Western Vistas

Reviewed by Krzysztof Majer

Over the last several decades, British Columbians have found ever newer ways of challenging the cultural dominance of Central Canada. As the two publications show, the amount of artistic production in the westernmost province is now unprecedentedly high, as is its diversification and overall quality. While Naked in Academe focuses on the dazzling output of the UBC Creative Writing Department since its inception in 1963, Made in British Columbia offers a back story of the rich artistic ferment which helped bring it about. A mere four years earlier, George Woodcock almost single-handedly established Canadian Literature, permanently altering the rules of the domestic critical game and shaping a context for many writers from the West; this is just one of historian Maria Tippett’s arresting accounts of the province’s cultural life.

Tippett had demonstrated her vast knowledge of the region’s artistic and geographical landscape in numerous earlier publications, such as her award-winning critical biographies of Emily Carr or Bill Reid. In her new book, she juxtaposes eight artists working in a number of fields: apart from Carr and Reid, they are Francis Rattenbury, Martin Grainger, George Woodcock, George Ryga, Jean Coulthard and Arthur Erickson. Although her focus is on more traditional media, Tippett’s backward glance at a century of British Columbian creativity is not one of easy nostalgia.

The account is framed by two chapters on architects (Rattenbury and Erickson), as if constructing a textual equivalent of space in which a century of culture-making will occur. Both contain reports on famous but initially flawed edifices: Victoria’s Legislative Building, the 1897 contours of which were originally traced with lights as a cover-up, and Vancouver’s SFU, where—upon opening in 1965—some buildings remained unfinished. Yet the structures not only delighted the public, but also made the respective architects’ reputation. Here, unobtrusively, one of the book’s key themes reveals itself: that of contingency or chance.

Although Tippett builds her narrative around (canonical) artist figures, she steers clear of aggrandizement or romanticization. Notions such as ‘greatness’ or ‘genius’ give way to ideas of talent, coincidence, industry, social and economic privilege, self-promotion and networking; after all, the larger story in the background is the gradual professionalization and institutionalization of Canadian culture. What unites Made in British Columbia, apart from geography, is the precariousness of these frequently intersecting storylines; absent is the familiar narrative arc of mythic inevitability. This method may occasionally result in overplaying certain events, as with the unclear sexual incident between Carr and her father—‘the brutal telling’—which is authoritatively linked with her life-long devotion to art. Mostly, however, it offers insight into lives that register as decidedly human, often fractured or even tragic. For these careers were hardly all successful or fulfilling: there is a pattern of early ascent and slow decline (Rattenbury, Erickson), sometimes complicated by ethnicity and/or activism (Ryga) or a gender-driven sidelining (Coulthard, Carr).

Another thread in these yarns is, naturally, the landscape. Sometimes it is a ‘butchered’ colonial garden, as in Woodsmen of the West (1908); it may also become a powerful source of the sublime, e.g. in Carr’s paintings; alternatively, it forms an almost organic whole with architecture, as in Erickson’s post-Japanese houses. However, it is invariably a concern for Tippett, who invests these accounts with an ecological consciousness.

No less ubiquitous is the theme of Indigenous rights. Although of the eight artists only Bill Reid is of Native ancestry, the issue—with references to dispossessions, residential schools and the anti-potlatch law—figures prominently in chapters on Rattenbury’s ‘Edenic’ Victoria, Carr’s landscapes, Ryga’s plays, and Coulthard’s music. By today’s standards, even the well-intentioned engagements with Aboriginal art would risk being dismissed as cultural appropriation; nevertheless, Tippett is careful to point out not just the earnestness of Carr, Coulthard, and especially Ryga in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967), but also the effect of such encounters on subsequent generations of artists; at the other end of the spectrum, she boldly queries Reid’s vexed relationship with the authenticity of the Native tradition, and his idea of the ‘artifake’. Here, too, Tippett refuses to provide comfortable answers to cultural riddles, opting for a nuanced report.

The research is unsurprisingly solid and all the more impressive given the range of methodologies, but Tippett rarely allows these to weigh down the narrative. The latter is frequently bolstered by a well-placed anecdote (e.g., of the impoverished Erickson living in a Florentine bathroom, or Grainger’s ‘healthy’ foot-long cigarettes) but never gossipy; ready to debunk myths and legends, the accounts are always detailed, honest, and witty.

Having emerged from the heady environment described by Tippett, UBC’s writing program is understandably strong. The number of writers of high critical standing represented here is impressive: among the alumni are Steven Galloway, Madeleine Thien, Bill Gaston, Sina Queyras, Eden Robinson, Michael Christie, Nancy Lee, and Stephanie Bolster. Exploding the usual prejudice against creative writing (that ‘it can’t be taught’ and that the resulting pieces are uniform in style and tone), Naked in Academe offers a plethora of stylistic positions across a number of genres (such as fiction, drama and poetry). Although mostly published in this century, some of these pieces have arguably become ‘classics’ (e.g., Thien’s “Simple Recipes” or Lee’s “Dead Girls”). Rhea Tregebov—a poet and novelist in her own right, as well as a professor in the Program—has demonstrated remarkable expertise in selecting texts which enact diversity, cutting across cultural borders (e.g., Kevin Chong’s “No Christmas at the Happy Panda”), confronting taboos (e.g., Alison Acheson’s “Soft Palate Remembers”), and bending the rules of genre (e.g., Sarah Leavitt’s graphic poems). Sandwiched between Keith Maillard’s foreword and a postscript by Jack Hodgins, the contents of Naked in Academe are—in keeping with its subtitle—a cause for celebration, and a worthy continuance of the creative ferment that once defined British Columbian culture.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.