Sacred teachings, creative practice

Fine Arts

- Sarah Tarnopolsky

"The class was about peeling back layers and exploring these issues, then piecing it back together." Photo: UVic Photo Services.

Donor-funded professorships bring fresh perspectives to the classroom

For eight years, the Audain Professorship of Contemporary Art Practice of the Pacific Northwest has brought Indigenous artists into UVic classrooms. Audain professors, all of whom are practicing contemporary artists, split their time between the studio and teaching a course. Since the establishment of the Audain Professorship, students from all disciplines across campus have learned from artists Rebecca Belmore, Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas, Nicholas Galanin, Jackson 2Bears and, most recently, 'Namgis nation chief Rande Cook.

$2m Audain's gift to endow the professorship
5 Indigenous artists have held the Audain Professorship
11 endowed chairs and 4 endowed professorships currently at UVic

Each professor brings specialized knowledge and a diverse approach to art and teaching. Paul Walde, chair of the Department of Visual Arts, says the $2-million gift from BC art philanthropist Michael Audain and the Audain Foundation to establish the professorship has allowed the department to develop an area of teaching—Indigenous and Pacific Northwest art—that was missing in the department.

“It’s good for students to be exposed to other artists’ perspectives,” says Walde. “Especially someone like Rande Cook, who as a hereditary chief is involved in creating ceremonial objects as well as contemporary art.”

In his classes, Cook taught about West Coast artistic practice, breaking down motifs, line work and forms like the ovoid to help students understand what they mean and how they are used in contemporary art. He included the historical perspective, showing how these art forms evolved from ancient stories and culture, and observing their relation to land and language.

My classes weren’t about learning native art. We couldn’t in such a short amount of time. Instead I wanted students to engage in the work—feel the emotion behind it and understand it—and learn how to use these forms without appropriating. I wanted students to be inspired and respect it at the same time.
Rande Cook, Audain Professor

Considering the role all play in reconciliation

Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Audain Professor in 2012, reflected on the creation of the professorship at a Canadian educational institution as a “rare, needed and timely opportunity for Canadian society to reconsider its relationship to Indigeneity.”

Entrance into exhibit with Rande Cook Accumulation written on the wall and a wooden statue of an Indigenous female figure
Rande Cook presented a retrospective of his work, "Accumulation," in October 2016 as the annual Audain Exhibition. Photo: John Threlfall.

Cook frequently addresses current issues—such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Idle No More and the REDress project—in his artwork and embraced these same topics in his classes. He wanted students to consider how art can bring awareness to issues and a voice to the silenced.

I helped students think about reconciliation—the role we all play within it—and to consider how we express that through art. The class was about peeling back layers and exploring these issues, then piecing it back together.
Rande Cook, Audain Professor

The convergence of Cook’s traditional ways of teaching in the formal institutional setting gave rise to new experiences for both the professor and his students. During his term, Cook worked on a symbolic piece of art: a carving dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women. Students had open access to watch him work on the carving, and one day he invited them to carve with him.

“I did a blessing and spoke to the students about the importance of that,” says Cook. “I wanted them to understand how they could be spiritually guided in their work.”

Back in the classroom, Cook rejected contemporary critiquing practices in favour of an intimate, circle-based sharing environment. “I developed a safe place where students could dive deep into their identity, then create art from that authentic place,” explains Cook. “I saw every one of my students transformed.”

Realizing future possibilities of the professorship

Cook’s willingness to share his perspective and knowledge infused other departments and campus activities. For example, giving a lecture to visiting high school educators, again incorporating the circle-based approach. Another example was Cook's participation in the dedication ceremony of the Michael Williams Building.

Group of Indigenous people singing and banging drums
Rande Cook (centre) participating in the dedication ceremony of UVic's Michael Williams Building. Photo: John Threlfall.

“Two years in the position allowed me to really reach students,” says Cook. “The feedback at the end of the year said it was one of the more profound classes they had ever taken, because it challenged them internally.”

Former Audain Professor Jackson 2Bears also remained in the position for two terms. The department believes that longer professorships will enhance the program even more, and they are hoping to extend terms for future Audain professors to three to five years.

Thanks to the foresight and generosity of Audain to endow his gift, the department can rely on the professorship to complement UVic's rich visual arts program every year. Which means the university will continue to realize the vast possibilities of this philanthropic investment in the future.

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In this story

Keywords: philanthropy, Indigenous, arts, visual arts, teaching, Audain

People: Rande Cook, Paul Walde, Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Michael Audain

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