Viola Cohen



BEING A CREATIVE PROFESSIONAL IN THE FINE ARTS can be a challenging career path to navigate. For visual artist and curator Tania Willard, hearing other artists speak about their practice opened up possibilities for her own path.

“When we have an example of someone doing that in their life and the kinds of ideas they bring to their practice, it’s essential for artists to see that modelled.”

Willard started in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at Okanagan University College (now UBC Okanagan) in 1993, and one year later transferred to the University of Victoria to complete her undergraduate degree. She then lived in the lower mainland, working as an artist and curator. Willard is of Secwepemc and settler ancestry, and returned to Neskonlith reserve near Chase, BC, with her family in 2013.

With a background as an artist and curator, Willard reconnected with UBC Okanagan when she attended the Indigenous Art Intensive as an invited artist in 2014. The intensive is an interface between local, national and international Indigenous artists, scholars and curators, as well as students and faculty at UBC Okanagan. “The intensive offers a chance to hear, learn and understand from Indigenous artist practices located here and in other places.”

A close up of Tania Willard's art on an orange flag, showing contrasting colours of black and orange

In 2022, students and faculty from UBCO came together for a series of workshops to carve a hummingbird relief print in honour of the children (little spirits) who never came home and to remember the unmarked graves at residential schools across Canada.

Willard jumped at the chance to connect with other artists visiting the area, including James Luna and Rebecca Belmore. When she started her Master of Fine Arts in 2016, Willard notes she could participate more fully with the structured courses around the Indigenous Art Intensive.

“I was fortunate to have more opportunities to connect with these artists, to collaborate and think together through different projects.”

During the 2018 intensive, Willard presented her thesis exhibition, which was an incredible opportunity for the visiting artists to see her work and give feedback on her thesis defence. As of 2019, Willard is the director of the program, as well as an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts in the Department of Creative Studies. “It seemed like a natural full circle to come back here to get my master’s and now teach.”

As part of her curatorial practice, Willard created Bush Gallery in 2013, based in her home territory. Bush Gallery provides a space for land-based ways of thinking and working, and also operates as an artist collective with other artists.

Willard points out that living on reserve the resources available are very different than in a larger centre. Through her role at UBCO, Willard has made a connection between the Bush Gallery and the Indigenous Art Intensive through her concepts of site/ation. “It was a chance to invite other artists to visit my home on reserve, and to understand those spaces and how we interact with our natural environment.”

A painting of Indigenous baskets in various bright colours stacked on top of one another. A pink background accentuates the baskets.

Tania Willard’s digital mural titled Gut Instincts, 2018, which she created during the Indigenous Art Intensive. Gut Instincts is an affirmation of women’s intuition, gut instinct and ancestral voices. This work takes its origin in a design from a cedar-root basket collected as part of the North Pacific Jesup Expedition (1897-1902) from Stl’atl’imx territories. As an expression of Indigenous women’s art forms, the disappearance of named makers and ancestor artists represents the colonial disappearances and dispossession of Indigenous women, communities and lands.

Site/ation studio is a research-creation space that uses collaborative creative practice as a methodology to acknowledge, advocate and advance Indigenous land-based knowledge through creative making. The Site/ation studio is supported by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, and will be located near University House on campus.

“The possibility of thinking through the land and our experiences in a gallery space continues to circulate and engage.”

Willard adds that over the last couple of years, with the COVID-19 pandemic leading to gallery closures, society has become aware of the greater need for inclusivity, diversity and representation. “We see an increase in demand for galleries to change, for collections to be accountable, and for boards to include equity, diversity and indigeneity.”

Through Willard’s work at UBCO with her students and the Indigenous Art Intensive, alongside her creative practice, she brings creative thinkers together.

“Once you get people together, you get really interesting outcomes, whether that’s exhibitions, texts, or ways it feeds into local culture and community. That’s one of the most valuable things because the unexpected happens.

“We don’t often get the opportunity to share our creativity until after school finishes, when we’re out in the world trying to make our work. This is a chance to do that in advance of starting an art career.”

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ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES ARE USUALLY CONSIDERED SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL, but they are seldom resolved in these terms alone. With an interest in contributing humanistic perspectives to global issues, Dr. Greg Garrard uses his skills in understanding other viewpoints to help bridge the distance between various disciplines, and help clarify the multiple points of view that can exist within challenging topics.

“Sometimes you need to ask different questions. And that’s the specialty of the humanities. Asking better questions,” explains Dr. Garrard. “I want to get to a place where we can understand what different groups may not be seeing so we can better work together.”

When it comes to climate change, Dr. Garrard notes that the science is known but action is missing, and that an ongoing cultural polarization—the inability to understand or communicate across differences—is a fundamental obstacle preventing that action from taking place.

As someone interested in the complexity of other humans’ perspectives, he doesn’t think of people who don’t believe in climate change as “wrong”—rather, he’s interested in their perspectives and where their opinions originate.

In the broadest sense, Dr. Garrard explores cultures of nature that include literary representations of wilderness, animals, wildfire, climate change and environmental issues. When Dr. Garrard first started in the area of environmental criticism of literature, there was no such field as ecocriticism.

A group of people standing next to a beautiful reflective pool, where reflections of the poeple can be seen

Dr. Greg Garrard (far left) with students learning in the field at the Bamfield Marine Centre. The course was called ‘In Pursuit of the Whale’ and focused on whaling literature, such as Moby Dick and A Whale for the Killing.

“As a joint honours student of philosophy and English literature, I studied environmental ethics, and I wondered if I might look to literary texts for insight into the quandaries discussed by philosophers,” he says.

Much of Dr. Garrard’s writing is in the realm of environmental literature and ecocriticism, but he is also heavily involved in working with people from other disciplines by contributing those humanistic perspectives. He helps translate between disciplines, pushing people to ask more questions and look at things from a different vantage point.

In addition to his climate change work, he’s also involved in projects like the Living with Wildfire in the BC Southern Interior research cluster with Dr. Mathieu Bourbonnais from the Department of Earth, Environmental and Geographic Sciences. Dr. Garrard feels that he and his students help bring the whole research group together, both organizationally and conceptually.

“It’s really important to be able to develop something so interdisciplinary in the digital and public humanities as a way to be involved in, and make a difference in, an area like fire research,” says Dr. Garrard.

In 2020, Dr. Garrard was awarded Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight funding to support “Kelownafornia”, the next phase in his research trajectory. This ambitious multi-disciplinary study of culture-nature interactions in the United States and Canada—specifically the Okanagan Valley—overlaps with the Living with Wildfire collaboration. Both projects are working with Indigenous partners to consider how culture and nature are interacting with each other in order to help address the ongoing wildfire challenges in the BC Interior.

While scientific aspects of climate change are well understood, this hasn’t yielded the kind of concerted political and social response that scientists might have hoped for. The Okanagan Valley is experiencing immense pressure from property development and agriculture, and this will only intensify as the population grows and the climate warms over the coming decades. The Kelownafornia project aims to improve citizens’ understanding of where they live, and to highlight the gap between the idyll and the biological and climatic reality.

“We hope the project will increase support for measures to enhance the environmental sustainability of our communities here in the valley for the future,” Dr. Garrard says.

In recognition of his ongoing work exploring how culture and nature interact, and his efforts to help people communicate and understand across their differences, Dr. Garrard was named UBC Okanagan’s 2023 Researcher of the Year for the Social Sciences and Humanities.

Bringing clarity to complex situations, he says, is always a great reward.

“As a literary critic, I feel empowered helping other disciplines understand what they don’t know, what they can’t know or what they aren’t able to see.”

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THE CREATIVE METHODS INSPIRED BY HER INTERDISCIPLINARY graduate program allowed master’s student Judith Burr to think beyond traditional written formats and instead create an academic podcast as her thesis project.

During her undergraduate degree at Stanford University in California, Burr  contributed to two podcasts—Philosophy Talk and Generation Anthropocene. After earning her undergraduate degrees and working as a freelance writer, Burr realized she wanted more structure and support so started looking for a master’s program.

“I was looking for a program that wasn’t in a major city that would let me do a digital audio thesis, and UBC Okanagan just kind of jumped out as a place I’d find support—it was an exciting opportunity.”

The audio podcast Burr created for her thesis was supported by her supervisors from day one. The podcast, called Listening to Fire Knowledges in and around the Okanagan Valley, is centred on fourteen interviews discussing fire in the Okanagan Valley, and the history of living with fire in the region.

“Coming into a fire-prone landscape, I had some sense of what I wanted to figure out. I wanted to research and ask questions about what living with fire has been like here, historically and in the present-day.”

Burr adds that she already had some research experience related to fire. She learned about cultural burning—which is done by Indigenous communities using traditional Indigenous knowledge—while completing her honours thesis at Stanford University. Now in the Okanagan—and with so many questions about the reality of how we live with fire on a yearly basis—talking about these issues in the form of a podcast and having conversations with experts and people from the region allowed Burr to research fire history once again. It also begged contemporary questions about living with fire.

“I’m proud of the way I was able to develop something interdisciplinary in the digital and public humanities and use my thesis as a way to try and make a difference in the space of fire research.”

“I was looking for a program that wasn’t in a major city that would let me do a digital audio thesis, and UBC Okanagan just kind of jumped out as a place I’d find support—it was an exciting opportunity.”

As a student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies program, under the supervision of Dr. Karis Shearer and Dr. Greg Garrard, Burr was excited about the possibilities of joining the Digital Arts & Humanities theme. She worked as a research assistant in the AMP Lab during her studies, with a focus on the SpokenWeb podcast. It was support from the AMP Lab community and the feedback she received from her supervisors that made finishing her podcast thesis possible. “I’m a big ideas person, and I needed something to help me reign it in,” she jokes.

Burr was also supported by the New Frontiers in Research Fund through UBC Okanagan’s Living with Wildfire project. The meetings and conversations she took part in through this interdisciplinary research community were an important part of her learning experience.

She says that Dr. Karis Shearer and Dr. Hannah McGregor, who supervised her work with the SpokenWeb Podcast, have worked to theorize what podcasting can be as an offering for academic research. “Podcasting is more than just sharing what we study; it actually can be a specific research process in and of itself.”

Through her thesis podcast, Burr wanted to share three key ideas: first, that fire has shaped life in the Okanagan Valley for millennia; second, the histories of wildfire, controlled burning and fire suppression are entangled with histories of Indigenous cultural oppression and illegalizing cultural burning practices; and finally, that podcasting can be an effective way to do academic research and share these complex stories. Burr also created her podcast to be accessible to people who are not fire researchers, and to contextualize it in terms of it being an academic project and thesis podcast.

“In doing feminist research, having queer and feminist faculty on staff has been a formative part of this program for me, as a queer person,” Burr says. “Within Dr. Shearer’s AMP Lab, we explicitly talked about and supported feminist digital humanities research, and that’s been really important to me as I worked to put my feminist values into practice in my thesis podcast work.”

Burr has now started her doctoral studies in geography at UBC Vancouver. “I’m excited to continue researching these interdisciplinary threads in the context of geography. There are communities of digital geographers, feminist geographers and historical geographers in the department, and all of these play to my interest in fire history and the way I do research.”

Burr says she plans to continue studying fire and environmental history and thinking about public humanities work in a way that is connected to public conversations, needs and knowledge.

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