Nora Hutchinson

Video // Performance // Installation.

Story by Jessica Rose.

“Everything in form starts to inform everything else.”

For internationally exhibited artist and teacher Nora Hutchinson, everything around her informs something else. From personal politics to the marshy shores of Cootes Paradise, the world is transformative, shaping Hutchinson’s experimental video narrative, installation, music composition, and curation in memorable and unexpected ways.

Born in Dundas in 1951, Hutchinson has had a substantial career in producing and directing works in video, performance, and installation, also teaching media arts at the Ontario College of Art and Design, now OCAD University, the University of Guelph, and York University, as well as the Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA). In 1998, she received her MFA from the University of Guelph. Her list of accolades includes The Leslie Neilson Award, The Portland Oregon Award for Film and Video, and The Video Roma Award. In 2012, she was awarded the City of Hamilton Arts Award for Media Arts. Hutchinson’s artistic career has spanned five decades and continues to thrive now as she currently works on a retrospective of her work, scheduled to appear at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2020.

An artist, but also a collector, Hutchinson amasses films and books, but also ideas. She carries a pen and paper with her at all times to capture her thoughts on a whim. “It’s almost annoying. That creative surge,” she says of her need to create, which can happen in the most unlikely places. “[I’ll find myself] writing at the bank,” she says with a laugh.

The themes in Hutchinson’s work have broadened and matured over time, but each are rooted in her masterful ability to tell stories, infusing her work with music and satirical humour that encourages audiences to think deeper about the world around them.

Nora Hutchinson at work, c.1990s.

Part One: Music

“From the very beginning, it was music.”

Born into a musical family, Nora Hutchinson’s original muses, music and literature (namely singing and poetry), were foundational to her career. Her childhood was a musical one. She received her first music lessons from her grandmother, an opera singer who had taught in Italy (Her 1982 colour video “Granny and Me” examines the closeness one woman feels to her grandmother who is also her vocal coach through a series of letters and postcards.) In her youth, Hutchinson wrote poetry and sang in a choir.

“I was curious enough to realize that I had a very keen interest in unusual harmonies — I guess that was my role in the family,” Hutchinson told reporter Diana Hutton in a 1987 article in the Ancaster News (called “Adventurous video artist returns to Valleytown”) that lauded her return to Dundas. Hutchinson originally dreamed of being an opera singer herself.

It was while attending Dundas District High School that Hutchinson began singing with folk legend Ian Thomas, by then a long-time friend. According to a 2011 profile on Thomas in the Hamilton Spectator written by Graham Rockingham, Hutchinson’s “mother encouraged them to sing in the local duet club. A teacher liked the songs so much she had the school choir sing them.”

“These little pats on the back all played a role. I think the biggest thing a teacher can do is send a child out into the world with self-esteem,” said Thomas of that time in his life. Hutchinson and Thomas’s duo became a trio when they formed a band called Tranquility Base with Oliver McLeod. According to Rockingham’s article, “They sang three-part harmonies, like Peter, Paul and Mary, and scored a minor radio hit with a song called ‘If You’re Lookin’’.” At their peak, the band worked with the Toronto Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in between doing the bar circuit before splitting up after two years.

In 1976, Hutchinson earned her Bachelor of Arts in Music from the University of Guelph after leaving Dundas to pursue her education, first in music. It was during this time that she became intrigued by a new medium that would help shape and define her career and complement her passion for music – video.

“I initially went to Guelph (University) to do something with music,” Hutchinson told the Ancaster News. “I started off in music and gradually switched over to video,” she said. “It wasn’t a case of turning away from music. Video just became a way to illustrate the music. The two were very much related. Video just made the world much bigger to me. It’s so lively and extensive. Since I wasn’t performance oriented – I wasn’t strong enough as a singer to compete in the world of opera – video gave me the opportunity to perform in another way,” she said.

During her final year at the University of Guelph, Hutchinson wanted to take a “bird course,” something easy like flower arranging. She signed up for a video art class. “I really liked the video course because I could use my theatre background, direct it, act in it and also put music together,” she later told the Ancaster News. She credits the course for starting her on the road of media arts.

Music and sound have informed Huchinson’s work in myriad ways, notably in her video performance opera, “In Safe Places,” which weaved “orchestral and choral music into the framework of experimental art” and 2011’s Rosetta’s Vespers, “an installation expressing an operatic moment,” featuring a tableau consisting of three projected images of nature, “intended as a gestalt of the ‘frail and poetic’ death scenes of women in opera.” Another example of opera’s influence was 1987’s “Opera Around The House,” a “comedic tape about everyday life which combines the formalities of the opera format with songs about kids, dogs, cats, laundry, groceries.”

Still from Nora Hutchinson's "Opera Around the House", 1987. Photo by Cees van Gemerden.

Part Two: The Personal is Political

“All about myself.”

Nora Hutchinson’s early work was “all about myself,” she says, citing the influence of personal experiences, including the death of her father, in her earliest examples of video production. For example, her 1979 16-minute colour video, “Go Away Heart,” is centred on a woman working toward forgiving her father for dying, leaving her to explore her feelings of desertion.

Over time, Hutchinson says her work broadened to include a wider scope of topics, among them mental health, feminism, arts and humanities, and the environment.

“It’s a natural progression,” said Hutchinson in the 1987 Ancaster News profile of “expressing a more outside or objective view.” “Every artist goes through it. You begin with self-expression and move to a more sophisticated vision, you state things in a larger manner,” she said. The article cites Hutchinson’s tape and performance “This World” as an example of this more sophisticated vision, which “combines original songs and text expressing themes of communication, anxiety, and hope for a safe world,” to capture Hutchinson’s anxieties as a parent. “As a mother, these kinds of issues take on a new meaning. Every issue is more dramatic when you have something like a child at stake,” she told Diana Hutton.

In a December 13, 1989 interview with the Dundas Star Journal, Hutchinson talked to reporter Christine Bowman about “Dick and Jane (Spot and Puff),” a 20-minute video installation that used the classic “Dick and Jane” children’s book series “to provide an ideal setting to examine societal stereotypes and introduce issues that go beyond the scope of Dick and Jane’s ideal world.”

“Dick and Jane lead perfect lives. They have a perfect garden and live in a perfect environment. In the video, Jane changes and both characters come to a resolution together about responsibility to the world,” said Hutchinson in the Dundas Star Journal article (Called “Dick and Jane get serious”). “Dick and Jane (Spot and Puff)” used “the simple characters to show how men and women relate to each other, and to show one girls’ transformation from a passive cardboard cut-out character to someone who yearns for a deeper meaning to her life.”

Behind the scenes of Nora Hutchinson's "Dick and Jane (Spot & Puff)", 1989.
Behind the scenes of Nora Hutchinson's "Dick and Jane (Spot & Puff)", 1989.

In Dick and Jane (Spot and Puff) Jane becomes “sharply aware of the reality surrounding her” after a painting she has created is destroyed, awakening a sense of consciousness. “Jane’s environment is no longer safe and this frightens her out of her passivity toward others.” “She is no longer satisfied being in her perfect world and starts to introduce political and social issues which affect us all, much to Dick’s dismay,” the 1989 article says. “Before Jane starts becoming concerned about the world, the two characters are almost plastic, they don’t function as people. Dick likes to see the world in black and white terms but Jane sees that everything is connected,” Hutchinson told Bowman.

As in much of her work, “Dick and Jane (Spot and Puff)” was timely, representative of the social and political climate unfolding real-time Hutchinson. It was 1989, after all, the year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Jane’s newfound discovery of reality, said the artist, is symbolic of people’s concern for the environment and for the breakdown of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States,” writes Bowman. Jane’s awakening, said Hutchinson, was a beacon of hope. “Using these characters, I have tried to explore society’s notions of false safety and complacency in this world. I have tried to make people aware of political issues and provoke thought,” she said.

Part Three: Place

In an article called “When and Where Is It? Time and Place in Art” MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, explains that “How we experience a place can have consequence to our lives. Attachments to familiar environments can inform our sense of self and unite us with others who, like kindred spirits, call a place “home.” The unique features of a particular landscape, and what we might know about its geographic and cultural histories, can inspire us to find meaning in its physical attributes. Human activities such as construction, transportation, and economic exchange shape our perceptions of the places where we live, play, and work.”

For Hutchinson, ideas can come from anywhere — conversations overheard on a bus, a phrase of music, or watching the people around her. Her immediate environment and the concept of place has substantially informed her art, also encouraging her to foster deep relationships with other artists practicing locally. This is no truer than in her work curating “Urban Moorings Project,” a 2008 exhibit at Princess Point that featured artists Susan Detwiler, Noel Harding — Hutchinson’s mentor who taught the University of Guelph video course that set her on the path of media arts — and David Acheson, Tor Lukasik-Foss, and Steve Mazza. The sculptures related to the historic boathouse community that once lived on the shores of Coote’s Paradise and were made using “pre-purposed” materials to symbolize “environmental remediation.” The project used art to represent Cootes Paradise’s storied past, present, and future.

In the “Urban Moorings Project,” floating houseboat sculptures and gardens on the Cootes Paradise wetlands acted as unexpected public art for joggers, hikers, and picnickers exploring the area in the summer of 2008. By this time, Hutchinson was no stranger to presenting art in underused or unexpected places. Just a year earlier, her project “Campfire Hootenanny” was projected on several screens in a downtown storefront window.

Nora Hutchinson with her teacher Noel Harding, c.1990s.

In the 2015 book, Playing for Change: The Continuing Struggle for Sport and Recreation, edited by Russell Field, writers Nancy B. Bouchier and Ken Cruikshank wrote a chapter called “‘Can You Do This for My Neighbourhood?’ Public Sport History, the Environment, and Community in an Industrial City,” which “examines past efforts to sustain, manage, and reshape the social and natural environment of the waterfront and analyses how people have viewed, reacted to, and lived with these efforts.” In the chapter, which explores community-focused public history where “people care and connect in the context of their everyday lives”, the writers talk about their thrill of coming across Hutchinson’s “Urban Moorings Project,” which was sponsored by Hamilton Artists Inc., the City of Hamilton, and the Royal Botanical Gardens.

According to Playing for Change, local poet, non-fiction writer, and historian John Terpstra praised the “Urban Moorings Project” for how it “enters the story and transcribes it into eco-innovation in art that recalls and reclaims our past communities and this paradisiacal landscape, in all its complicated and often compromised facets.” Similarly, Tys Theysmeyer of the Royal Botanical Gardens noted that the exhibit “had a unique way of conveying the environmental message: ‘to tell stories of the history of the collapse an ongoing rebirth of Cootes Paradise wetland.’” Hutchinson herself described the project as an ever-changing travelling canvas. “Morning fog, dusk, and the terrible beauty of Hamilton’s factory plumes of smoke and fire play a part in this ineffable landscape. Culled into the visual frame of floating homes, there is the call of birds, the hush of wings and the sound of water lapping,” she wrote in affecting prose typical to her writing.

“We could not have anticipated the way in which our historical research work might become entangled with such creative community engagement. Nor could we be more delighted, because this intervention from the world of art captured people’s imaginations and stimulated meaningful discussions about subjective, engaged views of Hamilton’s environmental problem, based on people’s lived experience,” Hutchinson is quoted as saying in Playing for Change.

Hutchinson is also inspired by the Hamilton arts community — a scene that she calls less pretentious than those in larger cities, including Toronto.

“I think another big difference is that I feel like it’s way less of a dog eat dog world here,” she says of Hamilton. “People are open minded generally to collaborate … on any different projects of different scopes. … I feel like it’s more accessible to get your voice out there,” she says.

Part Four: Teaching, Collaborating, Improvising

“If you take up all the space in the room, your characters won’t grow.”

It was Harry Lane, who taught theatre at the University of Guelph, that told Hutchinson words she’s remembered her entire career. “You know, if you’re going to be a director,” he said, “If you take up all the space in the room, your characters won’t grow.” This advice has been critical to Hutchinson’s practice as an artist who likes to work alone, but who has also spent a large part of her career mentoring, collaborating, and improvising with others.

As an educator at OCAD University, the University of Guelph, York University, and the Dundas Valley School of Art, Hutchinson has shaped the work of countless artists through her mentorship, but she notes that the work younger artists are doing artistically cultivates her interest and informs her own work. “They teach you,” she says. Hutchinson, a self-professed quick learner, is always evolving as a creator.

Nora Hutchinson at work, c.1980s.

Of her teaching style, Hutchinson says she “taught in an unusual way where there was not much lecturing but a lot of ensemble work,” she says. “Even though they were all individuals I made sure that they were doing their path kind of thing. And sensibility. Everybody critiqued each other’s piece as well as me or I would wreak havoc. So, they learned to critique as well.”

When it comes to collaboration and improvisation in her work, it has been crucial for Hutchinson to build relationships with artists she trusts. Part of that trust is giving the others the creative space to do what they are good at. You have to “let the performers become their own,” she says.

One of Hutchinson’s pieces in which collaboration was imperative was “In Safe Spaces,” her 40-minute 2006 musical theatre performance opera. Filmed in both colour and black and white, it tells the narrative of Rosetta, a student of herbology, gathering plant specimens. It is also about Rosetta’s “ongoing struggle with anxiety attacks and depression.” Most recently, an updated “In Safe Spaces” was performed at Hamilton’s Factory Media Centre on James Street North in January 2018, weaving “traditional opera practices (aria and recitative) with madrigal, folk klessmer and spoken word.” It featured performers Sue Smith, Peg Evans, Jeff Bird, Neal Evans, Tor Luakasik-Foss, and Curtis Donnahee.

Nora Hutchinson is quoted as saying that she creates a body of work that urges audiences to take a hard look at the world around them. This work, born of her own natural curiosity and ability to tell vivid, affecting stories, continues to challenge the ways in which audiences view their immediate environment.

“I leave a lot of room to think,” she says. “My videos are pretty readable. They’re not weird, but I do think they are thought provoking.”

About the author: A graduate of Carleton University’s School of Journalism, Jessica Rose is a writer, editor, and book reviewer whose writing has appeared across Canada including in Quill and Quire, Room Magazine, and THIS Magazine. Jessica is a founding editor at The Inlet, the book reviews editor at THIS Magazine, a senior editor at the Hamilton Review of Books, and a long-time columnist and feature writer for Hamilton Magazine. She is the current marketing manager for gritLIT: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival and an editor at Brainspace Magazine. She sits on the Hamilton Arts Council’s Literary Arts Committee and is the social media coordinator for YWCA Hamilton. Jessica has more than 10 years of experience in educational publishing where she writes and edits books for children. She is a current board member at the Adult Basic Education Association (ABEA).

The following oral history video was filmed in September 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.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

To view more of Nora Hutchinson’s work, please visit the Building Cultural Legacies Vimeo page.

Vtape: Nora Hutchinson

National Gallery of Canada:  Nora Hutchinson