally and internationally, from St. John's to Toronto to Banff and Vancouver, as well as in Rome, Rotterdam and Cumbria, in Britain.

Her other travels included many adventures with her mother, such as spending six weeks in a tiny vintage trailer in Florida, or cat-sitting for a friend in England.

"There was a lightness about being with her," said Mr. Mahon. "I don't mean we never disagreed or that everything was always easy. Her life in Newfoundland was a challenge. She quit her job, and was without a lot of resources. But I could see what she accomplished. She was trying to do something difficult and she found the light and the lightness. I was with her two weeks before she died and we were laughing about all kinds of things."

"She said to me that although giving up teaching was a bad decision financially, it had let her do what she wanted to do and she didn't feel cheated," said Ms. Knight. "'Make sure you do what's important to you and do it now, don't wait.' That's what she said to me."

"My mother had always known Colette as this 'weird' teacher whom I loved, and she even met her when we visited her at this spooky artist residency in Rotterdam in 2003," said Ms. Akimoto.

"We all slept together in a tiny cold room on dodgy mattresses. In Japan, where I am originally from, we never refer to teachers without the title sensei [teacher/mentor]. To this day, my mother compliments, "Colette-sensei is so strange, no one else could do things that she has done, therefore she is very, very special and you are so lucky to have met her."

Incognito runs from Oct 19, 2013 through Jan. 6, 2014 at Museum London. An opening reception and celebration of Ms. Urban's life is planned there for Friday, Nov. 1.

Ms. Urban, who never married nor had children, leaves her parents and her sister, Julie.