Humans of UofR Libraries #5

Jason Cawood (Archer Library):

Like most University staff, by the time August 2020 came around I had already been working from home for about five months. By then I had settled fairly well into the remote work arrangement but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t actively losing my mind spending all day in my apartment. So when I was given the opportunity to (partially) return to the campus to assist University Archives staff with processing a massive art donation, I jumped at the chance. Not only was it a good use of my skill-set (I have a BFA and used to install art at various galleries in the 2000s) but it meant I could actually exist outside of my living room for a change. The donation consisted of Canadian artist Mary Filer’s artworks on paper and canvas, amounting to some 4000+ pieces she had made prior to her death in 2016. Most of the works arrived to us packaged flat, but several hundred were rolled up in tubes or in large plastic containers, and I was in charge of processing this part of the collection (which entailed writing full descriptions and condition reports for each work, and later prepping them for long-term storage.)

So during the hottest part of the summer I was able to work alone in the air conditioned Archives reading room, using the large tables there to lay everything out for photo documentation and look for thematic groupings amongst Filer’s work. This was a fascinating process as I knew nothing of Mary Filer prior to then, and so rolling out each drawing, print or painting for the first time was like revealing another puzzle piece, allowing me to gradually map out the a narrative of a life documented mostly in watercolours. Some faces (friends? lovers? fellow artists?) would appear repeatedly in the portraits, some subject matter would appear frequently in earlier works but then vanish in later decades, and certain recurring locations and landscapes became tied to specific eras (Britain in the 1960s, Regina in the 1940s, Vancouver in the 1980s, and so on.) With each unfurling of the hundreds of drawings, I was able to slowly trace the journey of another person’s life without ever reading a biography.I *would* have to eventually read some actual biographical information later on when it came time to write about her for the University’s Mary Filer website (which you can view at: but I honestly preferred piecing together the story myself during those many weeks spent in the quiet Archives Reading Room. Cataloging all those drawings of idyllic & romanticized moments from the mid 20th Century became a temporary respite from the more distressing situation continuing to unfold in the world of 2020.

Pandemic Reading: Wendy: Master Of Art by Walter Scott and The Gilded Razor by Sam Lansky.

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