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Spotlight on Alumni: Art hunter

By Bojan Fürst

Crystal Parsons is an independent curator and art researcher based in Ottawa. As a business student at Memorial, she completed her work term at the provincial art gallery and went on to study history of art. Her unusual combination of degrees brought her back to Memorial to research and catalogue the university’s extensive art collection with the support of ISER grant. Bojan Fürst recently talked with Crystal Parsons in St. John’s.

Where did the idea to survey Memorial’s art bank come from?

One day I was sitting on the couch reading a book on the history of painting in British Columbia and I stopped and I looked at the bookshelf and I looked at the History of Newfoundland, and the Dictionary of Newfoundland English and all these wonderful cultural resources and I thought where is our book on visual arts? Why don’t we have anything like that? I felt a start had to be made.

What’s in Memorial’s art collection?

You have probably seen the collection and did not know you were seeing the collection. First of all, the collection is now held and cared for by The Rooms, the provincial art gallery, so what you need to do whenever you go in there is look at that label [under a work of art] and see if it says “The MUN art collection.” You may also have seen the works of art from that collection on the walls of the university. And I am also discovering that there were works of art purposefully commissioned and built into the architecture of the campus.

What is that we don’t know about the collection?

Oh, there is a lot we don’t know. In fact, I discovered that it is widely believed that Christopher Pratt was the first curator of the collection at the university and that is actually incorrect. I have found that there was someone else, in a manner of speaking – I do have to qualify that – who was the first curator of art at Memorial University. There are all sorts of secrets that we don’t know about and that have been lost through time and that I am uncovering bit by bit.

Tell me a little bit about the grant. What it is, how you got it and what you are going to do with it?

The grant is actually supplied through the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Memorial university of Newfoundland Otherwise known as ISER. It is one of the few university institutions that does provide funding to independent scholars. I am thrilled to pieces to have this opportunity to be here and dig through the archives and do a lot of needle in a haystack research.

What does it mean to you?

It means everything. It means everything to me. This is a tremendous collection of works by some of the best artists that ever worked in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is composed of works by some of the most renowned Canadian artists who also worked in Newfoundland and Labrador. There are one or two pieces by Frederic Varley and A.Y. Jackson, both were members of the Group of Seven, there are a lot of really well-know artists in the collection. It is the only ongoing record of visual arts in Newfoundland and Labrador. It is just a tremendous opportunity to understand and to further our knowledge about the province and its culture and its visual arts and to tell the rest of the world what we achieved.

What can we expect at the end?

I am very eager to publish as much as I possibly can and there are some efforts now underway to find funding to do a book that would be something with an intellectual integrity, that would be a record, but also something that has great accessibility so that every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, wherever they are, can pick it up, have pride in it and enjoy it and celebrate our artistic achievements.

Can we do anything to help your research?

Yes! I am on a historical treasure hunt right now. I’ve got documentation about a bust of Maurice Cullen that was given to this campus. And we are trying to track it down. The last piece of documentation I have on it says that it was in the old art gallery which was in the basement of the Henrietta Harvey, when Henrietta Harvey used to be the campus library. So if you know of a bust of a gentleman with a rather large moustache please give me a call!

You can send art tips to Ms. Parsons at:

Ms. Parsons will be a regular art columnist for Luminus magazine.