Ur­sula John­son for the win

The first-ever At­lantic Cana­dian Sobey Art Award win­ner talks cul­ture and (dis)com­fort.


“I t’s

strange, you know, think­ing about this idea of ‘the first,’” says Ur­sula John­son. “There’s a cer­tain amount of pride that comes with it, but then there’s also a cer­tain amount of ‘What the hell,’ you know?”

John­son is sit­ting in Java Blend on a rainy Mon­day. Five days ago she was in Toronto, be­ing named the win­ner of the Sobey Art Award, a $50,000 purse that’s been awarded to a con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian artist ev­ery year since 2001, but never to some­one on this coast.

“We’re so un­der-rep­re­sented in the na­tional di­a­logue with re­gards to art, theatre, any type of cul­tural pro­gram­ming, mu­sic. Think about how many opera houses we have in the At­lantic re­gion—there’s one,” says John­son. “It’s this feel­ing of want­ing more—and I re­ally try not to use the word ex­po­sure—but to have more cov­er­age, or a broader reach with re­gards to the artists and cul­tural work­ers that we have in our re­gion. It’s a weird thing—you’re happy to be the first, but re­ally, it shouldn’t be the first.”

John­son is only 37, but she’s been mak­ing an artis­tic im­pact for most of her adult life, start­ing in Eska­soni, through her time at NSCAD and as a prac­tic­ing mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary artist in Hal­i­fax. Her work—which com­bines tra­di­tional Mi’kmaq bas­ket-weav­ing with per­for­mance, sculp­ture and in­stal­la­tion; her 2010 Noc­turne piece Elmiet was a sym­bolic scalp­ing of her her­self—is prob­ing and provoca­tive, re­quir­ing a lot of her­self.

“I that like to push the bound­aries with re­gards to that strain,” she says. “How far can I go where it’s just too far, but not too far that I can’t undo any type of dam­age I’ve done to my­self?”

The in­tent is sim­i­lar for the work’s au­di­ence. “I like to cre­ate sit­u­a­tions that make peo­ple a lit­tle bit un­com­fort­able—my artis­tic prac­tice is known for that,” she says. “I’m not try­ing to make peo­ple feel un­com­fort­able be­cause I want to make them bad or I want to make them feel guilty. I want to make them feel bad so that there’s a bit of an emo­tional re­sponse. Where it’s like ‘Oh, this is in­tense.’ Well, why is this in­tense?”

Next she’s off to the Banff Cen­tre for the Arts. As for the Sobey money, it’ll go to art debts, new gear and rent­ing a cot­tage so her wife can be close by when John­son’s work­ing in Ke­jimku­jik Na­tional Park in the sum­mer.

“I still get th­ese waves of ‘Oh my god, did this just hap­pen?,’” she says. ‘Is this a dream?’”

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