MURRAY GIBSON, DIPLOMA, 1985, TEXTILES
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY JENNIE ALVES, JULY 2015
From top left to bottom right: Let’s Go to The People’s Place, 2011, 36 x 48 inches, wool.
Inspired by the artwork of: Michael Boddy, Tommy Landry, Lisa Leuschner, Mary Anne MacKinnon, Cory Pelly, and Matthew Wright from L’Arche Antigonish.
Commissioned for The People’s Place Library, Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Ozymandias, 1985, 84 x 60 inches, hand-dyed wool and silk
The Lady of Shalott, 2006, 24 x 4 inches, wool and cotton
Arachne, 2016, 24 x 24 inches, wool and cotton
Bitter Harvest, 1991, 60 x 36 inches, wool, silk, gold, Private Collection
JENNIE ALVES: What did you major in while studying at ACAD? What year did you graduate?
MURRAY GIBSON: In 1985; I graduated from the Textiles Department – it is called Fibre now. I started out in VC and later switched my major.
ALVES: What can you remember of the community atmosphere of ACAD?
GIBSON: Importantly, when I was at ACA, I was involved in the push for autonomy from SAIT; that’s when ACA became its own entity during 1984-85. So that informed the community atmosphere at the time: it united the faculty and the students during a difficult time.
ALVES: What can you remember of your experience with instructors at ACAD?
GIBSON: One important memory is the respect from the instructors and my respect for the instructors who encouraged me to keep pushing myself a little further because they were willing to offer so much to me. The head of VC at that time was Keith Thomson; I remember him because, when I left VC to major in Textiles, he allowed me to continue taking design courses which he didn’t have to do, and I thought that was great. And, of course, I had the dedicated instructors in Textiles: Bill Morton, Jane Kidd and Wendy Toogood (among others) – I’m still friends with them thirty years on. George Wood was my first year 2D Design and Colour Theory instructor; his was possibly the most important class I took at ACA. I still rely on the knowledge I got in his course thirty years ago when I’m creating my artwork today.
There was another course called “Architectural Commissions”; it was taught by Maureen Enns. She devoted so much time and energy to this class. Maureen taught us business skills and how to make proposals for commissions. Then she ran all over the city getting us commissions. Maureen asked us who we would like to partner with in a commission and then she worked her hardest to make that happen. As a tapestry artist I asked if I could work with an interior designer and that’s what Maureen did for me; partnered me with an interior designer and that’s how I got my first residential commission. So that, again, was a really important relationship with an instructor.
Something that sticks with me from my final year was I was able to coordinate all my classes so they all informed each other and I didn’t see them as separate classes – they all flowed into each other. I particularly remember my drawing class; everything I was drawing for that class was directly related to a design for my grad piece tapestry. It just flowed as an artist would work in their studio.
ALVES: How did your education at ACAD direct your career?
GIBSON: Well… that’s what I do; my life is surrounded by visual art. It’s fundamental to who I am. I was studying science at university and for some reason I left it because I thought I could become an artist. When I went to ACA, in that very first term, I suddenly knew this was the right thing for me to do: I knew it in my heart. On the first day of the term all the first year students gathered in the lecture hall and the Head of ACA, Ken Sturdy, came in and gave us words of encouragement. He also said, “only 4% of you are actually going to go on to a career in visual art”: I took that as a challenge – I thought, “I’m going to be one of those people; I’m going to be one of that 4%.”
ALVES: You reference the “spider” and even use it as your logo or signature in all of your tapestries. Can you tell me about the story behind this?
GIBSON: It started in 1991. I was an Artist-In-Residence at a tapestry weaving studio in New York City; a perk of the residency allowed me to take workshops held at the studio. I took a week-long workshop from a husband and wife team, Jean-Pierre Larochette and Yael Lurie. Yael gave us an assignment to come up with a logo for our tapestries (it’s traditional that a tapestry weaver will weave their signature into their tapestry). I was at a point in my knowledge of weaving where I was really primed for all the information Jean-Pierre gave us in the technical weaving workshop. I had woven significantly more than any of the other students and he said to me, “Murray, you are a spider”; it all fell into place that my logo would be a spider because the spider is the weaver of webs.
ALVES: Can you tell me a little bit about the artist community in Nova Scotia where you are now?
GIBSON: I have been in Nova Scotia for 11 years. Traditionally music and theatre are the primary cultural activities in our region though that’s slowly changing, but a lot of the visual art is still centered in Halifax. NASCAD would be as instrumental to Nova Scotia as ACAD is to Alberta. I think the craft practice is extraordinarily well-represented in Nova Scotia.
ALVES: What motivated you to become an instructor in both a university setting and do workshops for the public?
GIBSON: To share knowledge. To inform the public about the value of creative activity. That’s primarily it for any type of teaching experience. Early on in my career I was fortunate to be invited to lecture to many weaving guilds and that led to Adult Education courses. People who take Adult Education courses are very invested because they are devoting their spare time and money to pursue their interests. I took my MA at Goldsmiths College in London; that was for knowledge itself, but was also an investment in my future as a university instructor.
ALVES: How do you find the dynamic between being both a teacher and practicing artist?
GIBSON: The discipline that I have to have while creating my own art is something that I try to pass on to my students simply by having very high expectations for what they're doing. I acknowledge that they're probably never going to weave another tapestry again but the discipline they have to have in my class is something they can take forward on whatever career path they follow. Teaching is a constant challenge and I get a lot of insight from my students simply because I have to examine how I can better explain a concept if my students don’t understand. I have to step back and find a new way to give that information. Often that happens while I'm sitting at my loom, I'll be weaving something and analyze how I'm doing it and think maybe I can take that new approach into the classroom . Being a good teacher takes an extraordinary amount of time and energy and I find it’s time and energy that is taken away from the studio. It's a very fine balance and it's sort of a negative dynamic in a way because I’m limited to the four months in the summer for my own work before the academic year begins again.
ALVES: You have engaged your studio class at St. Francis Xavier University with community projects for a number of years. What motivates you to do so? Walk me through the interaction that happens with the L’Arche Antigonish group? What has been the success of these projects so far?
GIBSON: I'm writing a chapter for a book that's specifically about service learning, my students, and L’Arche Antigonish. Earlier I talked about how students aren't necessarily taking my class from a love of weaving, but rather for a three credit course that fits into their schedule; that’s pretty disheartening to someone like me who is a professional artist and wants to encourage students. Art is the way I communicate my vision to anybody who’s interested in looking at my work. I needed my students to understand that visual art is a means to communicate, but that can’t happen inside the classroom, it can be more successful outside the classroom. In a service learning course students partner with a community group to achieve a common goal. It worked out that we partnered with our local L’Arche community: the idea that art communicates becomes a bit more profound when working with intellectually-disabled people who can't necessarily directly communicate with others. This was an opportunity for everybody to learn that one can communicate through creative activity. Each of my students partnered with a member from L’Arche, and they worked together in the university studio for one hour each week. When you’ve got a classroom of thirty to forty people all working toward a common goal you create community at the same time you’re using artwork and creativity to communicate. Service learning is a really viable way of teaching my students the role of art in society, and the L’Arche community gets so much out of that, too. Goals for students in a service learning course include: an enhanced learning experience; they become more aware of issues of social justice affecting those who live with intellectual disability; they learn more about the vital role L’Arche Antigonish plays in our community; and there is the opportunity for personal growth when students test the boundaries of their comfort zone. My first service learning course had a profound effect on two students who went on to work with intellectually- and physically-disabled people in their own communities. L’Arche Antigonish has subsequently created a program, Hearts & Hands, which focuses on visual art, dance, music, and theatre. I’ve completed three community artworks with my students and the members of L’Arche.
ALVES: When starting a project, what are some of motions you go through to bring a piece from research to something you’d want to show an audience?
GIBSON: For this question I want to focus on a series of tapestries I’ve been working on, for, literally, decades, that developed out of the experience of my MA when I confronted the idea that a man should not be a textile artist. The series is called (working title) “Women Who Weave”. They are heroines of myth and literature who are textile practitioners, and with their practice they control the life and death of men and, at times, of themselves. I’m not using my tapestries to illustrate their stories; rather I’m weaving them to allude to the textile basis for their story. An idea for a tapestry can percolate for years. It’s important for me to do a lot of research to contextualize the heroine in her own time and society. For example: for my tapestry of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, I read both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey so I could better understand where Penelope fits into the story and make the best representation of her in my tapestry.
ALVES: What was your most recent showing or public display of your work? How did it go?
GIBSON: I had a tapestry accepted into an international exhibition at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne. For me that’s exciting because it’s a very influential tapestry-weaving studio on the world stage. Prior to that there was an exhibition that traveled for about 6 months to three locations in the United States and opened in September 2014. A good thing for me was that, for the first time, I was invited to be in an exhibition rather than being juried in. Sometimes it seems like one is preaching to the choir – many of the people who go to tapestry exhibitions are other weavers, whereas many more people go to fine art exhibitions.
ALVES: Given your experience, what advice would you give to a student when it comes to establishing a creative career?
GIBSON: I think you have to be true to yourself… I think that would be the primary thing. You need to create work for yourself first; then put it out there and find out if others are thinking about what you’re thinking about. I believe it is too easy to pander to your audience: for example, there’s a lot of postmodernism and poststructuralism floating around and, I think, particularly at art school, that you can get caught up illustrating theory thinking that your instructor wants to see, so you get a good grade; that’s absolutely the wrong motivation. Create art for yourself first. You also have to decide what you want to do with your art: is it something you want to do for yourself only, possibly as therapeutic exercise, or do you want to go out there and become the next art superstar, or somewhere in between?
Discipline; you have to have an awful lot of energy and commitment, but that might mean you can’t be an artist 24 hours a day, you might have to get a day job to support your studio practice. Being the cliché artist of 30 years ago – wearing black, drinking and smoking, not eating, etc. – won’t do you any good. You shouldn’t have to play at being an artist.
You need to respect the past and learn from it… you’re wasting your time trying to reinvent the wheel. So contextualize your contemporary practice by respecting what has gone on in the past.
Grow a thick skin. Just keep going.
ALVES: How could you imagine ACAD supporting its alumni?
GIBSON: If ACAD continues a public education program, people will become less scared of art. This can be a real opportunity to make the public comfortable around art, encourage gallery-going, and learning about art. This kind of social change will help all artists in their careers; ACAD grads or not.
ALVES: What do you feel is the role of ACAD and our alumni in shaping our cultural and economic prosperity?
GIBSON: Natural resources are dwindling, traditional types of industry are ceasing to exist; there should be an investment in what is called the “creative economy”. It’s just using creativity to approach problems from a different viewpoint, coming up with different solutions. There is a shift in world economies and we need to rethink how things work… this, again, has to do with educating the public about the arts and creative activity. ACAD should be the starting point for new generations of creative thinkers who can influence these new economies.
ALVES: What are you working on currently?
GIBSON: A tapestry for my “Women Who Weave” series. And the chapter about my service learning experiences for a collection of essays focusing on using art to empower people within marginalized societies. Then teaching will start again in September.
ALVES: What is a question you’d love to be asked as an artist?
GIBSON: Ask me how much my tapestry costs; for someone to come up and say, “I want to buy it, how much does it cost?”
But, more seriously; to have someone ask me what my work is about.