Radical community building.
The following interview of Bryce Kanbara (BK) is excerpted from an oral history recording completed August 23, 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Interviewed by Aaron Murphy (AM).
AM: Bryce Kanbara’s career stretches over nearly fifty years. He graduated from McMaster University with a B.A. in English literature in Art History in 1971 and from there, was a founding member and then administrator and then director of the Hamilton Artists’ Inc. from 1975-1981. During this time he was also the Hamilton representative and then Ontario spokesman for CAR or Canadian Artist Representation which is also known as CARFAC which advocates on behalf of artists. And then for the next three decades, he worked as an officer, curator, director at the Burlington Arts Center, then called the Burlington Culture Center, Ontario Arts Council, National Association of Japanese Canadians, Japanese Canadian Cultural Center, Art Gallery of Hamilton, as well as the Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant.
I’d like to begin by reading something from a book you produced in 1986 called Climbing the Cold White Peaks. Monroe Beardsley once observed that, “Art gives us immediately, and richly the best there is in life, intense awareness; it gives us what life itself aims at becoming but seldom achieves outside of art.” Art historian, Clive Bell, poetically encapsulated the idea when he wrote, “Who can even guess at the austere and thrilling raptures of those who have climbed the cold, white peaks of art?” Now that sentiment was borrowed by Stuart MacCuaig and the title of the book was ‘Climbing the Cold White Peaks’.
BK: The Climbing the Cold White Peaks project. Well, it’s kind of the precursor of the project that we’re doing now and what happened was that it occurred to my generation at that time that there was a history of artists and art making in Hamilton that we knew nothing about and a number of the artists from the previous generation were still around but we were very vaguely aware of them. We probably were familiar with some of their works in the collection of the art gallery of Hamilton but we didn’t know the individuals at all so. That curiosity plus the fact that I think we realized that it would be important to make a connection with those artists precipitated this project.
AM: Hamilton Artists’ Inc., you started it as a place, a social backdrop and an exhibition space and a place where you could be involved in the community. I want to read a little bit from an article from 1987 called ‘Meet Bryce Kanbara’: “Without Bryce, the Artists’ INC would not have survived. He was willing to work for little money during difficult times. It’s a fractious and vocal organization with members often not willing to work for what they want. He’s been a loyal supporter and motivator”. And there is further praise in that article from the directors of the DVSA (Dundas Valley School of Art), the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Stuart MacCuaig as well. When we talked about this before, you mentioned that you and a few others were running the organization and that there was ice in the back sink. Can you tell me a few stories about that?
BK: Well, um, we rented a storefront at 143 James North and it was heated only with a gas space heater and so in the winter times, it got pretty cold in there because we’d turn the heater off at night and came in in the morning and there really was ice in the sink. And I recall turning on the heater and sitting on it for much of the time I was there in those early days.
We started Hamilton Artists Co-op, which was the original name, we wanted it to be a place where artists could show their work, talk to one another about their work and I remember the very first time, one of our shows appeared in the Spectator as probably what’s going on in the community column or something. We were so excited just to speak in the public media. It was well, it motivated us to just do more for the community.
We established ourselves as a gallery that as you say, this is a social backdrop to our work and artists goings-on, and we…a lot of our exhibitions were based on calls for entry from the public on themes such as the Lunch Bucket show and the Hamilton Travel Poster show and the Hamilton Postcard show. So that’s how we began.
AM: And then after the Inc you went to the Burlington Cultural Centre. Almost immediately you organized two exhibitions of regional art at Salon 1 and 2 and the first one was painting and the second one was sculpture.
BK: Yeah, the idea behind that was to try and involve the artist community in Hamilton somehow. So, we always looked at our programming as regional programming and the basis of it was…the concept of regionalism, which was quite popular at the time and we…so I put out a call for, not a call a curating exhibition of regional artists, painters and then sculptors as part two and filled the gallery with all that work. So, it was successful because it involved a lot of people, a lot of involvement and we held a symposium on regionalism which was very successful as well. We had people like Barry Lord, poet Dave McFadden as speakers.
AM: And then after Salon 1 and 2, am I understanding this right? You had nine solo exhibitions there in two months?
BK: Yeah, it was meant to follow up on the Salon show so I focused on individual artists, divided the gallery which is huge at Burlington into a number of areas and organized solo exhibitions and for those, I engaged a contractor, hired, I contracted writers, regional writers to write about the work and we also produced posters, big posters for each artist and the portraits on the front of the posters were photographs by Cees Gemerden who is another regional artist. So, I tried to involve as many people as I could and have as many people interact with one another as I could just to stir things up in the community. But I suppose when I look back on that now I am still doing that, the impetus of what I’m doing.
AM: So after the Burlington Cultural Center, you did some piecemeal curatorial work and I was…I read most of your catalogues preparing for this interview, including messages from 1999 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton which involved the Albright Knox in Buffalo and Bill Viola’s Messenger.
BK: Yeah, that was a period where Jennifer Kaye was the intern director and she contracted me to be adjunct curator there for a couple of years until Louise Dompierre came over, came in and took over. But, so I had some free reign there as well and I had recalled seeing Bill Viola’s Messenger at the Albright Knox several years before that and I thought it’d be terrific to try and see if it was available, and it was. There was a room right in the middle of the big gallery at the Art Gallery of Hamilton where people could enter and sit and watch Bill Viola’s fourteen-minute video of a naked man surfacing from the depth and taking a deep breath and going back under again. It was almost like watching Omar Sharif coming out of the desert in Laurence of Arabia, remember that? Shimmering image of him that clarifies. But anyway, I asked Leon Robinson who was a graffiti artist to do a wall which was controversial as well because he had to curtain off the whole area because of the spray paint and get his work done over the course of three days or so. Ivan Jurakic did an installation piece of a branch suspended from the ceiling with one tip pointing to a fluorescent light halo and then the third group was Ellis Bateson’s collective from Gallery 435 on Barton Street and he amassed this group of people to come in and they did this trailing installation of debris which was also kind of controversial.
AM: And one of those artists, Leon Robinson, you worked with him before that on the West Avenue School Mural Project in ’94. When we talked previously, you said that that was one of the most demanding and rewarding projects that you had ever worked on.
BK: It was demanding because it was a summer project, make work project for black youth and they were there mostly to put in time so that they could collect their pay but so it was a challenge to first of all, get them to trust me and then to get them to buy into this project which was a mural that must’ve been about a hundred and twenty feet that wrapped around the exterior of West Avenue school. For nine weeks, those kids came in every day with their hip hop music and their attitudes and we had to try to get this done. I formed them into two teams that went out to visit places like the Art Gallery of Hamilton to go into neighbourhood stores and places all along Barton street and collect a historical kind of account which they recorded and also wrote on the walls.
AM: After your time at the Hamilton Art Gallery and I think about two years you worked at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center (JCCC), you made another mural there called the New Moon Project in ’95 and you previously described that time to me as ordained at the JCCC.
BK: Yeah, it was kind of a working hiatus from my art activities and career so in a way. But I also had the opportunity to bring some of the experience, the community art experience there and utilize it right away. What happened was the Toronto NAJC (National Association of Japanese Canadians) office is was Harbord Street and it’s in a neighbourhood where next door there’s a Vietnamese restaurant and a Vietnamese confectionary store on the corner and the name of the store was Blue Moon. Across the street there was an espresso bar and at noon time the students from I guess it was Central Commerce Collegiate, I can’t remember the name exactly, on Roxston road about a half a block away. They would gather around the Vietnamese restaurant in front of the NAJC building and sit on the steps and just generally create a crowd. One of our members at the chapter was trying to get in one day and I guess he was trying to push his way through and one of the students hit him. So, we decided, the board had decided that there should be something done about that like erecting a fence. I was trying to think of gentler methods like piping classical music onto the street to dissuade them from hanging around. But we ended up doing this mural project with the school and involving the espresso bar who’s wall across the street we used to put the mural on and borrowing the name of the confectionary store.
AM: I know that you were involved with the National Association of Japanese Canadians for a long period of time leading up to your work with them. It coincided with your time at the Inc. and the Burlington Cultural Center and in that space of time redress happened. Want to explain what that is?
BK: Yeah, well first of all it’s kind of ironic that artists who cherished time in the studio being alone got so involved in communities but yeah, it was like a parallel involvement in communities, the art community and the Japanese Canadian Community. I was involved in Hamilton and then at the national level and became part of the redress strategy committee and that had to do with the history of Japanese Canadians in this country where during World War Two they were interned and lost all their property, their civil liberties and my generation that grew up after that experience were so assimilated that we didn’t know anything about it. In the ‘80s there was a sudden reawakening, well I shouldn’t say…it was an awakening to the experience and the fact that there hadn’t been any kind of redress. So, the Japanese Canadian Community, the NAJC started this campaign that began in the early ‘80s and culminated in 1988 with the redress agreement that Brian Mulroney signed on behalf of the government of Canada.
AM: And also referencing the Second World War, for a great many years now you’ve done something called a Shadow project which commemorates the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think it’s 6 and 9 of August?
BK: That’s right.
AM: And the first one is at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.
BK: Well, the first major one I did. But yeah, it was August 6th and 9th. It was a project to commemorate the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the outlining of figures lying on the ground, people lying on the ground was made to symbolize how they were vaporized when the bombs fell. I recall doing, going out in the streets on August the 6th, the eve of August the 6th, in high school and doing that several times and also at university.
AM: You did a couple of other environmental collaborations as well back when you were at the Burlington Cultural Center. It was Reading the Water which was scientists and artists together. You did a harbour cruise when you were doing that project? And the other one was Billboards.
BK: Yeah, you’re right. We thought that there would be, again it’s an opportunity when I was at Burlington to engage, collaborate with another institution which was Canada Inline Waters which was located right at the canal, near the canal on Burlington Bay and so we organized this project where scientists and artists all from Hamilton could meet one another, talk about the Bay, Burlington Bay from their individual perspectives and create a project. So, yeah that involved the scientists talking, giving us lectures or talks about what their areas of study and research were. And taking a tour around the Bay on their boat and all the artists took part in that and we did this mammoth installation in the Burlington Art Gallery, the main gallery. And it brought together science and art in a very creative and almost entertaining way.
AM: And then after that, Billboard.
BK: Um, yeah. We had an opportunity to work with Mediacom which is the billboard companies so I invited Bob Yates, Pat Kozowyk, E. Robert Ross and two photographers, Michael Dismastek and Jose Crespo. And we went down to the Mediacom production warehouse and at that time, they were still painting some of their or maybe a good deal of their billboards by hand so we met those artists and it was pretty fantastic how they transposed these little designs that you could hold in your hand by the artist into these ten-foot long billboards which were installed all around, in various places around Burlington Bay.
AM: Yeah. Over the years, you’ve also worked with a lot of indigenous artists in communities. Starting back in 1991 with this catalogue ‘Visions of Power’, contemporary art by First Nations, Inuit, and Japanese Canadians.
BK: Yeah, we started that because we didn’t know anybody in the indigenous community, we had to introduce ourselves to the Aboriginal Health Clinic, the Regional Indian Center, the programs, the Indigenous programs at Mohawk and McMaster. Just try to get ourselves through the door and into situations where we would meet people because our idea right from the start was to photograph aboriginal people in their home settings. We thought that that was crucial to try and establish a more intimate kind of relationship with them rather than to have it outdoors or in some kind of setting. And, so it was a very slow process. I went to a drum circle. We went to pow wows, went to truth and reconciliation forums, we visited the former residential school in Brantford and just generally tried to learn as much as we could not only about the history but about the people themselves and their lives in our community. We had asked them how do you identify, self-identify because that’s something that non-Natives have trouble with too you know, we just don’t know what should we call you. It turns out that they have as many different ways of calling themselves and referring to themselves as we do. So, we also asked them to recount a person or an experience that maybe impacted them as a Native person and those were really fascinating, invaluable responses.
AM: Recently, very recently, this year I think, you had a retrospective as well back at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center…I see one picture of this Nathan Phillips Square there and you see some of the sculptures that you would put on a wall made out of drywall and there’s a, I mean I’ve told you this before, there’s a theme of aerial imagination or winged creatures, angels and nests and cocoons and flowing mythical figures. Do you want to say a little bit more about this?
BK: Well, the retrospective was really enlightening for me because I’ve never seen an overview of my work in one room before. I don’t know, I know when I did them but I never really examined them as transitioning from one theme to another or one media to another. But they brought me back to I don’t know, just a recognition of how the intensity of the experience in creating them, of some of them anyway because especially the earlier ones, they are so psychologically and emotionally engaged that they’re…I don’t know. I’m looking at them now and think, Wow that’s pretty intense. But that’s the kind of guy I was. [BK laughs]
AM: Intense feeling?
BK: Yeah, and spending a lot of time in the studio. I often talk to some of my friends about how younger artists are so intent on exhibiting their work right away as soon as they have something done they want to find a gallery and show it but you know, we really weren’t thinking like that in those days. We were just trying to work through stuff. When I look back at it, that’s what it is, a lot of that stuff is. It’s just working through ideas and working through technical problems and trying to get somewhere. But, yeah. I never really, it’s sort of cliché but I just don’t think of getting anywhere. I’m not a visionary so I’m not thinking that far ahead.
Credits and further reading
Discover Nikkei: Interview with Bryce Kanbara
Hamilton Arts & Letters: Bryce Kanbara
Hamilton Spectator: Hamiltonian Bryce Kanbara co-curates ROM exhibit ‘Being Japanese Canadian’
Japanese Canadian Artists Directory: Bryce Kanbara
ROM exhibition essay: Japanese Canadians in the Arts by Bryce Kanbara
Youtube: TheSpec – Bryce Kanbara
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