| Apr 09, 2009

Back to HomeFeature Article - April 9, 2009 Verona artist receives Governor General's Awardby Julie Druker

Artist Kim Ondaatje with one of her four dalmations "Savannah" at Blueroof Farm near Verona. Courtesy of Kim Ondaatje.

Local artist and Verona resident Kim Ondaatje recently returned from a trip to Ottawa where she and eight other renowned Canadian artists received the Governor General’s Award in Visual Arts and Media.

In the 2009 awards catalogue Governor General Michaëlle Jean states, ”It is that collection of signs left by artists and artisans, both tangible and intangible that constitute the timeless heritage of humanity”.

At Blueroof Farm, located just east of Verona, Kim’s residence for 36 years, the physical signs of her seemingly boundless creative energy as an artist surround her. There are her older paintings and prints of course, but also the colorful afghans she's recently knit.

Also recent are the one-of-a kind matted and framed abstract nature photographs she's taken around her property. Kim showed me one, a slice of frozen pond ice that reveals a subtle pattern from the dead leaves trapped beneath it.

Blueroof Farm itself, she admits, is one of her most prized works - an environmental landscape that according to Kim was the first farm to be certified organic in Canada. She refers to the landscape at Blueroof, which includes four acres of gardens, as “a three-dimensional living painting”, one that she has been working on since she and her former husband, author Michael Ondaatje, acquired it back in 1973.

She recalled creating the landscape that surrounds her. "I just took a hunk of pre-cambrain shield, first removing 33 dead elm stumps; I remember because I had to pay by the stump. Then I hired backhoes and dump trucks to help with what I've created".

During her years at Blueroof she has raised her six children and also organic cattle and vegetables. She has hosted thousands of visitors to her home and planted almost every plant and tree that now grows outside her windows.

It was also here that she met numerous times with two other Canadian artists, Jack Chambers and Tony Urquhart. And it was specifically the work that resulted from these meetings that won her and Urquhart their recent Governor General‘s award.

On March 25, both Kim and Tony Urquhart were honored in Ottawa, not for their paintings, prints, films or photography, but for the more ephemeral and ideological work that has shaped the rights of all Canadian artists and the relationships they have with the art institutions that represent them.

These three artists were instrumental in establishing and founding CARFAC (Canadian Artists Representation/Le Front des Artistes Canadiens), an organization concerned with the rights of visual artists in Canada.

Their work began in 1967 when Jack Chambers strongly objected to a letter sent to him by the National Gallery of Canada. The gallery hoped to take slides of works by all of the artists participating in a major gallery show that year called “300 Years of Canadian Art“. The gallery was planning to distribute these slides to major art institutions, with no financial compensation being offered to the artists.

Seeing this as an infringement on the economic rights of the artists, since the gallery would obviously profit from these slides, Chambers immediately rallied artists to fight for their rights and decided to develop a system similar to the copyright fees paid to writers and musicians.

Urquhart worked as secretary and Ondaatje as treasurer (she also assisted in speech writing) and the two took more of a lead role when Chambers’ health began to fail. Kim and Tony eventually took over the project when Chambers passed away in 1978 after a battle with leukemia.

The efforts of these three artists resulted in the forming of CARFAC, which established fee schedules to be paid to artists showing work at public galleries. By 1975 the Canada Council recognized the work of CARFAC and made grants eligible only to those public galleries that paid fees to living Canadian artists, making Canada the first country in the world to pay exhibition fees to artists.

The work of CARFAC was far reaching. In 1998 the Copyright Act was amended to include exhibition rights. The 2009 Awards catalogue states succinctly: “By placing the artist at the heart of cultural policy debates, CARFACs victories marked an ideological turning point and indirectly affirmed Canadian culture”.

While Ondaatje and Urquhart are quick to credit Jack Chambers with his original vision, the two award winners obviously were instrumental in the organization’s birth.

At 81 years old, Ondaatje sees her life and work as inseparable from one another. "I think the important thing is to live a creative life." Her work with CARFAC was an extension of her work as an artist, an artist with energy and vision before and beyond her time and one whose endeavours have positively affected Canadian artists of the past, present and future. 

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