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Q&A: Derek Besant, BFA'73

The Department of Art brings Derek Besant, BFA’73, back to campus as Visiting Artist for a free public lecture on October 23, 2015 from 10:00am to 11:30am in Gallery Hall at the Taylor Family Digital Library.

Besant is best known for his experimental use of materials and innovative incorporation of technology in creating exhibitions, installations and collaborations. In 1999 he received the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award. He is an Assistant Professor at the Alberta College of Art and Design and a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

What is your most significant memory from your student days at the University of Calgary?
In the early 1970s the University of Calgary was an amazing place where politics, passion, participation, possibility and the profound were characteristics of expectation every week.  Margaret Atwood read poetry, the Black Panthers spoke about freedom, W.O. Mitchell read about the prairies, actor Godfrey Cambridge lectured about the film The Watermelon Man and what it was like to live life from a black perspective. The only computer on campus filled a room. No one had cell phones, so you met for coffee face-to-face. The university was young but it drew people to it as a hub of investigation, communication and higher learning, when those words were taken as maps into unknown territories.

What themes do you pursue in your work?
My work follows several recurring themes that allows my work to evolve and change: Falling; dreaming; migration; touch; sleep; the returning gaze; the embedded word; construction zones; ruins; the fog of seeing.

How do you know when a work is finished?
It is never truly finished because you can only tell the boundary when you have tread over the line it is balanced upon. A dilemma. I think the blink factor is usually what I go on, and simply quit when there is still something lurking that the viewer is compelled to have to complete. That is when I know the work has arrived.

What work of art do you wish you owned?
I already own it! When I painted the WATERFALL mural for the Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto, I gave myself the quest of collecting a small black and white wood engraving from 1945 by one of the Banff School founders, W.J. Phillips. By the good grace of David Duffin, Phillips’ grandson, an abstract expressionist collector in his own right, he tracked down a copy of this not-so-well-known print and presented it to me as a gift from the family. It does not get better than that.

What’s your favourite place to see art?
London, UK.  I route all my European museum projects through Heathrow and allow myself time on the end of any project in Europe, to revisit the museums, galleries, artists’ studios and collectors in London, because culture is so obviously critical to that population’s identity and they always have some amazing exhibitions to get at in a new light. And museums are free admission, which tells you something too. London is my research post by which I measure the bigger goals.

Who is your favourite living artist?
I’ve followed the career of German painter, Anselm Kiefer from his first exposures in several Dutch museums in the early 1980s. He is someone who has been able to assume themes of psychic landscape, recent history, across time to allow context in ways that are poetic, visceral, monumentally moving, created in hybrid media that transcends definition in many ways. He is not afraid.

What’s the last great book you read?
Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. De Botton is by trade a philosopher, so his perspective into arenas on love, sex, travel, happiness and work hold pause for other considerations.  This one explores the often-overlooked realities of jobs in the workplace that we all depend upon daily, but are mundane, often thankless, and overlooked.  The perfect read for an artist’s ego.

What is your favourite city?
I love being based in Calgary because Calgarians are well travelled and have a spirit that defines this part of the country clearly as the west. This is also a place I can get to work and concentrate.