Remembering Roy Kiyooka
by John Endo Greenaway
When Roy Kiyooka died suddenly and unexpectedly in February 1994, he left behind a legacy of creativity fuelled by a lifelong passion for making art, in all its various guises. Born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1926, he grew up in Calgary, Alberta, where he began his studies at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (now the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Art). Over the course of his career, he was known as a painter, photographer, musician, film-maker, poet and teacher. He taught at several universities during his career, retiring from the University of British Columbia in 1991.
Although he eventually settled in Vancouver, he lived, worked and studied in Mexico, Regina, Montreal, Halifax. His book, Pear Tree Pomes, was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. In 1978, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Roy published a number of books including Kyoto Airs (1964), Nevertheless These Eyes (1967), StoneDGloves (1970), transcanadaletters (1975), The Fontainebleau Dream Machine (1977) and Pear Tree Pomes (1987). Another book, Mothertalk: life stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka, was published posthumously in 1997.
The above bio may touch upon the specifics of Roy’s life but doesn’t come close to painting a picture of who he was. A restless, endlessly curious and mischievous spirit, his life and then his death touched a great many within Vancouver’s arts community and the response to his passing was immediate and heartfelt.
Writing shortly after his death, Daphne Marlatt remembered: “Though he could sound cynical, he was rarely bitter, and this was an achievement considering those bitter wartime years. Endlessly curious about people, about the dynamics at work in people’s lives, he brought perspective to his friendships, an affectionate knowing that could make you end up laughing at yourself. And though he loved to sound forth, he was also an extraordinary listener; one who could elicit the stories of a life that made the teller feel suddenly seen in a curiously collaborative moment. One of the great gifts he possessed and which he gave freely was this ability to be genuinely present in sustained conversation.”
Michael de Courcy, writing on his website, talks about Roy’s shift in direction: “Roy had recently retired from UBC and his thirty year teaching career. He was disillusioned with the art world, and visual art practice no longer had the same meaning in his life that it once had. He was primarily absorbed in his writing and his music. He had initiated a number of private and public occasions in which to read his work and perform music, and was excited at having found an interested audience within his community. He was looking for a new beginning and felt that he had found it in performance. Through these collaborations with friends, usually fellow artists, he continued to define his identity as an artist, pursuing what he referred to as his own particular voice.”
In a 1990 interview with Linda Hoffman, Roy talked about collaborating with other artists in a live setting: “I think the most rewarding artistic space I’ve known in recent years has always been collaborative. It’s just the way, it’s another way of talking where you don’t get any of the static or do you know what I mean? That’s what I like about it, its another way of talking, I mean its another way of being with others, that doesn’t necessarily have to go to language, and it feels so good, because your whole body is involved, you are not responding to the occasion with your head, do you know what I mean, that sense of it? And when that comes together, that’s a, I don’t know of anything that’s nicer than that at this time in my life, I really don’t. I wish I could say that going to bed with a woman would be the equivalent, but it isn’t. It’s too ephemeral. Well yeah you know, so, sure. But you know all that . . . I mean, you know that really deeply.”