Visual artist presented with Governor General's Award

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 4:17pm
Alain Latour

Few people can truthfully say they excel in fields as diverse as making art, writing, curating, and teaching. Fewer people still can back up such a claim with a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.

But Robert Fones, renowned visual artist and lecturer at the joint U of T Mississauga and Sheridan College Art & Art History program, joined these privileged few Feb. 22 when he and seven other Canadian artists were presented with the nation's foremost distinctions for artistic excellence.

[It] really is the highest honour you can achieve in Canada as a visual artist, said Fones. To me, this award acknowledges that my work is meaningful to others and that other people appreciate the years of work I have devoted to being an artist.

Created by the Governor General and the Canada Council, the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts have been presented annually since 1999 to Canadian visual and media artists for distinguished career achievement.

In addition to a $25,000 prize, the winners will receive, for the first time in the Awards' history, a special issue medallion designed by the Canadian Heraldic Authority and produced by the Royal Canadian Mint. I will probably put it on the window ledge at my studio where I keep my iron meteorites, my crystal sculpture by Robin Peck and my plastic dinosaurs that my dentist gives me, said Fones.

Much has changed in Fones's life since his days an emerging artist in the 1960s, when he used a $250 award that National Gallery curator, Pierre Théberge, recommended him for to move out of his parents' basement and rent his first atelier. Forty years on, Fones has exhibited in Canada, the United States and Germany; he has taught at the Ontario College of Art and Design and U of T's Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design; he received the 1991 Toronto Arts Award for Visual Art; he published artists books with The Coach House Press and Art Metropole; and has written art criticism.

[Fones's] artwork makes reference to typographic, design, architectural and art history. [It's] executed in a surprising variety of media: sculpture, painting, woodcut and photography. Each body of work is painstakingly researched, and often accompanied by publications that include Fones's own clear and helpful writing, wrote Professor John Armstrong, coordinator of the Art and Art History Program, in a letter of support for Fones's award.

Fones credited the Canada Council for its huge success in supporting and nurturing the arts in Canada. Still, he added, as the infrastructure has grown, the funds available to support it haven't.

The [Italian] Renaissance didn't occur just because there happened to be a lot of good artists in one place at one time. They had support through commissions from the church, the state, private patrons and the general public. All this support allowed many of these great artists to survive, to establish their own studios and to work.... If we want to have a Canadian Renaissance, then support has to come from all sectors of society, not just from the government, said Fones.

Asked if he planned on telling his students of the Award, Fones said they probably knew already. I enjoy celebrating various events with them. In the past I have brought panettone to my students at Christmas time or birthday cake when it is my birthday.

The other 2011 recipients of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts other winners are photographer Geneviève Cadieux; performance and visual artist Michael Morris; filmmakers David Rimmer and Barbara Sternberg; painter Shirley Wiitasalo; metalsmith Kye-Yeon Son; and art critic Nancy Tousley.