Competition Puts Fine Arts Program in Spotlight

U of G students won two years in a row


Erika Dueck

Each year, the BMO Financial Group’s 1st Art! Invitational Student Art Competition awards $10,000 to a graduating post-secondary art student. Schools can select three of their own students to enter in the competition; entrants can submit one piece to the judges.

The 2013 winner was Erika Dueck, who graduated from the University of Manitoba in fine arts and was attending U of G. This year’s winner was Samuel de Lange, a U of G fine arts graduate. That’s two national winners in a row with a U of G connection.

Dueck always loved to draw people’s faces, but was disappointed when the “career testing” she did in Grade 8 picked “artist” as the most appropriate choice for her future. “I felt like I had failed the test,” says Dueck. “How could being an artist be a career? Now I see that it can be. It’s not the easiest path, but it can work.”

She began her studies with a focus on graphic design but realized it was not right for her, so she moved on to photography and printmaking. In her final year she had an idea that she could only envision as a sculpture, even though she had not taken any sculpture courses.

“When I was six, I heard some adults talking about how they couldn’t remember any of their childhood,” she says. “That horrified me. I had this theory of memory that your mind was like a series of rooms full of files, and if you didn’t check on them frequently you could forget entire filing cabinets or rooms. I would have regular ‘memory-cleaning’ days when I told myself the stories of my childhood, the things I didn’t want to forget.”

To convey this concept artistically, she created a sculpture called The Ephemeral Mind that looks like a large paper cloud made of tracing paper. Inside the cloud, visible through gaps and openings in the paper, are miniature rooms filled with boxes, filing cabinets, staircases and other items, each one different from the others. Many of the boxes have fallen over and the files have spilled out on the floor or papers are jumbled together in a pile. The completed structure is about eight feet high and hangs from the ceiling so people can look in from all sides.

After graduation, Dueck applied to both fine arts and the landscape architecture master’s programs at U of G. She was not accepted into the fine arts programs but did get into landscape architecture and felt it would be a positive option for her.

After completing her first year at U of G, though, she realized it was not a good fit, so she is now working on a master of fine arts degree. She spent the summer creating another version of the sculpture for Dollarama’s head office in Montreal that won her the $10,000 prize – with a little help from her mother.

“I make the patterns for the miniature boxes and cabinets, and my mother cuts them out and folds them,” Dueck says. “She made about 1,000 boxes over the summer.” Installing the finished piece in Montreal took seven days.

De Lange says he was “mostly raised in Guelph” although his father’s work took the family as far away as France and New Zealand. Between high school and university he spent a year in India doing volunteer work and traveling through much of south Asia with his camera. “I initially thought I might want to do journalism but once I came to university I became more interested in producing art with my camera,” he says.

After three years of school, his degree still incomplete, de Lange took another year off and traveled over land from Mexico to Brazil, taking more photos as he went. He returned to U of G to finish his degree, including a final year of specialized studio where he was able to pursue his interests.

One project came about after his camera was stolen in Brazil. De Lange later learned that it was possible to trace photos that had been downloaded from the camera and display them as an art piece. “There’s some exciting stuff happening in Brazil, and my camera is capturing it without me,” he says. “I think this is a new idea of photography – that everything is interconnected and traceable. We have to re-imagine our connections to the photos.”

Re-imagining photography led him to explore using old expired Polaroid film. This type of film needed to be peeled apart, creating a positive image on one side and a negative image on the other. But because the film is so old, even after it is pulled apart it keeps developing, fading and changing. “They become abstract images,” says de Lange. “When I see what I like, I will scan it, blow it up to a larger size and print a copy on a special printer using light. I see the image as kind of a living thing because it changes over time.”

It was one of those images, named PVTREFACTIO VI (Black Sun) that earned him the top prize and, like Dueck’s sculpture, will now be permanently displayed as part of the BMO collection.

After graduation, de Lange spent some time last summer doing a residency program in Bremen, Germany, with studio space and an assigned mentor. He sees himself using the money to fund some of his artistic ideas as he looks for a grad school program that will be the right fit. “I may go back to Europe,” he says.

He credits U of G’s fine arts faculty with “challenging me, pushing me and teaching by example,” adding that his studio year “was like having training wheels – I got to work at being an artist but with a strong support system of really amazing teachers.”