From The Heart

Capturing the spirit of a country and its cultures

July 1 1997

From The Heart

Capturing the spirit of a country and its cultures

July 1 1997

From The Heart


The Artists

Capturing the spirit of a country and its cultures

Their media are as rich and varied as their personalities: dance and classical music, film and the visual arts, the worlds of pop songs, novels and short stories.

But whatever the field of endeavor, they strive to bring a quality beyond the workaday to their lives—and to their audiences.

Although they are a diverse lot, they share the drive to create something uniquely Canadian.

Jaimie Tapper

BALLET DANCER Willowy and graceful, Tapper has energized the Canadian ballet world with her potential and her poise. In 1995, the Edmonton native beat out the international competition and won the prestigious Erik Bruhn Prize for young dancers—after having joined the National Ballet corps only months earlier. Last season, promoted to second soloist in the national troupe, she awed crowds with her performances in Cinderella and Giselle. But her greatest challenge began only last spring, while performing in Montreal in The Sleeping Beauty. “I was doing this very basic step, but my knee just kept on bending and I heard something snap,” recalls Tapper, 20. “As soon as it happened,

I knew it was bad.” The injury—a torn knee ligament—required surgery and will prevent her from resuming her rehearsal schedule until August. Now, the challenge is to maintain her strength, in body and mind. “I’m pretty good at overcoming things,” Tapper says confidently. “No matter how much talent you have, it’s the really hard worker who’s going to make it.” With that attitude, she has already won at least half the battle.

Mimi Bizjak

FASHION DESIGNER She launched her career with the help of a sexy mohair sweater. In 1994, Toronto Life Fashion magazine ran a photo of the cropped knit top that Bizjak—then a fashion student at Ryerson Polytechnic University—had created for a school assignment. “Stores started calling me, saying, ‘Can I get that sweater?’ ” recalls the 31-year-old designer, who quickly arranged financing, imported some yarn and hired local

knitters to produce hundreds of copies. Since then, she says, “everybody has been watching what I do.” And Bizjak, who grew up on a farm in Beamsville, Ont., has more than lived up to expectations. Three years later, she has established her own label, produced six womenswear collections and won a handful of awards. The Mimi Bizjak line—designed in collaboration with Carolyn Lennan-Francis, a classmate from Ryerson—is sold in specialty stores across Canada. Also successful in Kuwait and Hong Kong, the line will likely expand into the American market next year. “It’s all about evolving,” she explains. “Each collection is a progression.” With Bizjak, the thread of inventiveness continues to run through all that she creates.

James Westman

BARITONE As a 13-year-old boy treble with the celebrated Vienna Boys Choir, he learned a valuable lesson. “One day, my voice changed,” Westman recalls. “The next day, I was shipped home. It taught me that the world of music can sometimes be a brutal place.” Undeterred, at 18 he left his family’s farm near Stratford, Ont., to study voice and music at the University of Toronto’s renowned Opera School. Last fall, at 25, he joined the Canadian Opera Company’s ensemble studio, appearing as the Contadino in Luisa Miller and the Sergente in Manon Lescaut. In April,

I he won the George London Competition in New York ¿ City, which provides financial assistance for rising I opera stars. At the same time, he was invited to spend £ the summer with the Merola Opera Program at the I San Francisco Opera. Westman is now contemplating 1 competing offers to audition for the SFO and the New I York Metropolitan Opera. "It’s starting to happen 5 again,” he observes wryly. “Pretty soon, I might have £ the career I had when I was 12.”

Barbara Croall

COMPOSER She has been writing music for almost as long as she can remember, right from the moment her parents gave her a keyboard when she was six years old. “I’d sit down and compose little pieces, then hold recitals for Mom and Dad,” recalls Croall, whose father is Scottish and whose mother is an Odawa, a member of the Ojibwa nation. By the time she was 10, Croall knew that she wanted to be a composer. And it is a path she has diligently pursued ever since. At the University of Toronto, she won a Glenn Gould scholarship in 1989 on her way to graduation two years later with a degree in music composition. In 1995, she was one of nine selected from around the world to attend the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s course for young composers in the Orkney Islands. Last year, she became the first woman ever to be admitted for study at the 150-year-old Hochschule für Musik in Munich. And commissions are starting to come her way: in 1996, she wrote Six Nations for the Mirror Image ensemble in Kitchener, Ont., and Echo for the International Art Festival in Pescocostanzo, Italy. But for Croall, 30, the high point came in June, when she listened to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra play her composition, The Four Directions, at Roy Thomson Hall. “It was an amazing, exhilarating experience,” she happily sighs.

“I still can’t believe it actually happened.”

Esta Spalding

POET There is an intriguing note about Spalding on the jacket of Carrying Place, her first book of poems, published in 1995. The author, it states, “spent the last two summers articulating the skeleton of a minke whale.” Not, on the surface, a literary pursuit. But then Spalding, 30, who pulls much of her striking, sensual imagery from “trunks and trunks” of personal journals, grounds all of her poetry in experience. While she helped marine biologist Douglas Fudge—whom she recently married— to reassemble whale bones off the coast of Maine, Spalding was also building the essential metaphor for her newly published booklength poem, Anchoress. “It’s a putting-together,” she explains. “It’s about a scientist trying to ‘re-member’ his story.” Based on an actual event, Anchoress is a moving account of a young student who

burns herself to death as a protest against the Gulf War, told a year later by her grieving Canadian lover. “Initially, I wrote it as a novel,” she adds. “But I wanted it to be much more to the bone.”

£ Life, for Spalding, is in§ extricably bound to litera1 ture. Now on leave from S her job teaching English at I the University of Guelph,

5 the Boston-born poet is an I assistant editor for Brick, helping her mother, novelist Linda Spalding, and stepfather, Michael Ondaatje, publish the respected literary journal. The House of Anansi—a small Torontobased literary press—last year invited Spalding to join its editorial advisory board. “They took a bit of a risk with me, ” she says. But Spalding takes risks of her own. “I am constantly putting myself on edge,” says Spalding, currently writing a novel. “I’m trying to move people so their heart feels something.”

Chantal Kreviazuk

SINGER/SONGWRITER From the age of 3—when she stepped up to her mother’s piano and started to play—Kreviazuk knew she had the gift of music. But for much of her life, the Winnipegger, now 24, shied away from her talent. “I would sing for commercials or sing backup on independent records,” she recalls, “but I was pretty complacent.” In 1993, however, her future came into sharp focus. Travelling in Italy, Kreviazuk suffered a broken femur and fractured jaw in a road accident. She was immobilized for months. “That took me away from the ‘crutch’ places—school, working dead-end jobs that weren’t me,” she says. “But I could write music.” And a good thing: her 1996 debut album, Under These Rocks and Stones, is a rich tapestry of simple emotion and vocal dexterity, with a single, God Made Me, climbing the pop charts. But she is still wary of becoming an overnight success. “That frightens me, because with it comes a lot of responsibility,” says Kreviazuk. “Mentally, I’m in a beautiful place right now, and I don’t want to lose it overnight.” Music fans can only hope she doesn’t.

Gina Rorai

ARTIST Ten years ago—halfway through completing an English degree at York University—Rorai decided to take a painting course. “I just felt a need,” says the 30-year-old Toronto artist. What started out as a digression soon became an obsession. “Gina is dedicated to painting,” observes her husband, David Urban, a young painter with a new exhibit at a Montreal gallery and a burgeoning career of his own. “She lives and breathes paint culture.” Rorai is enthralled with the past masters—especially Velázquez, Giotto and Piero della Francesca. “It’s an endless source of inspiration,” she says. “As a painter, you use what you can, throw away what you don’t need and make a contribution of your own.” For Rorai, stepping back into the history of art appears to have been a major step forward. In her first solo show, at the prestigious Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto this May, the young painter’s large abstract canvases—with their tiny, enigmatic figures suspended in shimmering layers of color and light—sold out in just a few days.

Andrew Hunter

CURATOR ‘There are a lot of musty, dusty types out there,” says the brash young curator for the Kamloops Art Gallery in British Columbia. “A lot of museums have settled into a pat way of doing things.” There is nothing pat or staid about the 33-year-old Hunter, an artist who switched to curating because he preferred “the whole shooting match” of putting on a show. And, oh, what a show. In his stints at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Vancouver Art Gallery, Hunter’s provocative choice of works has often stirred up debate. In his latest effort, now on display at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery in Owen Sound, Ont., Hunter rounds out the artist’s work with “true artifacts”— among them, Thomson’s fishing reel—as well as a canoe and other “imagined” belongings. And instead of the serious catalogue that accompanies most exhibits, Hamilton-born Hunter wrote Up North: A Northern Ontario Tragedy, a “pulp fiction novel” in which he creates a spiritual link between Thomson—who died in a mysterious canoe accident—and a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey player who died in similar circumstances. Says Hunter: “I want to push this idea that curating and the museum process is a very subjective thing.”


MUSICIANS Say “Celtic music” and most Canadians think of Cape Breton. But Leahy, a family troupe from the central Ontario town of Lakefield, is set to change that misconception. Growing up on the family farm, the four brothers and five sisters (there are two other siblings, as well) entertained themselves and their parents by fiddling and stepdancing—part of a generations-old tradition of Celtic-inspired music in Upper Canada. As kids, the group played together in fiddling competitions across Ontario and Quebec. But since reuniting in 1995 after a two-year hiatus—“We needed to grow individually and decide what we wanted in life,” says bassist Siobheann, 30—Leahy has been electrifying audiences across the country with their eclectic, sometimes wild live performances.

The passion, says stepdancer Agnes, 24, is partly the result of the band’s various influences. “There are a whole bunch of different cultures combined, from the Ottawa Valley lumber camps to Quebec to central Ontario,” she explains. “It’s very expressive." And popular. This spring, Leahy’s self-titled debut album hit the top 100 in Canada, and their video (the infectious The Call to Dance) hit the Top 10 on country music video channels. “Some people talk about the Celtic movement being a fad,” says songwriter-pianist Julie, 32. “Well, this music has been around for hundreds of years.

It’s soul food for a lot of people, so how can it die?”

Monica Tap

ARTIST She calls it “rummaging around in art history.” But that is a modest description for the complexly layered canvases the 35-year-old Halifax-based artist paints. Her exhibition Reprise, on display last year at Halifax’s Dalhousie Art Gallery, was a series of 14 large oil paintings, mostly of flowers—but they contained subtle references to the works of 17th-century painter Rachel Ruysch, as well as to Claude Lorrain, Leonardo da Vinci and Frank Stella. Explains Tap: “I’m trying to find a conversation with the past, to find a place between abstraction and allusion.” Originally from St. Albert, Alta., she gave up a civil service job to paint full time and later moved to Halifax to complete a master of fine arts degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. “I decided,” says Tap, “it was either time to go for it or to quit painting.”

Kevin Parent

SINGER/SONGWRITER He had modest hopes for his debut album, a collection of 10 songs—eight in French and two in English—showcasing his style, a mix of rock and folk. “My goal was to break even,” says Parent, a 24-year-old Gaspé native. Instead, Pigeon D Argile (Clay Pigeon) sold 280,000 copies in Quebec, snared Parent five Quebec music industry awards last November— including male artist of the year— and made him a bona fide star in the province. Raised in the town of Nouvelle near the New Brunswick border, Parent dropped out of school in Grade 10 and began playing local bars; his break came a few years later when he won a Quebecwide song contest. Now at work on a second album, Parent acknowledges feeling lucky: “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Is this too good to be true?’ ”

Peter Wellington

WRITER/DIRECTOR English-Canadian film-makers, from David Cronenberg to Atom Egoyan, are famous for telling stories from a cool distance— and letting a conscious voyeurism become part of the picture. But Wellington, a Toronto writer-director, has tried a different approach. Last year, he made his directing debut with Joe’s So Mean to Josephine, an intimate drama about a flighty student (Sarah Polley) who becomes infatuated with a criminal practising electronic surveillance (Eric Thal).

“I wanted to do something that addressed power in relationships and make it as realistic as possible,” says the director, whose $1.3-million film won him the Claude Jutra prize for best feature-directing debut at the 1996 Genie awards. Wellington, 31, also wrote the screenplay for The Boys’ Club, a recent coming-of-age movie that marks another departure from the austere style of many Canadian films. And future projects include a movie about addictive gambling. Born in Kingston, Ont., and raised in Ottawa, Wellington has followed in the footsteps of his older brother, director David Wellington, whose films include 1 Love a Man in Uniform and Long Day’s Journey into Night. “But for some reason,” says Peter, “there’s no sibling rivalry. We’re both really ardent supporters of each other’s work.”

Andrew Pyper

WRITER At 29, he has already adopted the emotions and alienation of a lost generation. After a law degree from the University of Toronto, Pyper rejected the affluent life promised by a legal career and turned full time to what he calls “the crazy speculative business” of writing. “It was increasingly difficult to ignore what was almost a happy obsession,” he says. That obsession blossomed last year with the publication of Kiss Me, a critically acclaimed collection of 13 searing short stories—gothic tales of people living on the fringe. At the moment, the native of Stratford, Ont., is on the fringe himself—enjoying a subsidized two-month retreat far from familiar territory, in Pierre Berton’s childhood home of Dawson City, Yukon, where he is working on his first novel. “It’s good,” he says, “for a creative person to throw himself out of his context for a while.” His main ambition? To become successful enough at writing that he will never have to practise law.

The Philosopher Kings

MUSICIANS Try to describe the Philosopher Kings’ musical style and words like “eclectic” and “heterogeneous” spring to mind. Even Gerald Eaton, the Toronto band’s lead singer, has a tough time defining their ear-catching mix of jazz, pop and rock. “We’ve been together three years,” says Eaton, 25, “and I still don’t know what to call it.” The lack of a cubbyhole, though, has hardly dimmed the appeal of the soulful tunes produced by Eaton, drummer Craig Hunter, 27, keyboardist Jon Levine, 26, bassist Jason Levine, 28, and guitarists James McCollum, 24, and Brian West, 26. Within months of forming the band in 1994, the Philosopher Kings nabbed a recording deal and came out with a self-titled debut album that went straight to gold. Now, with their second disc due out in September, the band’s musical alchemy has truly come into its own, Eaton says. “We’ve been doing it long enough,” he adds, “that it’s honestly starting to feel like our own thing.” Just don’t ask him to define it.

Eden Robinson

WRITER For a “Generation X laureate,” as The New York Times once called her, Robinson is remarkably traditional. “I may write about hip teens," she says, “but I’m not very hip myself.” The 29-year-old author does, however, confess to a liking for literary “dark stuff”— Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe. Her own short stories in Traplines, the 1996 collection that brought her critical attention, revolves around the bleak lives of urban teenagers. Born and raised on the Kitamaat Haisla reserve in northern British Columbia, the Vancouver-based author may well be the first native writer to earn an international reputation—and a sixfigure advance—for fiction that is not about native life. Her next book and first novel, Monkey Beach, due out next year, returns to her roots, with a typical twist: a contemporary Haisla woman sets off on a wilderness quest for the ghost of her drowned brother.

Juliette Kang

VIOLINIST She has been a rising star on the classical music scene for almost two decades. Edmonton-raised Kang picked up her first violin at 4, performed her first concerto at 7 and won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions at 13. At 17, she graduated with a master of music degree from New York’s renowned Juilliard School and two years later swept the field at the prestigious fourth quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, winning the gold medal, six special awards and prizes totalling $35,000. And during that same year, 1994, Kang

was included on The New York Times Magazine list of the 30 artists most likely to “change the culture” over the next 30 years.

Despite the impressive credentials, Kang, 21, manages to retain a measure of awe in her approach to her art. “Classical music is so deep and so vast that it requires a lot of involvement from both performer and audience,” she says. “It’s not the kind of music that you can fully appreciate by just sitting back and letting it wash over you.” Now living in Baltimore, Kang is busily fashioning an international career on the concert stage. Having performed at the Spoleto Festival early last month in Charleston, S.C., she is scheduled for appearances in Mexico City and Singapore this summer. “I’m no longer a child prodigy,” she happily remarks, “but I’m still working.”