In a world of cool RM Vaughan was warm

Victoria Ward

“Exposure doesn’t fix anything,” I remember RM Vaughan saying on a CBC bit years ago.  He was one of those media pundits for a time and added an edge to the panel who essentially gathered every week to discuss crazy cultural things.   RM was found dead last week in New Brunswick from an apparent suicide.  I am, like many still in shock.  Like many more articulate than I who have been sharing their thoughts on him, here is some of my initial thinking. 

He and I shared a few things in common; we both felt that class played an integral role in the success of artists in Canada, that platforms like Facebook were completely changing the way people interacted with art and art making, and that thinking anything actually mattered more than love in this world was insane.  

I remember at an exhibition at Olga Korper’s a few years ago Richard said to me under his breath, “I get that artists deserve to make an income but only a handful of people on this earth can buy a thirty thousand dollar painting.  Why are we all part of keeping this world alive?”  That and many, many other discussions permeated my experience with him.  More often than not I agreed however when I didn’t I made him smile as my opinions I could tell made him think even if he didn’t agree.  He was like that – open minded.  He was a wonderful adversary in many ways because we both knew we were on the same side, even though I had a lot more faith in institutions and business than he did.  But I was luckier than him. I was a cute, white chick with biological parents who wanted me.   You win the lottery right there really.  

Ultimately though Richard, like so many people have said over the last few days, was an enormous booster of mine too.  He asked nothing in return. Ever. He was just unconditional and supportive of what I was doing. 

But back to his comment, “Exposure doesn’t fix anything.” Or something like that. He meant that being seen, being trended was fleeting, a part of the mixed up social media scramble to make something stick – and make something stick quickly. No one understood this better than RM. I wish he had wrote more about it but in my opinion he was the most eloquent writer about digital in Canada. He took one look at these things, these online platforms where hubris and nihilism have come to reign and realized right away that though they allowed for so many more voices desperately needed in a tiny meritocracy like the Canadian contemporary art world, ultimately they were not going to directly solve any of our problems.

I got to know Richard like most people, in the 90s at Buddies. Over time we came to be fairly good friends however I saw him more often than not with the extraordinary Kirsten Johnson – an artist who deserves, like Richard did to be a much, much bigger deal in this country. In many ways she is our Cindy Sherman. They were two peas in a pod. Loved each other. Kirsten has these fantastic parties where just about everyone is extraordinary, like ‘Paris in the 20s’. Richard was a constant fixture and always with something he just made for her or a box of dollar store things he would hand out. These are two people who made me realize in art there can be love.

I have such a strong memory of Richard smiling warmly at me when I once drunkenly tried to say he was like our Alfred Stieglitz but couldn’t pronounce the name correctly. He patiently corrected me three or four times.

His life as an essayist was not without drama. Something I was grateful for – us Canadians tend to never want to rock the canoe. A few years ago Richard had the audacity to suggest that there was a financial hierarchy in the art world and that artists were at the bottom of a pyramid of administrators and bureaucrats. The article touched off a firestorm I had not seen in my community in years until the current pandemic. Whether or not you agreed with his premise, he began a conversation that did not exist prior. I actually don’t think basic income would be taking off in the art community had RM not pointed out how important it is for artists to make some kind of regular income. He underscored precarity with controversy. Audacious yes, and brave.

Richard was always only ever trying to help. He saw inequality everywhere and felt we all needed to try harder to make things fair. He also saw creativity everywhere too. This to me is a gift. Bored during the pandemic he created dioramas for squirrels to interact with, he posted politicians with their kindred spirits (Erin O’Toole a potato, Justin Trudeau an otter), and essentially jumped on Facebook threads to flirt, add bon mots and make us all laugh. Sometimes out loud. No one was funnier.

Courage, intelligence, eloquence and wit above everyone is how I think of Richard. Anyone who can leave New Brunswick as a young, gay outsider, make their way to cold, hipster Toronto and end up published, celebrated, in the national news paper and on the CBC has a kind of moxy that will be sorely missed. But mostly it was love I felt when I was with him, his warmth. In a world of cool he was warm.

8 thoughts on “In a world of cool RM Vaughan was warm”

  1. I have been reading a lot of tributes to him in the last few days. I did not realize you knew him. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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