UVic Torch -- Autumn 2007
Autumn 2007,
Volume 28, Number 2

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Theatre Prof. Mary Kerr designs a “visual marvel.”

FOR 18 MONTHS MARY KERR FELT AS IF SHE WAS LIVING WITH A GIANT thunderbird hovering over her. Such was the “shamanistic” force the UVic Theatre professor felt as she created the set and costume design for this spring’s National Arts Centre presentation of Copper Thunderbird, about the life of one of Canada’s great artists, Norval Morrisseau.

“It was the experience of a lifetime. I did the best I could do for him because he has been such an influence in my artistic life,” says Kerr, who shares Morrisseau’s belief in the “power of art and colour to heal people.”

UVic alumni in the Ottawa region were invited to a special reception hosted by President David Turpin prior to a May 23 preview performance and had the opportunity to meet Kerr and director, Peter Hinton. The play, which ran from May 25 to June 9 at the NAC theatre, was written by Galiano Island playwright Marie Clements.

Kerr’s set design interpreted the script by using minimalist, abstract spaces and forms while screen projections suggested Morrisseau’s imagined worlds and the inspirations for his paintings.

“We were not trying to do a documentary, but a creative interpretation. The set was white (like a canvas) and, if you sat through the entire show, it was constantly saturated with primary colour. We took it back to the colour. There were 38 scenes and they all looked different.”

An Ottawa Citizen review called the production “a visual marvel.”

Kerr says her work on Copper Thunderbird was a “logical extension” from her work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games, which were based on Kwagiulth creation mythology.

Morrisseau’s vivid, spiritual interpretations of the Ojibway (or Anishnaabe) myths and legends of his ancestry began attracting international attention in the 1960s. After he became seriously ill as a young man, a medicine woman gave him the name Copper Thunderbird to give him strength.

Self-taught, he was inspired by the ancient Great Lakes pictographs and petroglyphs. He is considered the father of contemporary native art and the Woodlands School of Art, and he has the distinction of being the first Aboriginal artist to have a solo show at the National Gallery of Canada.

His life on streets, and battles through addictions were well-documented and the play follows his journey through his ups and downs, his art and the reconciliation of his Aboriginal and Catholic religious beliefs. “There was drunkenness. There were his addictions. But he has the powers of a shaman. No question about it,” says Kerr. “His paintings are shamanistic and the energy that comes from them can be overpowering. He is a genius.”

Morrisseau, once dubbed “the Picasso of the North,” resides in Nanaimo. Now in his 70s, he is no longer able to paint due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

Mary Kerr’s next set design project is for the Phoenix Theatre production of the classic children’s tale Wind in the Willows, directed by Brian Richmond and running from Nov. 8 through Nov. 24.

Mary Kerr’s set design for Copper Thunderbird, about the life of the great contemporary artist Norval Morrisseau, employed a minimalist approach. The stage itself was white and through 38 scenes colours constantly changed, reflecting Morrisseau’s belief in the healing power of colour. His use of the divided circle represents duality. The set’s spiral ramp represented the eternal spiral of life and the spiral of the medicine snake that appears in his paintings. The one constant in the set was the bed, from which the main character watches his life’s journey pass before him.

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