by Barbara Black
Kavanaugh did his PhD in philosophy at Concordia in the 1980s. Deeply interested in the native approach to arts and crafts, he wrote a doctoral thesis on the subject called The Art of Earth and Fire. He himself is a master potter.
Last year, he responded to an advertisement in TheGlobe and Mail for someone to take up "a new challenge" in the arts in the remote community of Elliot Lake: create a curriculum for an art school with strong native elements, and be its dean.
Elliot Lake, on the northern shore of Lake Huron between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, is an example of municipal renaissance. It was built in 1955 and prospered for about 30 years as the uranium capital of North America.
Then, in the late 1980s, the world uranium market collapsed. Elliot Lake and its surrounding region were devastated: 65 per cent of jobs were lost, and nearly 50 per cent of the population moved out within two years, leaving a traumatized remnant of only 9,000.
However, it has remade itself into an upscale retirement community, offering tranquility, superb municipal infrastructure and low, low real estate. Now its Web site says, "Elliot Lake. Population, 13,585. Capacity, at least 30,000."
Kavanaugh describes White Mountain Academy of the Arts as the second stage of this renaissance, an effort to attract a young and diversified population base.
A collaborative project by the City of Elliot Lake and the Anishinaabek people of the Serpent River First Nation, White Mountain is a private, not-for-profit school offering a four-year program in contemporary and First Nations arts, plus entrepreneurial guidance and emotional support.
It's starting out small, with 19 students, although the administrators hope to fill the school with as many as 200. Kavanaugh described the first class as comprising 12 women and seven men. Eight are native and 11 non-native, and seven are mature students and 12 recent high-school graduates, he said.
Concordia's Dean of Fine Arts, Christopher Jackson, was the keynote speaker at the official opening of the White Mountain Academy of the Arts on September 26.
"Bob Kavanaugh has a very rich background academically," Jackson said on his return. "After he was invited to be Dean, he called on me and many of our staff and faculty to assist him in building the new facility and setting the curriculum. We have discussed ways in which our Faculty can continue to strengthen our association through exchanges of students and faculty."
Two Concordians are on the White Mountain faculty: Lynn Beavis, who is doing her MA in Art History, and Arthur Renwick (MFA Photography). The faculty also includes native practitioners chosen by the First Nation.
"The opening was very moving in many respects," Jackson reflected. "It is impressive to see how these two cultures have worked together to create such a unique environment for the study of the arts."