When University of Toronto Scarborough lecturer Tanya Mars began her performance art career in the mid-70s with Codpieces: Phallic Paraphernalia – a quirky approach to men’s wear – she left critics wondering if it was really art.
A couple weeks ago, in Ottawa, in front of an audience of other laureates and political dignitaries, Governor General Michaëlle Jean officially answered the skeptics.
Yes, it is art. And Mars’ contributions to the Canadian art world are valuable and to be honoured.
Accordingly, on Friday March 28, Mars accepted her brown sculptural Governor General’s award in Rideau Hall.
“It was an extraordinarily Cinderella moment,” Mars said. “I think this is the biggest honor an artist could have in Canada.
“My work has been recognized and that makes me feel very honored and very humbled.”
If Mars, the feminist and active participant in the global and Canadian art community had listened to critics when she first started her career, she may not have been where she is today.
When her artistic liberation included humour, a fire-breathing Queen Elizabeth I and disco dancing, the drama people said it wasn’t theatre and the performance art purists – “looking at the 70s esthetic as the primary criterion of what performance art should be” – said it was too funny and theatrical.
“You have to have faith in what you do,” Mars said. “I’m a very strong person and I do what I want to do.”
So despite what critics said, she maintained her eclectic approach.
Having a grasp of drawing, sculpture, video, theatre and performance throughout her career, the talented Mars never committed to just one medium.
She has always used the whole palette to manifest her artistic muses.
“I see myself as a performance artist who borrows from different disciplines, media or strategies … depending on what I need to accomplish in that particular performance,” Mars said.
There’s no place better than the Scarborough campus for Mars to teach her versatile art, as a multidisciplinary performance artist at what is said to be the most ethnically diverse campus in North America.
“I love Scarborough campus,” Mars said. “It’s really grown since I arrived in the mid-90s. It’s been fun to watch it blossom.”
You won’t see her lecturing in the floor-length strapless gown she wore to the Governor General’s Award ceremony, but for the past 12 years, she has been teaching performance art at the Scarborough campus while maintaining her own career.
“It’s important to have an active practice as an artist because that indicates to students that it’s possible to have a career in art,” Mars said.
“Teaching keeps me at the top of my game.”
Her award nominator – Paul Couillard – is so convinced of the value of her work that he has also edited a book on it – From Ironic to Iconic: The Performance Works of Tanya Mars – coming out May 10.
“It’s a pretty great year,” Mars said. “It’s the year of the rat, and I’m a rat. It’s my year.”