Artists with connections to York shine at the Mayor’s Arts Awards

In his welcome message at the 2008 Toronto Arts Council Foundation Mayor’s Arts Awards luncheon Oct. 17, Toronto Mayor David Miller stated: “Our artists are our greatest ambassadors." Ambassadors for York University were certainly out in force, with two of the five award winners having studied in the Faculty of Fine Arts. Faculty of Arts alumnus and CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi (BA ’95) was the master of ceremonies.

The Mayor’s Arts Awards, given by the Toronto Arts Council Foundation, recognize artists, cultural professionals and arts supporters who have made significant contributions to Toronto’s artistic and cultural life.

Jazz musician and composer Richard Underhill took home the Roy Thomson Hall Award of Recognition, a $10,000 prize presented to an individual, ensemble or organization to recognize creative, performing, administrative, volunteer or philanthropic contributions to Toronto’s musical life. “I’m really humbled to receive this award,” said Underhill, who studied in York’s Department of Music in the early 1980s. “It’s particularly meaningful as it recognizes my work in the diverse musical communities that make up Toronto.”

Left: Richard Underhill

“At York, I was exposed to a wide range of musical cultural traditions from around the world while learning to play the jazz music that I love so much,” said Underhill. “As a result of this early training, I’ve enjoyed a rich musical career and feel lucky to have been able to participate in the cultural growth of this great city.”

Underhill’s award citation praised him as an adventurous performer who brings his talents to multiple musical communities in the city including the African and Latin music scenes, the swing and blues communities, and his own band, the Shuffle Demons. His support of community participation in music was also noted, as evidenced by his work as the musical director for the Kensington Horns Community Band and the Festival of Lights, and his involvement with Clay and Paper Theatre and Salsa Africa. He won a Juno Award in 2003 for his jazz solo debut Tales from the Blue Lounge, and was nominated last year for his second recording, Kensington Suite.

Theatre director Weyni Mengesha (BFA  Spec. Hons. ’05) was presented with the RBC Emerging Artist Award, a $5,000 prize given in celebration of the current accomplishments and future potential of an emerging Toronto artist working in new media or the performing arts.

Right: Weyni Mengesha

"I feel very honoured to be acknowledged in this way", Mengesha said. She credits her studies at York and another York theatre alumna, Djanet Sears (BFA Spec. Hons. ’99), for helping to set her on her professional path.

"In my first year at York, Djanet Sears came to give a guest lecture in the department,” said Mengesha. “She talked about writing and directing her own work when she could not find African-Canadian stories on our stages. I was inspired to switch to the directing program soon after.

"In my final year I was supported to do an independent study and a paper called ‘African Canadian Theatre Aesthetics’, Mengesha continued. “I interviewed many other practitioners including Djanet, and that research is a foundation on which I continue to build in all my work.”

Mengesha was selected for the RBC Award for her commitment to engaging people’s hearts and minds through theatre, and giving a voice to perspectives and ideas that are often pushed to the periphery. She was director/dramaturge for Theatre Passe Muraille/Obsidian Theatre’s Dora-nominated production of blood.claat and the director of three stage productions of the international hit play, ‘da Kink in my Hair (Theatre Passe Muraille; Mirvish Productions – Princess of Wales Theatre; Hackney Empire theatre, London, England). Through her work with the AMY (Artists Mentoring Youth) project and with Ethiopian and Eritrean youth at the Salem Youth Leadership Program, she is helping to nurture a new generation of artists and leaders.

Mengesha was nominated for her award by Soulpepper Theatre Company, where she is currently directing A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal African-American play about a black family living in Chicago’s south side in the 1950s. The show – which opened the day before Mengesha won the RBC Emerging Artist Award – is currently playing to four-star reviews at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The National Post’s theatre critic, Robert Cushman, wrote: “…on the strength of this show, [Mengesha’s] no longer ‘emerging’; she’s emerged.”

The 12 jurors tasked with selecting the award recipients represented a who’s who of Toronto’s cultural scene in a wide range of roles and disciplines. The panel included visual artist Stephen Andrews; broadcaster and arts advocate Laurie Brown; community arts activist Adonis Huggins; arts facilitator and educator Patty Jarvis; jazz singer Molly Johnson; set and costume designer Michael Levine; director of philanthropy for Sun Life Financial, Linda MacKenzie; founder and artistic director of b current ahdri zhina mandiela; playwright, actor and director Andrew Moodie; kathak dancer and teacher Rina Singha; arts manager, performer and writer Jason van Eyk; editor-in-chief of Coach House Books Alana Wilcox; and d’bi.young.anitafrika, recipient of the 2007 RBC Emerging Artist Award.