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Betty Goodwin wins first Harold Town Prize

by Barbara Black

Betty Goodwin art

So Certain Was I, I Was a Horse, Betty Goodwin, 1984, mixed media, Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery

Congratulations to former Fine Arts student Betty Goodwin, who last week became the first winner of the $25,000 Harold Town Prize for Drawing.

Goodwin, one of Canada's most distinguished artists, was born in 1923 and has lived all her life in Montreal. She exhibited with the Canadian Group of Painters in the 1950s, but her art really developed its distinctive character in the 1960s, which is when she started studying at Concordia.

"She was dissatisfied with what she had been doing, and wanted to radically change it," explained Professor Yves Gaucher, who became her teacher and good friend. Goodwin started with Gaucher in the printmaking program in 1966, and they got on so well that she worked exclusively with him over the three years she was here.

The Concordia Art Gallery mounted a show of her work in February-March 1986 that included Vests (1969 to 1974), and the larger-scale Tarpaulins (1974 to 1978), both explorations of "the aesthetic of surface," as curator Sandra Paikowsky described them.

Goodwin's preoccupation with the tactile has always been accompanied, however, with a strong graphic element. As Gaucher said last week, "she is an artist who draws," a quality acknowledged through this prestigious new award, named after another famous graphic Canadian artist.

Goodwin's draftsmanship was especially striking in the series of large paintings she did through the 1980s featuring faceless figures swimming and drowning (see photo), and her scratchy, brooding images of beds and tubs. Many critics have remarked on the way these works seem to convey depths of pain.

As Globe and Mail arts reporter Val Ross wrote in last Saturday's two-page feature article, "Betty Goodwin's art -- her wounded figure drawings, her sombre steel structures, her scarred tarpaulin hangings -- project such powerful sorrow that strangers have been known to burst into tears in front of them."

However, visual arts critic Blake Gopnik, writing in the same issue, brought some healthy balance to the assessment: "To fully appreciate Goodwin, it's crucial to put aside the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth long enough to appreciate the elegant design and polished eye that she always brings to bear."

Goodwin, who has also previously won the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas and the Gershon Iskowitz Prize, had her first solo exhibition at Montreal's Musée d'art contemporain in 1976. She currently has two exhibitions in Toronto, one at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the other at the Sable Castelli Gallery. A new book has been published by AGO director Jessica Bradley (also a one-time Concordia student) called The Art and Life of Betty Goodwin.

As Yves Gaucher remarked, Goodwin's career has followed the struggle of every artist, and as a teacher, he tried to support her in her self-discovery. "The most difficult thing is [figuring out] what you want to say, and how," he said. "The only way is to be attentive to your own self. Follow your tendencies -- listen, compare, think."

Gaucher, himself a much-honoured artist, will be the subject of a retrospective of his 45 years of artistic output at the Musée de Québec, in Quebec City, next year.

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.