A tweet targeted with his @MayorNils handle spurred Oak Bay’s mayor to launch a multi-jurisdictional campaign to get Ted Harrison’s artwork into the national art gallery.
Harrison, who died Jan. 16 in Victoria, was a fixture in his latter decades in Oak Bay streets and schools. Nils Jensen will lend Oak Bay’s voice to the Yukon premier’s bid to add a Harrison to the National Gallery of Canada collection.
“I will be writing our MP and the MLA and suggest we do a joint letter to the national gallery suggesting they include him in the national treasures included in the national gallery,” Jensen said.
In the wake of Harrison’s death, both the Yukon’s MP and premier renewed a lobby from 2009 to have Harrison represented at the gallery.
“As Yukon’s member of Parliament and on behalf of our territory, I respectfully petition the national gallery to consider re-visiting the decision in 2009 not to display his work,” MP Ryan Leef wrote in a letter to gallery director Marc Mayer.
“He is an iconic figure in the Canadian art scene and Canadians deserve to have artwork from across our nation on display in our national collection,” said Premier Darrell Pasloski in his statement following Harrison’s death.
The National Gallery’s collection consists of approximately 46,400 works of art, according to its 2013 acquisitions policy. Not all of those are by Canadian artists. In an email, gallery spokesperson Josee-Britanie Mallet told Yukon News that the collection has 43 pieces “made by artists who were born, based in, or visiting the Yukon.”
“The national collection is built on the basis of outstanding achievement and merit,” Mallet wrote. “This is the primary concern of our curators when selecting works of art for acquisition. We exercise one national standard only, for all Canadian works of art, with no quotas or targets related to regional representation.”
Harrison moved to the Yukon in 1967 and moved to Greater Victoria in 1993. In 1987 he received the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian culture. He was inducted into the Royal Conservatory of the Arts in 2005.
“He let us see ourselves through a different lens, a lens of great colour and celebration. For young kids, his illustrated works of Cremation of Sam McGee,” Jensen said. “He reflected a different view of who we are. He captured the vibrant skies of the Yukon …. in a way that hadn’t been done before, in a joyful way, in an exciting way. Canadians are not always thought of in those terms.”
Harrison’s friend and biographer Katherine Gibson said that in 2009 the then-director of the national gallery didn’t have an interest.
“When we look at Ted’s work we don’t see it as intellectual, we don’t see it as complex or we don’t see it as artistically complex. What we see is a vision of what life is like outside the front door living in the Yukon,” she said. “What he did is he painted who we are as Canadians. He didn’t dress it up, he didn’t intellectualize it. He painted in a voice that all Canadians from three to 103 can understand and enjoy.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Oak Bay’s mayor.
“He was a great Oak Bay resident. He was a valued Oak Bay resident and I know he meant a lot to so many members of our community, whether it was at Monterey middle school where he was artist in residence or at Rotary. He was a wonderful member of the community as well as a fabulous artist,” Jensen said. “I think there’s wide consensus not only in council but in our community about the kind of contribution Ted made. He was one of a kind.”
Jensen plans to pen a similar letter and gather the backing of local MP Murray Rankin and MLA Andrew Weaver.
“(Harrison) should be there, his work should be there. Certainly he’s well known in B.C. and across the rest of the country,” Jensen said. “Hopefully the national art gallery will take heed.”
– with files from Ashley Joannou/Yukon News