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James Pitsula explains how the fine arts helped found the U of R

Edward Dodd
Contributor

The University of Regina might not even be its own institution without the faculty of fine arts.

On Thursday, Feb. 10, Dr. James Pitsula held a lecture on the long and interesting history of arts and music at the U of R, and how both music and art played an integral role not only in the history of the University, but also in the history of the city itself.

“If you look at the document when they first were deciding what kind of a college they would found, they actually mention part of it is going to be a residential high school,” Dr. Pitsula, a history professor at the U of R, explained. “First and possibly second year university courses … then they said music and business.”

From the university’s very beginning, music was a key element of the institution. In fact, the university building housed the Conservatory of Music, the forerunner to our modern Department of Music.

Soon after founding, the college also started a visual arts program by hiring acclaimed painter, Engliss Sheldon Williams, but near the end of the First World War, he was asked to go to Europe to paint the Canadian soldier’s experience. Although this caused a short hiatus for the visual arts at the College, the music remained and flourished.

“I think they considered it a part of, to be a cultured and well-educated person, you should have some training in music or art,” Pitsula mused. “The fine arts requirement in your degrees are sort of a nod towards that belief.”

Pitsula’s lecture also emphasized the importance of the Regina Five during the 1960s and their contributions to the art world as well as their contributions to Regina. There was a back and forth between the art community and the city. So popular were the Regina Five that their art was shown at the National Gallery in November 1961. Interestingly, this was the same month that Medicare legislation was tabled in the Saskatchewan Legislature. The artists at the U of R were breaking new ground in the art world at the same time the government was breaking new ground on social policy.

“So I don’t think all these things are just coincidence.” Pitsula commented, “I think in a way the community was feeding the artist as much as the artists were feeding the community. It’s as though the Regina Five captured the spirit of innovation that was in the air.”

Showing just how crucial the arts were to the continuation of the university in Regina, the University of Saskatchewan kept its Regina Campus (which would eventually become the independent U of R) open mainly as an institution for the fine arts, preferring to encourage people pursuing other degrees to come to Saskatoon rather than to Regina.

Unfortunately, this long history of the arts at the U of R is not as well known as it might deserve. Journalism student Noah Wernikowski, who attended the lecture, was surprised to learn of the integral part the Fine Arts played in the foundation of the university

“You don’t hear about [the U of R] having an exceptional fine arts program. I would never have guessed the long history that went into that and the reality that it was founded on being an artistic institution.”

It’s clear that the U of R has a long history of Fine Arts, and more than once has gained national and international attention for the work being done here. Certainly in the future, the artistic excellence and innovation will continue at the university and perhaps put Regina on the map as a centre of arts and culture.

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