Dr. Leslie Dawn, a transformational western Canadian figure, respected art historian, art critic, professor and to many a much cherished friend, passed away in Lethbridge Sunday Sept 18, 2016.Colleagues are remembering and acknowledging his significant impact and achievements.
Dawn received his doctorate in art history from the University of British Columbia. He was an important force at numerous institutions in BC and Alberta. He commenced his teaching career at University of Victoria, served at The University of Victoria David Thompson University Centre Campus in Nelson, BC and was a lecturer and head of Humanities at Alberta College of Art and Design 1985-1990. He joined faculty at the University of Lethbridge in 1990 where he earned the rank of professor.
Prof. Dawn was a unique art historian; in fact that description may be a misnomer. Axiomatically he was superbly qualified, knowledgeable and passionate about the history of art. His many students will attest to his energy and inspirational lectures and thereby the many advantages he afforded them. However, Leslie was unlike the professors at most small college history departments in a number of significant ways. He could plie the historian trade along with the best of them. He dispensed gems about customary university course offerings. Genuinely though, this particular art historian was more about the here and now. His most impassioned writings and lectures dealt with art and contemporary life, he was an avid exponent of examining cultural assumptions and turning them on their head. He revised the revisionists.
Art historians often are uncomfortable with contemporary art. Leslie Dawn jumped into the deep end of the pool. The vast majority of his voluminous writings were about current artists (many from western Canada). He was an active and astute collector of contemporary art. He was an advocate and constant presence at the University of Lethbridge’s centerpiece: their visiting artists program offerings: Art Now and Architecture and Design Now. He implicitly understood the value of their program to bring students into direct firsthand contact with original works of art through encountering the University of Lethbridge art collection. Where is that initiative today?
Leslie, fought hard to ensure outstanding artist/professionals would be appointed at the University of Lethbridge faculty, not simply nominally qualified ‘career teachers’. He attended nearly every exhibition, lecture and event; was a board member at Southern Alberta Art Gallery. He was a central factor in southern Alberta’s version of “The Banquet Years”. In 1990, U of L was still striving to transition from an institution of convenience to an institution of choice for prospective leading student candidates. He made art history ‘cool’ and in the service of the U of L primarily studio based program. Studio students could become stronger artists through contact with the constant jousting and pushing provided through Leslie Dawn’s art history agenda.
During Leslie Dawn’s tenure Lethbridge transitioned from an exporter of talent to an importer of talent. Artists now choose to move to Lethbridge versus larger cities, in order to avail themselves of unique opportunities.
What I love is that I can imagine Les rolling his eyes, poised to chastise my immoderate, jingoistic hyperbole. He was to Art history as Terry Thomas was to English humour; droll and scathing. A single withering look from Les could disarm an otherwise worthy debate opponent.
Long before the Truth and Reconciliation deliberations, Prof. Dawn was ripping apart standard assumptions about First Nations and Canadian identity. All of us, self-included, need to invest more reflection upon the ideas Dawn articulated in his essays and monograph.
For many of us personally, his loss is simply inexpressible. We will miss his uproarious signature laugh (is that recorded on tape anywhere?). We will miss his wit, his sass, his indomitable spirit. Our colleague, sculptor, Adrian Cooke, summed it up: “we will miss his brain, his capacity to reach out and communicate to others”. Leslie Dawn kept us all on our toes. Through his actions, teachings and writings Leslie Dawn made an impact upon individuals and the climate for the advancement of art throughout western Canada and beyond. Sending appreciation and affection Les, it is not everything we can aspire for, but actually not too bad. Thank you so much.