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In tribute

Memorial honorary degree recipient Dr. Gordon Pinsent remembered

Campus and Community

By Memorial University

On Oct. 1, 1988, Memorial University held a special convocation and opening ceremony to mark the official opening of the Fine Arts building at what was then-called Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, now Grenfell Campus, in Corner Brook.

As part of the special celebrations, Memorial conferred an honorary doctor of letters degree upon Gordon Pinsent.

The actor, writer, director and singer, who passed away on Feb. 25, 2023, at the age of 92, delivered the following address to the assembled graduating students and special guests on that day 35 years ago.

From using the arts to “hold up a mirror” to ourselves to drawing from the creative “well” that is Newfoundland and Labrador culture, and from keeping our eye on the horizon to not sweating a few detours in life, much of the advice Dr. Pinsent offered to the young people in the audience that day still stands.

Dr. Gordon Pinsent’s full address to convocation

“Salutations – I consider myself enormously privileged. To be honoured in this way by historic Memorial University, and am sincerely delighted to be here. I am further pleased to be in the company of my fellow honorands, Mrs. Helen Shepherd and Mr. Reg Shepherd, being honoured in recognition of their work in and for the visual arts, and Mr. Justice Lloyd Soper of Corner Brook, also a long-time support of the arts. I sincerely thank you on their behalf.

“I feel inclined to begin with an apology. For any members of my Grand Falls family who see any of this or hear about my being honoured in this way. If you thought I was hopeless as a child, whose only dubious talent was in the creative way he could manage to make food disappear – you were right.

“And I’m still hopeless, but this is how I cover it up! When no one was looking, I simply drew on my creative forces, had a good whitewash behind the ears and went uptown. Hopeless is still in the cellar somewhere . . . I still let him out when I’m sure that no one’s going to come to the door. To be here at this particular time – this special time – as the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College School of Fine Arts opens its doors to future artists, means that much more to me.

“We artists claim one common fact: we like what we do. The life’s work we’ve dedicated ourselves to, given up our other options for, was an ensnarement we could not have avoided, and we’re glad we didn’t. Whatever rewards we get, whether it’s a reader’s delight at what had been the secret words of the lonely writer, seeing a single perceptive viewer take in a fine painting, or being paid in goosebumps for a live theatrical performance by a live audience, artists cannot fail at one conclusion: they know where home is. And the School of Fine Arts will be just that and more for the artists coming through here, serious about their crafts, and about the roles they can play in the persistence of the artist as a viable contribution towards the health and welfare of life around them. For those here today who will be the first to benefit from this system – and the next year’s group, and all groups that follow – this fine arts school is surely a good part of what you’ve been waiting for. It’s a voice. This society has had a tough time hearing the voice of the artists in this country, and for a good part, has pretended not to hear it.

“Throughout modern history, society has understood bricks, walls, signs, territory, claims, stakes and economic reality, and if art can slip in between any of these, it can stand a chance at being heard. And with this tangible commitment to the artist – the School of Fine Arts – the statement has been made in the physical, practical language, anyone can understand, giving you a base from which you can stretch, mould, pry and wrestle a concept from a disembodied little idea in the head that might never have seen daylight, into a thing to see, touch, celebrate and make a difference. Then your art becomes fact. Made so, in terms not to be taken lightly, by wood, brick, the good faith of those who made it possible and whatever other materials, tangible and otherwise, that this School of Fine Arts has been built with.

“In Canada in the sixties, there was the brain drain. And there has been the most dramatic proof that they never come back as quickly as they leave.

“For the uninitiated, a great deal of what the artist is about, as far as society is concerned, has something to do with our mother’s simple advice: ‘Watch yourself on the road!’, which never quite worked for me because I’d keep such a close eye on myself – the way I was dressed, the way I walked – that by the time I got to school, I’d have tire marks all over me. Anyway, ‘watching ourselves’ is what we are about in the field of the creative arts industry, all art, as students of the human comedy, holding up that mirror to ourselves; recognizing, identifying, exposing what is right about us and what is wrong, our passing marks and imperfections, when we’re on the right track and when we’re not, seeing reasons to be more self-critical and reasons to celebrate, who we are, doing what we do.

“We can tell when there are improvements for the dramatic artist because we’re invited to the table. True, we have to sit below the salt, but that’s fair game. But the kind of final proof that a shift is possible can happen here and now, and obviously is, to some degree, for the arts here at home. And whatever happens here will obviously be a reflection of who you are and where you are at this very point in your time! And drawing from this particular well – Newfoundland – will be one pleasure and privilege you will not soon forget, as artists. Your work will be stronger for it, drawing from this well. And more truthful, and ultimately more meaningful because it will have come from the most solid workshop possible: you, yourself, all of you who want to see it through. And who knows better than to base your work on anything but your own sense of truth!

“I do feel that the clearest route by way of achieving our perpetuation as artists within our cultural community, is to not rely on existing models from elsewhere. Those cultures have been set for some time. To impersonate them is comparable to painting what someone else has already painted. Those who do that, are quite content to ride along in the ruts of another culture, then to climb out and create new ruts of their own. So they trace over other lives.

“This is a kind of ‘heat-and-serve’ existence, for the artist. A sort of fast-food approach to success. And is perpetuated by people of few ideas, whose main concern is in how they are perceived by others, and have even less respect for the artists who accept the responsibility of a culture unique to the world. If we see that other happening to us, we have to walk away from it.

“Then we can get on with sharing the celebration of being who we are and where we are at a time when defining one’s special culture is of the utmost importance to this part of the world, and in an atmosphere such as your fine arts project will provide. It should be a wonderful thing to experience. You’ll all have targets, all your own, at your fingertips, or directly in front of you that you can see. But there are those around the bend that we don’t see and which have a habit of jumping out at us when they are least expected. We can turn tail and run from them, but a true artist, who takes his or her individual creative responsibility seriously, will naturally welcome the new and different challenges. These kinds of creative people will also have an eye on the horizon. This is essential. Margaret Laurence, the fine Canadian writer, had all of her main characters keep an eye on the horizon. To her, things up close did not loom as large as things along the horizon. Things as real as tomorrow were bound to be there. But you’ll see them clearly – up close or far – with your own special artists’ eye. They certainly won’t come to us via the 21-inch TV screen. Those images and impressions are already out of date as we are watching – thank you, Mr. McLuhan – the moment they hit the screen.

“Where roots and reality are concerned, there are still certain rules to follow. In Shakespeare, for example, the uniformity of behaviour and speech is essential for the dramatist to convey the clearest possible interpretation, and close the gap between Shakespeare’s time and ours. I know – in my first attempt at it I managed to slip in three ‘holy jumpins’, two ‘holy dyings’ and a ‘proper ting’, causing one critic to muse at how brave it was of this one actor to attempt an authentic sixteenth-century dialect as it might have sounded in Shakespeare’s time. I said, ‘You think that’s something, I can take you to a place where Shakespeare would have really been able to put his feet up!’

“Look at what the children are able to absorb by just starting out in this particular place, while much of this country at any rate, continues to run and catch up with the next guy’s culture, discarding his own. But Newfoundlanders, one at a time or all at once, have the gift to start with, and go on with, the part of them that is theirs without the asking! And like Chekhov’s onion, we get richer and richer as each layer is peeled away, and there will always be more to come because of the source.

“As far as that goes we must have peeled a couple of hundred onions alone on the old grandstand at the athletic field in Grand Falls. Because that’s where the dreams, the goals, the best made plans of some itchy-minded kids chose to make their debut, waiting for the war to end. Sometimes it was cold – that was fine too – ideas like the cold. It keeps you walking. They can breed very well in the warmth too, and like in a hot-house, you can pretty well count on a good variety . . . for some.

“But, how important that all was! And what great meaning it had, according to each individual kid who had barely opened his eyes to life. What’s it called? Newfoundland. What’s it got? Oh, it’s quite something. Lots of good-looking people. There’s singing, dancing, laughing, and all of that open air, up and all around to stretch in. I remember there wasn’t a power, manmade or otherwise, that could have made its way onto that grandstand, while all that future planning was going on, and changed our minds about anything. They were set, those ideas were. They were tougher to change than your socks . . . and that was going some. As far as ideas go, 99 people may not like the best thing you think you’ve ever done. All that means is that those aren’t the people you’re looking for, so find the one who does.

“In film, a good idea is to remove your most favourite scene – put it aside – and then see if you’ve still got a film. Similarly we shouldn’t collapse into a state of total retirement on the strength of one idea – unless it’s another Sistine Chapel, which I’m sure he was told to paint, not to paint! And there must have been doubts then. He could have had this great idea, the best brush in town and the worst scaffolding.

“If ever we give ourselves over to doubts where our goals are concerned, there’s a pretty good chance we’ve invited those doubts on purpose, so as to give us reasons not to continue with the dream. But that’s only a test of ourselves. That means nothing. If doubts win, it means we didn’t want it badly enough.

“The imagination is a muscle, no doubt there. It can be built up to withstand ideas of incredible weight, to be used as the artist sees fit, and when flexed to its fullest, can keep at bay all negative and injurious matter sent his or her way, to inhibit, belittle, prevent the artist from reaching the peak of a chosen craft, and it can wreak havoc with our self-esteem. Before we know it, we prefer to do damage to ourselves rather than let others do it. We begin to believe the lies we tell ourselves, our worst possible reviews, and create a whole other character within, to bodyguard us from having to take any more chances on getting hit worse that we have been. This allows this kind of artist to be as unproductive as he’s probably always wanted to be.

“Terrific. This fine arts concept will be locked into place, and once it is, and the horse is saddled, watch out! Nothing will stop it. Your horse may stop and chew on a bit of grass periodically, but that will only strengthen him to go faster and further to where you want it to go. And you will get there.

“The thing is to not be afraid of being detoured along the way. This is natural. Everyone has gone through it.

“When this happens, remember the automatic pilot inside that is still there when you are ready to revive it again. That creative trigger is there to tell you that you don’t have to betray yourself or that piece of work.

“Truth it, it may not be the greatest thing you’ll ever do but it deserves a place in your ambition. It’s nothing more than a growing pain. And there’ll be more.

“One great difference between Canada and buddy to the south of us is well illustrated by Olympics. Canada says: ‘I hope we can pull this off,’ already looking outward for reinforcing of the plan. Then the reaction comes back and it’s good. The Olympics worked. Then and not before do we relax in the knowledge that we did it and did it well.

“Americans look to themselves for their reinforcing of a plan. ‘We’re going to do this now.’ ‘And we’ll be the ones who fall or rise to the occasion. We sure don’t care about outside reaction.’ It’s not what anyone out there expects of us that does the trick – it’s what we expect of ourselves, of your brush, of your canvas, your camera, your dance shoes, your pen and paper, your individual commitment – and ultimately what comes out of the end of your talent will be the strongest impression you will make for others in the proper sense of the word.

“I envy you greatly. It’s called a beginning. It’s a special part of the journey, perhaps the most important part of it. It’s that special fuse that belongs to the creative spirit, and if you really mean to light that fuse, knowing there is no turning back your whole life long, go ahead! Heave it outta ya. Join the club. Have a good time, have a good year, have a good life. And if and when you go, don’t forget to pack a bit of home. It’ll do you the world of good anywhere in the world. Thank you.”

Pride of Grand Falls, N.L.

Dr. Gordon Edward Pinsent was born on July 12, 1930, in Grand Falls, Newfoundland. He was pre-deceased by his wife, Charmion King, who passed away in 2007. He leaves his children Leah, Beverly and Barry.

To read an oration to Dr. Pinsent by Ken Livingstone, then-head of the Department of Theatre, please visit Memorial University Libraries’ Digital Archive Initiative.

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