VIU awards honorary degree to acclaimed Canadian sculpture artist

Barbara Paterson

Barbara Paterson is an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist who is considered by art historians and scholars to be a major figure in the world of Canadian art and sculpture.

June 15, 2022 - 11:45am

Barbara Paterson will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Letters at the June 24 morning convocation ceremony.   


If there’s a piece of advice Barbara Paterson would like to offer this year’s graduates at Vancouver Island University (VIU), it’s to “start out small with your ideas, promote those ideas, keep working on it and just don’t stop.”

Paterson is an internationally acclaimed Canadian artist who is considered by art historians and scholars to be a major figure in the world of Canadian art and sculpture. She is known primarily for her bronze figurative public sculptures, including her larger-than-life piece, “The Famous Five,” which is on permanent display in Ottawa.

“I started out small with an idea of what the ‘Famous Five’ were about, and it just grew and grew until I had the final piece,” she says. “It’s really quite surprising what you can do if you just keep your foot on the gas.”

Paterson will receive an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from VIU this June, an accolade she says took her completely by surprise.

“I thought they had the wrong number at first,” she laughs. She says being selected as a recipient is a “surprise, honour and a huge thrill.”

Paterson was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and is the great-granddaughter of one of Alberta’s first physicians, William MacKay, who was a Hudson’s Bay Company doctor. She studied Fine Arts at the University of Alberta, graduating in 1957 with a major in painting.

At university, she met her husband, married and continued her art at home while raising their three sons. She later returned to the University of Alberta, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in sculpture.

The “Famous Five” was commissioned to honour the renowned Persons Case and the Alberta women who launched the legal challenge to gain recognition of Canadian women as “persons” eligible to sit in the Senate. It was publicly unveiled by Canada’s Governor General in 1999.  A detail image from the sculpture was featured on a Canada Post stamp and was pictured on the Canadian $50 bill. An image of part of the sculpture can now also be seen on the inner pages of the Canadian passport.

For Paterson, the sculpture also literally and figuratively represents the type of legacy she hopes to leave for others.

“When you work with bronze, you feel a sense of permanence – the bronze age has been around forever – so the actual physical pieces will hopefully always remain where they’ve been installed,” she says. “It’s also a legacy of promoting these women and what they did and what I’ve tried to do as well. It’s not very common that strong women are depicted in sculpture form and I want to show strength but gentleness. In choosing people like the ones in the ‘Famous Five,’ and in creating these sculptures, I didn’t just want them to be life-size, but done in a way that they would stand out in the crowd and not just be mannequins in the corner.”

Paterson most recently finished a small bronze called “Dear Granny,” created to pay homage her Métis great-grandmother.

“Barbara is gifted with an ability to work with her hands, using materials that are difficult and tough,” says Heather Pastro, VIU Art Education Professor and lead nominator of Paterson. “She perseveres with these strong and hard materials, and like many great sculptors, she allows her monuments to come to life in a way that appeals and resonates with audiences. It is with purpose and intention that she creates and develops her works so that the viewer can engage and interact with the sculpture. It is also with purpose and intention that Barbara demonstrates her charming wit and jovial sense of humour within her pieces. It is not by accident that her grandchildren’s initials are engraved underneath each of the skirts of the “Famous Five.’”

Paterson will be honoured at VIU’s 10 am convocation ceremony on June 24 in the Nanaimo campus gymnasium. The event will also be livestreamed on VIU’s Facebook page. Visit the VIU convocation website for more details. 



Eric Zimmer, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

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