Elspeth Pratt honoured with Mayor’s Arts Award

Portico (2011) is part of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection.
Portico (2011) is part of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection.

Three years ago, when looking to pursue a second degree in visual arts, one characteristic made me choose Simon Fraser University over the multitude of art schools that offer post-secondary education in the Vancouver area: the art practices of the faculty members themselves. Among all of the practicing artists teaching courses in Vancouver, one of them stood out to me more than any other — Elspeth Pratt.

By a turn of coincidence, Pratt evaluated my entry portfolio during the admission process, though, as of yet, she has not been one of my professors. That being said, it was a pleasure to conduct a short phone interview with her, to get a sense of her teaching career prior to becoming the associate director of the School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU in 2010, and then obtaining the director position in 2013.

Hailing from both Winnipeg and Toronto, and earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Pratt finished her M.F.A. studies at UBC before going on to teach at the University of Victoria in the mid-80s. Afterwards, she also held positions at the Emily Carr College of Art and Simon Fraser University.

I discovered that one of the first exhibitions of her work was as a participant in the now legendary October Show in 1983. This exhibit was the first artist-run warehouse show to take place in Vancouver, and was organized in order to contest the Vancouver Art Gallery’s selection of artists during their historical retrospective that same year — Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931-1983.

Of course, there have been many other exhibits of her works in Vancouver since then. In 2008, Kathy Slade curated a solo show of her art entitled Nonetheless, which took place at the Charles H. Scott Gallery. A monograph of Pratt’s work bearing that same title was later published in 2011. (I happened to pick up a copy of this publication at last year’s Vancouver Art/Book Fair, as it is the main reference tool when studying her work.) Also in 2011, Pratt was commissioned to produce a site-specific installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s offsite location titled Second Date. The piece was presented from June 29 until January 8, 2012.

I even stumbled upon one of her pieces this past summer when visiting the VAG. The work, titled Portico (2011), was part of the Out of Sight exhibit that featured recent acquisitions to the gallery’s permanent collection, and I remember taking the time to examine it carefully.

This particular wall study is assembled from wood, particle board, and laminate, which are basic construction materials for today’s urban spaces. Through a succinct selection of diagonal shapes and the presence of two triangular negative spaces, Pratt manages to maintain a constant struggle with gravity that places her work at the crossroads of painting and sculpture, while addressing the architecture of the gallery space itself with her selection of materials.

It seemed only logical to me when I read that Elspeth Pratt had been honoured with a Mayor’s Arts Award in the Visual Arts category a few weeks ago. Even more exciting to me though, was learning that she will be teaching my fourth year Studio course next term.