It was one of this year's winners of the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Visual Arts who gave the original idea for the award to B.C. philanthropist and art collector Michael Audain. Takao Tanabe was lobbying for the creation of a Governor General's Award for visual arts when he approached Audain and asked him if he would help. "His comment was: 'It's only British Columbia I'm interested in at the moment, so you'll have to go do something else,'" recalls Tanabe. Once Tanabe succeeded in Ottawa, he went back to Audain and proposed he do something for the visual arts in B.C.
Audain was reluctant at first. For one thing, he didn't want to step on the toes of the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation, which was already giving out the VIVA Award to a mid-career artist. He asked Doris Shadbolt about it. "She said, 'The more the merrier,'" recalls Audain.
So he went ahead with the idea, and Tanabe helped him write the criteria. "We have such internationally important artists in our province, and we need to give them more recognition," says Audain. "If this is a small way of contributing toward it, great."
The inaugural prize in 2004 went to Ann Kipling. Subsequent recipients of the award – funded by the Audain Foundation for the Visual Arts – have included Jeff Wall, E.J. Hughes, Rodney Graham, Robert Davidson and Gordon Smith.
"The majority of the people on the jury are artists, so unlike the Order of Canada or Order of B.C., I think artists can feel that they're getting honoured by their peers," says Audain, who does not sit in on the jury deliberations.
To mark the 10th year of the award, two artists will each receive a $30,000 prize – Gathie Falk and Tanabe himself.
"It took a little while," jokes Tanabe, "but here it is."
Tanabe is in love with landscapes and has been painting them for decades. Tanabe, born in Prince Rupert in 1926, began as an abstract painter in 1949. He stuck with abstraction until the early 1970s, when he was living in New York and began exploring the Hudson River Valley and upstate New York. When he was invited to the Banff Centre, he used it as an opportunity to spend time painting the prairie landscape beyond the mountains. After a decade at Banff, he returned to B.C., holing himself up in a studio in Errington, just outside Parksville on Vancouver Island.
He is a member of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General's Award in Visual Arts.
At 86, he still travels around with his film camera, taking photographs of landscapes he would like to paint – often returning to the same scene but under different seasonal and weather conditions. He spends a lot of time on the ferry taking photos, which he uses to create landscapes in his studio.
"I've painted the interior of British Columbia quite a bit and various other places, but the vast majority have been the west coast," says Tanabe, "because every time I look out on the water I see something else that I love to paint."
Columbia Plateau 7/96, acrylic on canvas, is an early example of a Tanabe sunset – made in 1996 – and one of his few U.S. paintings. He drove down to the interior of Washington State and the land, he says, reminded him an awful lot of the Canadian prairies.
There have been many dramatic sunsets since. Don't see any metaphor in that, warns Tanabe. "I hate to think that it's my last hurrah and that I'm painting sunsets," he laughs. "I just like the whole idea of that dark, brilliant, orangey colour. I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that I'm getting old. It's just another subject after all."
As a child in Manitoba, Falk spent a lot of time on her mother's lap, asking her to draw a picture. It was always the same one: a farm with chickens running around and a mother, in the middle, with feed. She also asked her brother, eight years her senior, to draw for her. In both cases she knew early on: She could do better.
Falk studied art and education at the University of British Columbia, and became an elementary teacher. She left teaching after a few years to concentrate on her art – painting, sculpture, performance. Her work is in numerous collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, and she has received the Governor General's Award in Visual Arts and the Order of Canada.
196 Apples, among her best-known works, was inspired by her daily walk in the late 1960s past an East Vancouver corner store, where apples were piled up in the window. "I thought, wow, that's really something – a pyramid of these apples. But if I made them, they would be better. So I made them."
It was painstaking work: each apple individually thrown on the wheel, shaped, dried, fired and glazed repeatedly. After months of this, she put the pile in her kiln. "This is the scary part," she recalls. "If any one of those apples had rolled a bit, the whole thing would have come down and my kiln would have been forever full of apples. So great fear and trembling throughout that firing."
The sculpture remained intact, but the bottom was stuck to the kiln. She carefully liberated it with her chisel and hammer, and the help of two strong friends. She then armed herself with an electric rotary sander to get at the bottom.
"I worked for a week getting all that crud off," she says.
196 Apples was first shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Today, it remains in her home. "My gallery has wanted me to sell it over and over, but I've said no, no, no. I want something from then to show people in my house," says Falk, 85, who is still making art despite a painful operation on her tailbone.
Ultimately, she says, 196 Apples will return to the VAG. "I promised it to them when I die. However, I can change my mind, right? If I need to? I tell people who ask me: 'Do you have insurance? Do you have old age insurance?' I say 'No, I have the apples.'"
The Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts will be awarded April 4, along with the VIVA Award (to Elizabeth McIntosh) and the inaugural Alvin Balkind Curator's Prize to Helga Pakasaar and Presentation House Gallery.