A Conversation with Jeanne Beker
Canadian television personality, entrepreneur, author and newspaper columnist Jeanne Beker is a bonafide household name. An Order of Canada recipient (2013), Beker has interviewed an astonishing number of A-list people and events in the arts, music and fashion scenes, and continues to travel the world as a journalist and sought-after speaker and host.
But did you know that Beker is also a long-time lover and champion of the arts, with strong ties to Atlantic Canada? The Gallery recently had an opportunity to chat with Beker leading up to her hosting gig for NSCAD University's glamorous EPOCH Fashion Show & Gala on April 16, 2015. We reached her at home on a Friday afternoon over a cup of tea and a most lively conversation!
Photo: Bryan Adams. Courtesy of Jeanne Beker.
Do you have any particular links to Nova Scotia or the Maritimes?
I actually spent some years living in Newfoundland in the mid-seventies. I started my career in media there, really. I moved there in 1975 after having moved to study mime in Paris with Étienne Décroux, who was the great mime teacher of our time. I was with a fellow who was studying folklore at Memorial University, and I think I was the only mime student in the province. I did some workshops, I was teaching mime to students through Memorial University, I was giving storytelling session for kids at the children’s library, and doing theatre and acting as well—I was a professional actress since I was a teenager.
But then I got a job. I thought there was such a vibrant art scene going on there, and no one was really reporting on it. So I just started doing that. I knocked on the door of CBC radio, and a young producer – who actually now lives in Nova Scotia – hired me to be an arts correspondent. And this when CBC wasn’t really reporting on the arts the way they are now. I did that for three years, and then moved back to Ontario and landed a job with CHUM radio. CHUM had bought City TV that year, and that’s basically how my whole career in media really snowballed.
The East Coast is really special to me. But I really fell in love deeply with Nova Scotia a few years back, about four years ago when I met a wonderful man by the name of Tim Moore, who has become like a brother to me and a very dear friend, and he owns a gorgeous home out in Chester, Nova Scotia, so I started going out there to visit him. He also owns part of a wonderful resort near Peggy’s Cove called Oceanstone Seaside Resort. And I became a partner in the resort! So I actually have a vested interest in the province now. I just love Nova Scotia, everything: the people, the geography, the culture – everything about it.
What role does art play in your everyday life? How closely do you see art, design and fashion being linked?
Art figures greatly! Both my daughters are artists. My eldest daughter, Bekky O’Neil, is an illustrator and animator who was a puppeteer, and quite accomplished as a textiles artist. Bekky is just finishing up in animation at Concordia – she already has a degree in Theatre and Playwriting – but now she’s going to undertake a Masters in Interdisciplinary Fine Arts and doing really interesting projects having to do with animation and agriculture. She’s becoming an organic farmer and moving to my farmhouse this summer. And my other daughter, Joey O’Neil, is a singer-songwriter but she also is very, very good with her hands and does a lot of textile art as well. She experiments with all kinds of things; she lives in the Yukon in a little log cabin in the woods, so she has a lot of time for her craft projects. They are both very artistic young women.
As for me, I sometimes feel like I sold out because I really did start as an artist – a performing artist. I started back professionally when I was 16 years old and it was always just so vital to me. And of course, the way I squeezed into media was because I wanted to expose artists and art; the conversations I could have with them, since I had a kind of sensitivity towards the arts myself. That really boded well for me.
And then later of course I reported on the music scene to such a large degree in the late 70s and early 80s, and then I kind of segued into the fashion world. I think artistry and fashion really go hand in hand. I know there’s a long debate: “Is fashion art? Is it more of an applied art?” But I covered couture work for almost three decades, and going to Paris every season – and if that’s not art, I don’t know what is! Visiting the ateliers and watching “les petites mains” as they call them– the hands doing all the phenomenal work.
Beker as host of Fashion Television, 1986. (Photo: Courtesy Jeanne Beker)
So I’ve always seen the world through that lens. It’s always been so important to me. I started collecting art, I guess you could say- I never thought of myself as a serious art collector, but my dear late great friend Toller Cranston, the Olympic skater who passed away just about a little over a year ago, he introduced me to the world of art in a big way, and to Canadian art back in the 80s. We were just thick as thieves, great friends, and I was living above his coach’s art gallery in Toronto, which is right next to where Toller lived, and so I would hang out in his studio and he would talk to me about art and how important it was to start collecting. He actually bought me my first little piece of art back in 1981 or around then. It was by a wonderful artist who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago, Marion Perlet, who actually ended up living in San Miguel de Allende. I started seriously collecting her and I have fantastic works of hers in my home. And also he was friends at the time with a realist painter by the name of Michael French, who incidentally also lives now in San Miguel. Michael is wonderful, wonderful painter and I started getting a few things of his as well.
My taste in art is quite eclectic. I have a little bit of photography and I’ve been gifted with some remarkable works by fashion illustrators, and my house is really very filled with art. And it’s not necessarily art that is expensive or valuable or anything like that. It’s just art that fills my soul and inspires me – you know how we become attached to these things. And at my farmhouse – I have a farmhouse about an hour outside of Toronto – I have some wonderful folk art there and beautiful hooked rugs that I collect from a wonderful “hooker” as they call them– a hooker who used to live in Woody Point, Newfoundland. I used to go there for a writer’s festival that takes place there every year, and her name is Rose Dewhirst and she’s just the best of the best. Her work is phenomenal. So my farmhouse has quite a lot of folk art, interesting things that might be at a flea markets or, you know, I bought a wonderful little old painting from the 1800s when I was at a flea market in San Tropez a couple years ago, a beautiful pastoral piece with cows in it, and some other folk art that I acquired from a woman that picks up these pieces in New Orleans. So just very, very eclectic stuff. I love it! I live with it, it surrounds me, it inspires me, it’s like part of my family – my kids grew up with it and I just can’t imagine how people could live without art in their lives, it’s just such a vital thing for me. And happily, in this wonderful country of ours, it’s easy to access all kinds of art at every different level.
I’ve got some of my kids’ artwork hanging as well. The kids exposed me to such great stuff and the work their friends are doing, the work of young artists. It’s really exciting and I feel like we really live in the thick of it and there’s so much available.
In the past I used to buy art at art auctions – I don’t mean the big fancy auctions, I mean like charity auctions. There’s a beautiful hospice in Toronto called Casey House and every year they have something called Art for Heart. I’ve bought some really good pieces through them. So it’s been a wonderful life of collecting.
When I was married, back when I was with my husband in the 80s and before we had kids and our media careers started taking off, I think we bought quite a lot of art. I don’t purchase as much anymore – to some degree you run out of wall space! I know some people say, “Retire it! Change it up!” But I couldn’t imagine looking up from my kitchen table and not seeing that certain beloved picture or not having certain works around me that I’ve learned to love so much. There’s so much change that goes on in life for me and the way I live – I’ve had my house for 20 years, I’ve had my farmhouse for 15 years – so I really hunker down. I do so much running around the world and there are so many changes going on all of the time, my homestead is pretty sedentary I guess [laughs].
Photo: Courtesy Jeanne Beker
Which Canadian designers are you following, or whose work excites you these days?
There are certainly ones that have a more artful approach. Certainly Lucian Matis, who Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is really bringing on to the world stage recently, has always been very involved in the art world. Actually when I first met him—and I’m happy that I can say I was at his graduating collection from when he graduated from Ryerson for his first collection, and it was awesome. But he also worked as a fashion illustrator. When I had my fashion magazine, FQ Magazine, we actually hired him for a shoot to do the illustration for us, so I’ve always thought of Lucian as an artist almost first and foremost, and maybe a clothing designer second. But his pieces – he does a lot of hand-painted silks, beautiful appliqués – there’s a lot of artistry that goes on there.
Greta Constantine: the way they drape and the way they work with fabrics, they are very artful.
I’ve always considered Denis Gagnon to be one of the great artistic designers of our time, here in Canada.
Marie Saint Pierre and her own theatricality, the kind of fabrications that she uses--she’s always stepping out on a ledge and I always think of her as an artistic designer.
There are so many that have an artistic mindset! A label that calls themselves Untitled from Quebec – these two fellows, they’re protégés of Denis Gagnon and I think they’re pretty stupendous.
Some of the work that I saw – some of the early work, I haven’t seen any of her work recently, but I happily understand that Simons has picked up and she has a major retailer behind her: Malorie Urbanovitch. She’s from the West, she was doing beautiful knitwear, really interesting things with knitting, things with a nice hand-crafted feel to what she’s doing.
Calla: a Toronto designer who works with Jeremy Lang and now lives in Paris, she does some beautiful things, manipulating digital photography and creating some gorgeous prints in that way.
You know, it just goes on and on because it’s all so subjective. When you think of some of our Indigenous designers, there are Canadian designers from native communities doing fantastic things and have for a long time now. There’s one jewelry designer that I got turned on to when we were selling the Manitobah Mukluks on the Shopping Channel. Their beautiful spokesperson, Waneek Horn-Miller, is a former Olympic athlete and activist, and an ambassador for Manitobah Mukluks. She brought on some gorgeous beaded jewelry that is just stunning, and we ended up selling these exclusive pieces on the Shopping Channel, which was a great treat to bring that level of artistry to people from coast to coast.
It’s so great to see the kind of eclecticism that the country really has to offer. In the arts, and especially in fashion, it really runs the gamut.
Beker after receiving the Order of Canada in 2014. Photo: Courtesy Jeanne Beker.
Chatelaine recently featured emerging artist Jaime Angelopolous' work in an editorial spread. How can we encourage more integration of art in like-minded enterprises?
I think the lines between various disciplines are blurring in a wonderful way. There’s so much cross-pollination and there’s a lot of interesting synergies going on now. And the whole art-to-wear movement that came on strong—really, it’s been around for a while. Now the artistry, the way digital photography is used in print, and the way hand-made fibers and beautiful fabrication are being used… I think we’re there already, but maybe we have to trumpet it a little more boldly and make people understand that you don’t have to put a label on it sometimes, like “What is it? Is it photography? Is it painting? Is it fashion? Is it craft, is it…” Everything inspires everything else, and as our frame of reference becomes so sophisticated, and we’re exposed to so much imagery via social media – it’s astounding how message-driven this society has become. I think we’re only going to see more and more of an appreciation for art, and more people really stepping out and taking part and calling themselves artists – and well, they should! Because there’s been a lot of snobbery around the art world for a long time and a certain amount of elitism that I think is very old-fashioned. It needs to fall by the wayside, just as fashion has been democratized not that long ago, and the democratization of the art world—like a bigger appreciation for folk art, for example. One of my favourite things to do every summer is to go to the Nova Scotia Art Festival in Lunenburg, NS. I’ve got a lot of folk art in my house! I’ve got a huge Bradford Naugler man with a telescope and a bird on his head, I just love his work – I have a piece by his son Craig as well . So I really appreciate all that, as well as something that is more studied and perfect – again, I love the eclecticism of it, and I think people need to be encouraged to express themselves artistically a little bit more. We have to try and encourage people to pick up a paintbrush, pick up a sketch book, pick up a slab of clay- just make something beautiful and share it with everybody else. It’s so therapeutic and it’s just a nice way to be able to communicate!
Jeanne is in Halifax to host NSCAD University's EPOCH Fashion Show on April 16, 2016.
Photo: Courtesy Jeanne Beker