Western ideas as varied as the people
by Zoltan Varadi, University of Alberta Express News site
October 11, 2006 – Edmonton – That particularly Canadian attribute which seems to find us constantly addressing and re-addressing our collective identity has, ironically enough, yielded at least one constant – our varied responses.
Such was certainly the case at The Idea of the West. The one-day symposium, hosted by the University of Alberta Bookstores on Wednesday, posited the question of ‘What it means to be a westerner’ to a mutli-disciplinary swath of artists hailing from British Columbia to Saskatchewan, including novelist Gail Anderson-Dargatz, musician Roy Forbes, broadcaster Fil Fraser, sculptor Sharon Moore-Foster and the U of A’s distinguished drama professor emeritus Thomas Peacocke, among others.
Peacocke, a Genie-award winner and recipient of the Order of Canada, discussed the prairie mythology, arguing that the “artist is tied up with self.” He then offered a series of spirited anecdotes from his personal history growing up in small-town Barons, AB, relating how those experiences shaped him as a person and as a storyteller. Quoting Robert Crouch, he said, ” ‘We have no identity until someone tells us what it is.’ Fiction makes us real.”
Anderson-Dargatz’s presentation concurred with that sentiment, albeit from a perspective quite different from that of Peacocke. Whereas Peacocke evoked the prairie winds and grain elevators of Barons, the novelist repeatedly touched on the rain-soaked, “haunted” landscape of her home in the Schushwaps as the basis for informing her sense of self as well as providing the framework of her tales.
“I don’t think there is one unified West,” she said, citing varying geographies, economies and cultures. “My West is the wellspring for my fiction.”
She, too, used a quote to illustrate the importance of a narrative tradition, this one from Isabelle Allende: “Death does not exist unless we forget to tell their stories.”
When Moore-Foster took to the podium, her admission of how, as a figurative sculptor, she was at first uncertain about effectively infusing a regional influence to her work led to some of the more interesting personal insights of the day.
“The sky, the mountains, are all too much for me,” she said. “Then I go into the studio and just let myself be me – not a mother, not a teacher. I’m just facing the energy and the light comes in, the prairie light, and it’s always different, ever shifting. I’m always seeing things differently and learning to start again. That shift in energy is what I search for, and it’s what the West provides.”
The U of A alumna added that the kind of indifference artists often face from everyone -from families to government – also makes for a marked characteristic of the western artist communicating fundamental truths about their culture.
“Maybe it’s the gift of masochism,” she said to much laughter. “Yes it’s painful, but we do it because it needs to be done. Sometimes boundaries aren’t bad, because we can burst out of them. We do it because we believe. We come, we work, and we are all different but on the same journey, and I think that’s part of the spirit of the West.”
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The original online article can be found at: