05/09/2012 04:18 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Audain Prize-winner taps history in her photos

Marian Penner Bancroft, the Vancouver artist being honoured Wednesday evening with the $30,000 Audain Prize, takes landscape photographs with a deep awareness of the history of place.

Bancroft has been a photographer since the 1970s, and more recently, a videographer as well as a teacher at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

The Audain Prize recognizes a lifetime contribution to the visual arts and, for 2012, Bancroft is being honoured alongside Native carver Beau Dick and conceptual artist Ron Tran — both winners of the $10,000 VIVA Awards granted annually by the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation.

"It’s such a wonderfully timely event for me, in my professional life," Bancroft told CBC News, adding that the cash award means she will teach for only one more year before she can devote all her time to art.

"I have so much more to do. I do like teaching, but I have to recognize that time is limited."

Bancroft's most recent project involves landscapes in Europe associated with the work of particular composers: Franz Schubert, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten and Johannes Brahms.

"I was photographing the landscapes where they composed their music and also recording songs in those places. Sometimes it was just a chorus of birds — a sound that would persist through time for more than 200 years," she said.

Bancroft said she was responding to composers she loved, but also to songs that have a cinematic element or image-filled narrative.

Her photographs also reflect local themes. Many Vancouverites will recall her series of photographs depicting the roots of trees from Stanley Park. She captures memories and personal history, as in For Dennis and Susan, one of her images from the 1970s now held in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery. She also often reflects on her own heritage: a mix of Mennonite, from her father, and Scots Presbyterian, from her mother.

"I am interested in questions that come out of the challenging situation of having been born here, but not being of the culture of the place — trying to figure out what the culture of this place is and finding that it is a hybrid one," she said.

"How do you reconcile that with the deep history of First Nations people? Where am I in relation to all of that? There is no answer."

So, her photographs are designed to pose the question and keep it in the forefront for the audience.

Examining history

"My photos often look quite clean, but they are accompanied by some sort of information that — when you have that in your mind, when you look at the photo — it makes them rich," she said.

York Boat on the North Saskatchewan River, also from the VAG's collection, recalls the history of the fur trade in Canada: a story that is below the surface, but which Bancroft wants us to remember.

"York Boat is a lovely looking photo, but it represents for me a piece of the history of the west, in relation to the use of the fur trade to open up Western Canada, and how that affected aboriginal nations," she said.

"I didn't include the tonnes of furs taken in bales to Hudson Bay and taken to the U.K. to be made into top hats. And then when the fashion faded, so did the trade and the economy built on it," she added.

"All of that is interesting to me: how things have come to be the way they are now."

Her next show at the VAG, scheduled to open June 30, will include work from the '70s and '80s.

Carver enlists younger artist apprentices

Viva Award-winner Dick is one of the Northwest Coast's most versatile and talented carvers, renowned for his powerful masks.

He comes from the Kwakwaka'wakw people, but has mastered the styles of other tribal traditions and moved into the realm of contemporary art by drawing on European influences. Taught his art by his father Francis Dick, he also enlists many young carvers as apprentices.

Dick created a transformation mask for Expo '86 that now hangs in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que. and has many works on display in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

Fellow Viva-winner Tran is a young Vancouver artist whose projects usually involve people and their reactions.

He works in sculpture, photography, video and other media, saying he first dreams up a concept, then decides what medium will most effectively capture it.

In his piece Dinner with a Stranger, for example, Tran went to a fast-food restaurant and waited for a lone diner, followed him to the counter and ordered exactly the same meal. He then sat across from the diner (though at another table) and mimicked his every movement, gesture, blink and chew.

Conceptual art seeking reactions

It was an intense experience that had the potential to provoke an extreme reaction, as the mimicry is similar to teasing the between siblings. Tran says he captured the project — fortunately with a friendly, older gentleman — on video.

"The way I see these fast-food places, for lack of a better word, it seems lonely," Tran said.

“It's a place where people can go and dine out without feeling alone. I was offering an absurd, generous gesture to have dinner with someone who was alone."

His projects often reflect his playful sense of humour — for instance, the door of his installation Apartment #201 noted that, in fact, he was living without an apartment door. In another installation entitled The Peckers, he scattered bird seed on electronic guitars, a bass and other instruments near the Vancouver waterfront and captured the sounds created as pigeons reacted to the treat.

"I like the idea of going out and executing an idea, but not fully having control over the result," Tran said.

Tran, an Emily Carr graduate, says he wants to continue interacting with people who are not the usual audience for conceptual art in his upcoming projects. Because of this, he hopes the Viva win does not make him too well known in Vancouver.

He does, however, welcome the prize money, which will help him continue his career in art.