The gift of time and freedom to experiment – that’s what Joseph Tisiga, the winner of the first-ever Yukon Prize for Visual Arts, walked away with at an awards gala on Nov. 20.
Taking the stage after hearing his name called among six finalists, Tisiga said he was so surprised he was almost lost for words.
“Man, I’m nervous,” he admitted on stage, before thanking the organizers and praising the “great work and big thinkers” in Yukon’s artistic community.
Tisiga is Kaska Dene and raised in the Yukon. He attended the Nova Scotia College of Arts and Design and is best known in the territory for painting and drawing in addition to performance, photography, sculpture and installation.
His work has been exhibited across the country and in the United States in venues that include the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Winnipeg Art Gallery and Audain Art Museum in Whistler, British Columbia.
Most recently, his works, including Dreamcatcher (2020) and Untitled Series of 25 Astroturf Panels (2020) were on display at the Yukon Arts Centre alongside the other six finalists for the prize.
“I didn’t feel like I was competing against anybody there. I really love all the work that was there, all the artists that were finalists. There’s no competition. It’s all love and everybody’s doing great work,” he told the News following his win.
For the past two years Tisiga has been living in Montreal — circumstances that brought him geographically closer to his young son but also created some homesickness during the pandemic.
The Yukon is home for Tisiga, where he has family and friends, but Montreal brings more access to commercial markets, studio space and artistic dialogue.
He said the Yukon Prize is an example of bridging that great divide between Canada’s artistic hubs and small communities like Whitehorse.
“It’s difficult to create a really complicated or challenging discourse just because it is such a small town. The people are great. But for me, at least, I need some critique and some pushback against the work that I’m making at least to be able to reflect on what I’m doing,” he said.
“It’s kind of serendipitous that they created this prize, which is very much about addressing a lot of those needs and some of the challenges being so isolated,” he said. “It is a little bit difficult to be split between two places, and not totally be sure where I should be or where I am, but, you know, that’s all a part of change and transition.”
The prize, which is planned to be given out every other year, includes $20,000 for the winner in addition to help in promoting their work across the country.
Tisiga is best-known for his painting and drawing, but he said the funds will help him explore other materials and branch out into more sculptural works going forward.
Tisiga was chosen from six finalists, including carver Ken Anderson (Khàtinas.àxh), Amy Ball, Sho Sho “Belelige” Esquiro, Krystle Silverfox and Veronica Verkley.
The remaining finalists were selected from 107 entries and will receive $2,000.
The 2021 Yukon Prize Finalists were selected by an independent jury of three arts professionals including Toronto gallery director Gaëtane Verna, Calgary curator Ryan Doherty and Candice Hopkins, an internationally known independent curator and citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation.
Prize founded by Julie Jai and David Trick
The Yukon Prize for the Visual Arts is a new initiative founded by long-time Whitehorse residents Julie Jai and David Trick.
Jai explained that the prize is meant to increase the profile of the unique arts scene within the territory.
“We know when we talk to our friends in Toronto that there’s very little awareness of Yukon artists outside of the Yukon, basically,” she said.
“I’ve talked to friends and said, you know, there is fantastic Yukon art up there, and they go, ‘Oh, yes, I have an Inuit carving.’ It’s just so disheartening to hear that lack of awareness of the distinctiveness and differences among the Northern territories and even within the Yukon. There’s an incredible range of different voices and cultures,” she said.
The prize has been in the works for around three years, said Jai, and involved a large group of volunteers and partners, including the Yukon Arts Centre, the Yukon Arts Foundation and the Yukon government, to bring the Yukon Prize from an idea to a reality.
In addition to institutional support and promotion in Southern Canada, the large sum of prize money – the winner takes $20,000 while finalists all earn $2000 – is an important resource for the artists, said Jai.
“There are a lot of artists who have to work full time at a day job to make ends meet,” she explained. “If only they had time to really create that they would be much better artists and have a much greater ability to realize their artistic potential.”
Jai saw that among her own parents, who worked full-time jobs to support their family. In their evenings and weekends, they were also gifted musicians and organizers and founded the Cantonese Opera Society in Toronto.
It was only after they passed away that Jai fully realized that both her parents were highly skilled, talented artists – limited only by the requirements of earning money and a lack of recognition and opportunity for those outside the mainstream culture.
“The most important gift is the gift of time. It’s something I wished that my parents had had. And now that they’ve passed on, I realized it is something that we could give to other people. So that’s kind of part of what I’m doing to honor them,” she said.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org