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By Barbara Black
A recent issue of Maclean’s magazine caught Richard Kerr’s eye, because it featured some people a bit like him. The story was titled “Do Grades Really Matter?” and it talked about some outstandingly successful people who had abysmal marks in high school.
Kerr failed Grade 9 twice and left school at 15, but like the examples in Maclean’s, he’s a success story. Passionate about education, he’s living proof that you don’t have to get “A”s to make it in academia. But you do have to have intellectual curiosity and a strong sense of self.
Kerr, who was chair of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema for the past three years, is a full professor at Concordia and a “professor of distinction” at Ryerson University. He’s going to Los Angeles in November to be honored as an international fellow of the DeSantis Center for Motion Picture Industry Studies.
As a youngster in southwestern Ontario, Kerr was a promising hockey player for the Kitchener Rangers, but when his father died, the boy’s motivation died with him.
School was always a struggle: “I remember getting 1 in math.” The spirit was nearly knocked out of him by the constant failure to meet the expectations of the educational system. He was hyperactive (“Nowadays, I guess I’d be a Ritalin kid”) and the child of an alcoholic parent. Effectively, he had no parenting after the age of 15.
But he was a great talker, and insatiably curious. He went into retail sales, which suited his social skills; the frequent rejection that’s inevitably a salesman’s lot just toughened his resolve. He taught himself basic photography, took a technical diploma at Sheridan College, in Oakville, Ont., and went to film school. Recognizing that his experience in sales made him a great classroom communicator, the authorities asked him to teach.
At the same time, inspired by artists like Michael Snow and Jack Chambers, he was making films that were autobiographical, beautiful, and that questioned narrative.
Now he’s one of Canada’s leading avant-garde film and video practitioners. His aesthetic sensitivity is something even he can’t explain. “My family had no sense of the arts, but I was always looking, searching, and never afraid to ask questions.”
His most recent exhibition, Industry, illustrates his “push/pull” relationship with the Hollywood product. It features a suite of motion-picture weavings. Kerr takes celluloid film stock and works directly with the material. He bleaches, melts and folds it, weathers it on his clothesline for three weeks, and then paints and weaves it.
Kerr started making these motion-picture weavings years ago. Now the installations have become a tender tribute to a dying medium whose light has given great pleasure. He has done about 30; there’s one in the Hexagram office and several at the Cinématèque québécoise.
An autodidact who has never been a conventional bookworm, he says he doesn’t so much read books as scan them for insights to feed his teaching. “I’m a teacher first, a practitioner second.”
Kerr loves the academic life, and recommends it to anyone who will listen. “What better way is there to share your passionate interests with others and make a real contribution to society?”