Garry Neill Kennedy (1935-2021)—artist, educator, administrator, activist, icon—died in Vancouver on August 8. He was 85 years old. On Saturday, October 2, the first of what will be a cross-country series of memorial services was held at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Next up will be a memorial in his birthplace, St. Catherine’s, Ontario, on October 9, in Toronto at Art Metropole on a date still to be determined, and in Vancouver on January 8, 2022. More celebrations, both formal and informal, will surely follow. After all, Kennedy, who over his almost 60-year career as an art educator influenced countless students, who often referred to him simply as “GNK.” Few Canadian contemporary artists, whether they were Kennedy’s students or not, are free of an intellectual and aesthetic debt to this towering figure. With his passing, as many have noted, an era has truly come to an end.

That era, of course, was, in large part, the golden years of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. It was a time when a small, provincial, and rather conservative art school in Halifax rose to international prominence as arguably the best art school in the world. That unlikely transformation was the product of the innovative, subversive, and highly successful effort launched by a 32-year-old Garry Neill Kennedy, who was hired away from the art department of Northland College in Ashland Wisconsin in 1967 to become NSCAD’s first president.

For 23 years Kennedy led NSCAD, and era that saw such remarkable innovations as the NSCAD Visiting Artists Program, the NSCAD Press, the NSCAD Lithography Workshop, and NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens and Mezzanine galleries. He hired a team of remarkable artists and educators—Gerald Ferguson, David Askevold, Patrick Kelly, Dennis Young, Jack Lemon, among many others—and gave them the room (and the financial support) to create programs that would prompt one international art magazine to wonder if NSCAD wasn’t “The best art college in North America?” No one associated with NSCAD in those heady times would have any hesitation in answering, “Yes!’

Kennedy resigned NSCAD’s presidency in 1990, but he remained a full-time professor there until retiring in 2005 (he continued to teach part-time until 2011). In 2014 he moved to Vancouver with his partner Cathy Busby (his first wife, Jayne, had died in 2000) to teach at the University of British Columbia.

His career as an artist has been as storied as his time as a professor and university president, which is not surprising as he did not much differentiate between the various roles. His nationally touring retrospective, Garry Neill Kennedy: Work of Four Decades (organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the National Gallery of Canada in 2000), contained many examples of work that examined the culture of administration and hierarchy.

AGNS Senior Curator David Diviney and Garry Neill Kennedy at the opening of The Last Art College, (2016) Photo: Steve Farmer, courtesy of the AGNS

He is best known, however, for his wall paintings, text-based works usually created with what has become his signature—the Superstar Shadow font. Kennedy began using this font in 1984 for an exhibition in New York. Figure Paintings (1984) consisted of the white text “Fig.1” through “Fig. 5,” painted on grey walls. One wall featured three horizontal stripes, with figures one, two, and three, painted in the middle of each strip. The greys were lighter at the top and darkest at the bottom. Figure One represented the colour used to paint ships of the Canadian Navy, figure two, of the American, and figure three of Mexico’s navy. The other two walls were painted a mix of colours in proportion to the sizes of the Canadian and American navies (Fig. 4) and the Mexican and American navies (Fig. 5) As Kennedy wryly noted, “there is no perceptible change in colour between figures 2, 4, and 5.”

In the last few years Kennedy battled dementia. Nonetheless, he continued to make and exhibit art. In 2018 he mounted Remembering Names in Vancouver’s CSA Space, a project that saw the then 83-year old Kennedy try to write the names of all the people he could remember meeting over his long life. This year the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia remounted one of Kennedy’s most powerful works: The Colours of Citizen Arar.

Kennedy conceived this work in consultation with Maher Arar, an innocent Canadian citizen who was detained on suspicion of terrorism links by the United States and deported to Syria where he was imprisoned and tortured for a year. In Arar’s testimony to a Canadian commission of enquiry he described colours that he remembered from his ordeal: the blue of a bucket that was his only toilet, the orange of the jumpsuit the Americans made him wear, the red of his blood. Every colour Arar remembered was used by Kennedy to create the large wall-text: “the colours of Citizen Arar.” Originally exhibited in a larger gallery in the AGNS in 2007, this rendition of the work, adapted in consultation with Kennedy and Cathy Busby by David Diviney, the AGNS’s senior curator, is in a square room with much less wall space. The work is greatly compressed, making the text appear like bars. The bright clashing colours seem to strobe. It is a difficult space to be in, disorientating, oppressive, even threatening. No text can truly convey Maher Arar’s experience, or course, but this powerful art work surely comes close. It is one of the great Canadian images of the corrosive effects of war and state tyranny on individuals.

Garry Neill Kennedy remade the Canadian art world, not just one art school. His breadth of accomplishment, his unfailing generosity, his unstinting support, and his tenacity in a good cause, were all remembered and recounted by people at this first memorial service. Perhaps one comment speaks most to Garry Neill Kennedy’s enduring influence. Pioneering feminist artist Martha Wilson wrote from New York: “I owe my career to Garry Kennedy.” As do so many of us. Thank-you, GNK.