Legendary former Kootenay Studio Arts (KSA) instructor Santo Mignosa visited Nelson earlier this month to help celebrate the impact Zeljko Kujundzic left on our region’s creative community.
In early November, Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History partnered with Selkirk College in a special reception for KSA alumni, current students and faculty that closed the exhibition Zeljko Kujundzic and the early years of KSA. The “KSA Then & Now” event bought more than 100 people out to celebrate the work of the man who started the school that is now an important part of Selkirk College.
A very colourful character, Santo Mignosa had the crowd of more than 100 entertained at the Touchstones event earlier this month.
At the last minute, Mignosa decided to travel to Nelson to take part in the event that threw a spotlight on a man he said was more like a brother than a friend.
“Our approach to teaching was the same,” Mignosa said. “Zeljko accepted what I was doing and I was committed to what he was trying to accomplish.”
Finding Artistic Wings in Canada
Mignosa was born in Italy where he grew up in a small town in Sicily. He graduated in Painting from the Art Institute of Florence, Italy and shortly after made a decision to come to Canada where he had a sister living in Nelson.
Arriving in 1957, Mignosa didn’t speak English and traded in his brush for a broom. He worked as the night janitor at the Nelson Civic Centre where Canadian ways quickly made an impact.
Mignosa (right) came to Canada in 1957 from his home in Sicily.
“One thing I will never forget from my first year in Nelson was when I was cleaning one night in the evening,” he explained. “I saw a mother with a little boy, couldn’t have been no more than two years of age, she put the skates on his feet. He went on the ice and started skating… I thought a-ha, they start young with this in Canada. That is what was happening during the Renaissance in Italy, in Florence. The first thing children would do is learn how to sharpen a tool and create something at the age of two years of age. I thought, that’s the way you get excellence. That’s Canada.”
With a crash course in English under his belt, Mignosa moved to Vancouver where he began working at the ceramic studio at the University of British Columbia. It was there that he started to make a name for himself using clay as a medium. His work began to get featured all across North America and the world.
Making His Mark at KSA
Mignosa returned to Nelson in 1962 where he took a position teaching at the upstart Kootenay School of the Arts. It was at this time his bond with Kujundzic was cemented and the pair helped propel the school’s reputation as a centre of excellence.
“The mere fact that an arts school was established here speaks of the people of this region,” said Mignosa. “Without those people you have an average city.”
Mignosa encouraged KSA students to participate in the Annual Exhibition of Ceramic Arts in Frenza, Italy. In 1966, KSA won silver as the Best Overall School which was determined by a jury of seven European artists. The accomplishment added further credibility to skills being taught and honed in Nelson.
“It had recognition internationally, people would come here because of word-of-mouth,” said Mignosa.
Having played a major role getting students to thrive with clay, Mignosa said his approach with the medium has remained constant for decades.
“It’s important to understand what clay is,” he said. “It’s not just something you play with, but it is very responsive to the touch. Just like a pencil moving in one direction, clay is the same. Very few people understand that. They just take a chunk of clay and think they can do something with it, but clay is more than that. Whatever you do leaves a mark and that mark has the same kind of value as a mark left on a piece of paper. It speaks of the awareness to what the material is and how it responds. You play with it, not against it. People think clay is a dead matter, but that’s not true. Clay comes alive the way you touch it. If you have no energy, it has no energy.”
One of the Greatest
Mignosa took a leave from KSA in 1967 to study in Firenze, Italy. In 1969 he left for good when he went to pursue his MFA at Alfred University in New York state.
After his stint in the Kootenays, Mignosa forged an internationally recognized career in the creation and teaching of the arts. He retired as professor at the University of Calgary where he taught ceramics, sculpture, drawing and human anatomy.
At the Touchstones event, Mignosa was very gracious with his time and enjoyed telling stories about the old days.
In 2002 Kujundzic passed away in Osoyoos at the age of 82, but Mignosa has remained close to his family. When Kujundzic’s daughter Kate Enewold told Mignosa about the closing reception and celebration at Touchstones, he jumped at the opportunity to attend.
At the Touchstones event, Mignosa entertained those in attendance with a heartfelt speech about Kujundzic. Throughout the evening he circulated through the exhibition space looking at some of the best work from his good friend and speaking one-on-one with others who soaked in the appreciation for Kujundzic’s art.
“It’s quite an experience to get in touch with things that happened 50 years ago,” he said. “I was a young man at that time and I still have the same attitude towards life, nothing changes there. But to see this 50 years later is quite a pleasure and reward to see KSA still active and going strong. It’s beautiful and I am very happy.”