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Artist Features

I am YEG Arts: Carolyn Jervis

February 14, 2024

As the inaugural Director/​Curator of the Mitchell Art Gallery at MacEwan University, Carolyn Jervis has shaped the gallery’s vision from its inception. She continues to bring that vision to life through the gallery’s contemporary art shows and programming, bridging the university and community in novel and intriguing ways. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts story, Carolyn tells us about the gallery’s current exhibition -miut featuring Inuit artists living in Treaty 6 and 7, how working with her arts peers on initiatives such as ArtBus enriches the work they all do, and her advice for artists starting out. 

Tell us about your connection to Edmonton and what keeps you living and working here.

I’m a born and raised Edmontonian. Edmonton’s home to three generations of my family and my family has lived in Treaty 6 going back over 100 years. I feel really connected to this place and living here requires us to be part of caring for this place. 

The other day I was talking to a colleague in another city, and they asked me how I deal with competing with other art galleries for audiences and attention, and I said to him, That’s not really how we roll in the visual arts in Edmonton.” It’s so collegial and community-minded and focused on how we’re stronger together. I’ve gained so much from my colleagues and as we continue to connect more, it just enriches the work and builds that sense of solidarity and I think it helps us do our work better when we think about it together. Being in a community that has that as a shared value is special. 

How did you get your start working in the arts as a writer and curator?

I started working in the visual arts when I was 20, in my undergrad. I knew I wanted to work in the arts from an early age. In high school, I started volunteering with arts organizations. When you don’t know a lot of people, volunteering is so great. Walking into an event where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating. But when you’re there with purpose and have the support of your volunteer coordinator and get to be part of a team, it’s such a great way to get started and for people to get to know who you are. 

My early work in the arts was in the curatorial department for the Works Art and Design Festival. I also had some great early opportunities for writing thanks to Latitude 53, and writing for Vue Weekly (RIP) as their art critic. I’ve since written for many other publications but writing for Vue was what helped me build my confidence and capacity to take feedback from an editor, which was important. 

Tell us about your work at the Mitchell Art Gallery (MAG) and what makes it special to you and the city.

What an incredible opportunity to be the inaugural Director / Curator of a new cultural institution. The Mitchell Art Gallery started in 2017 when Allard Hall was built, when our faculty of Fine Arts and Communications moved from the Orange Hub in Jasper Place to join the rest of MacEwan’s campus downtown. When I started the Mitchell Art Gallery had no name and it was really a blueprint. It’s been, and will forever be, a career highlight to get to write a mandate and talk to my peers at other university art galleries and people in the community and imagine what the gallery could be. And then, get to bring it to life and see what it means in practice; to grow and be challenged within that vision and mandate.

I think what makes the MAG special is how it acts as kind of a semi-permeable membrane of the University. It’s a place that welcomes people who may not necessarily otherwise be on campus. It invites people into conversation through our exhibitions who may not otherwise come together. The context of a university art gallery means there are all kinds of chances for interdisciplinary connection. The great thing with contemporary art is it doesn’t stay in its own lane. Artists are interested in everything, and we have a lot of experts on campus and in our community that can help enlighten that. We try to do lots of public programming to support robust conversations and lots of different ways into the artwork.

Tell us about MAG’s current exhibit, -miut.

Every year we try to work with an emerging curator in some capacity. Last year I worked with Hannah Quimper-Swiderski on THE MALL exhibition; we co-curated it together and that just made it so much richer. And this year we worked with Ooleepeeka Eegeesiak Lipika, who’s an emerging curator. She spent her childhood in Edmonton and ended up living in southern Alberta up until very recently. She just got a job at the National Gallery! I’m so proud of her. 

-miut is a suffix that means people of.” The exhibition thinks a lot about relationships between people and land. Inuit people are one of the most displaced Indigenous peoples and there are lots of people living here on Treaty 6 who are Inuit. We [Edmonton] have the second largest urban Inuit population in the south, after Ottawa. The exhibition features Inuit artists living in Treaty 6 and 7. The exhibition does a beautiful job of thinking about place and what it means to be far from your ancestral homeland, family, far from language, but also feeling connected to place here. What does it mean for this also to be home. 

We opened -miut last month. It was incredible to bring the artists together for the artist panel to hear what they had to say about home and being homesick, about the importance of connections to language, food, and family, and the diversity of Inuit art making. There are many assumptions about what it means to make Inuit art, and that continues to this day that there’s a certain way your work should be. This show does a beautiful job of showing the diversity of work and subjects that are meaningful to Inuit people who live in this territory and our neighbouring territory.

What other exciting plans do you have in the works for the gallery in 2024

As part of the -miut project, we’re working on a zine. Ooleepeeka put out a call for submissions that was for Inuk artists living in the south. Again, talking about the experience of what it means to be Inuk living in the south. And we’ve gotten submissions from across Canada/​Turtle Island, I’m really excited about working on that project. 

We’re also going to be hosting the first grad show for our Studio Arts BFA students. MacEwan started its BFA program a year and a half ago, and it’s exciting to see our first fourth-year students fully move through it. 

The fall show is going to have a local history connection and think about architecture. THE MALL show reminded me how important it is that we tell our stories here in Edmonton. No one else is going to do it for us. What happens here is culture. What happens at West Edmonton Mall is culture. We have to recognize it as such and it’s important we affirm those experiences for ourselves and for our community. 

Looking back, tell us about an exhibition or project that was particularly memorable. What made it special to you? 

It’s always great when we can think creatively about how we’re connecting with art and downtown. One of the things I really like about MacEwan is we have a commitment to being a good neighbour downtown. In the fall, we had such a good time working on the ArtBus which we organized here at the Mitchell Art Gallery. It came together though collaboration with our other downtown art galleries. ArtBus was at the end of November; we spent the afternoon chartering two ETS buses between eight different downtown visual arts institutions. It was totally free and it came out of realizing that there has been a lot of challenges for people downtown. ArtBus seemed like a positive way to support people to have a great experience with art and culture downtown together. And it was amazing! People had such a good time, and it was also one of the most diverse events that we’ve ever done at the Mitchell Art Gallery in terms of age, ability, race. It was a friendly, welcoming event that helped break down some of the barriers to accessing the arts. There was a hundredfold increase above average attendance for most of the galleries downtown. I’m really trying to figure out if we can make this event a regular thing. Because we’re all doing such important work. We’re all committed to finding ways to break down those barriers and we want to do it together. I think it’s important to not just be thinking about the Mitchell Art Gallery, but to think about the cultural ecology and how we can be a really meaningful part of it, being rich and supportive and connected for everyone. 

What would your advice be for artists looking to get their start?

First and foremost, We’re so excited that you’re here. There is a place for you in the arts community and the work you’re doing matters.” And to be affirmed in knowing that it does take labour to get your work out there and it’s worth taking the time to apply for things. When you see that application, default to believing it’s for you as opposed to believing that it’s for somebody else. Apply for that grant. Talk to a grants officer for support. I know it feels intimidating, but there are such great people working at our funding agencies whose whole job is to help you. So, figure out the way that is the lowest barrier to access, whether that means making a phone call or e‑mailing. It’s so worth making those connections to learn the how of things like grant writing. 

Also, find ways to get involved in the community. Again, I will say volunteering is so rad for that. If you’re feeling like an art opening sounds like a very scary place, give yourself a sense of purpose and connection by volunteering. It means you get to meet the staff and that you have something to do at the event that helps connect you with people. That really can lower the intimidation factor. 

About Carolyn Jervis

Carolyn Jervis is an Edmonton-based art writer, curator, cultural worker, and educator. Carolyn attended graduate school at the University of British Columbia, where she received an MA in Art History, Critical Curatorial Studies. She has worked extensively in local galleries and arts organizations, and has written for national and local publications, including C Magazine and SNAPline, as well as exhibition monographs and catalogue essays for galleries in Canada and Germany. Carolyn is the Director / Curator of MacEwan University’s first public gallery, The Mitchell Art Gallery, which opened in 2017. At MacEwan, she also teaches curatorial studies in the Arts and Cultural Management department.