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Exclusive Interview – Lea Kabiljo
“Tell Me About Riopelle” Project: Oral History to Discover the Man behind the Artist

EXCLUSIVE – As a lead-up to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jean Paul Riopelle in 2023, the Riopelle Foundation and Concordia University recently announced a three-year partnership for an ambitious project: to create a digital oral archive that will deepen our understanding of and share knowledge about the life and career of this world-renowned artist.

A $150,000 grant from the Riopelle Foundation, with the generous support of The Audain Foundation and The Jarislowsky Foundation, will support the work of oral history expert and doctoral student Lea Kabiljo. The Riopelle Foundation’s team met Kabiljo at Montreal’s Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle earlier this spring to further discuss this one-of-a-kind project, her impressive background as well as her hopes for this new research that will allow us to get to know better the man behind the artist.

Jean Paul Riopelle Foundation (FJPR): Lea, thank you for accepting our invitation. Before becoming a researcher and PhD candidate at Concordia’s Department of Art Education, you have worked in a non-profit organization in violence prevention. Tell us more about your impressive background.

Lea Kabiljo (LK): Before coming back to Concordia (Editor’s Note: Kabiljo did both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Concordia prior to becoming a PhD candidate), I worked in a non-profit organization called LOVE: Leave Out Violence, which works with youth in violence prevention programs through media arts. Working there has laid ground also for my interest in oral history because we worked a lot with youth and their personal stories, their lived experience, and this is really where I learned to take time to listen. It helped me tremendously when it came to doing oral history afterwards.

FJPR: You consider yourself primarily as a teacher. What makes you so passionate about teaching?

LK: It’s all about my students! It’s that interaction when you present a project and you see how excited they are about it. At the beginning sometimes they are complaining, they say they can’t do it, that it’s too difficult, and then you see them succeed and be proud of what they made. It’s great.

FJPR: How would you describe oral history to someone who has never studied the subject?

LK: I have this quote from American cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo that says: “Oral history involves telling stories about people who tell stories about themselves.” That’s my favorite way to describe oral history because that’s exactly what happens; as oral historians, we listen to stories that people tell about themselves. We take those stories and then we reinterpret them in a different way.

FJPR: How did you become interested in oral history?

LK: I think I’ve always loved stories. I remember, even when I was a kid, listening to my grandmother telling me stories about her youth, her village and the changes that happened at the time. These were her personal stories, but they actually make me learn about history in general, about that period, the Second World War and everything that she lived through. As a teacher, my projects were often about storytelling. At LOVE, my work was to listen to the youth’s stories and bring them to represent their own stories through art. So, I think I had been doing oral history for quite a long time without knowing what it really was! When I started my PhD at Concordia, on the first year I took a seminar in oral history with Professor Steven High and that’s when I realized: “This is it, that’s what I’ve been doing all that time!” And since the first oral history project that I did, which was a life story interview that I conducted with the woman that founded LOVE, it was such a wonderful experience for me, it just felt right. It became obvious to me that this was what I wanted to do and that I had to pursue in that direction.

FJPR: Why do you think oral history is important in our society?

LK: Through oral history, we don’t necessarily learn about facts and events, how they happened factually, but rather about the way people remember those things. It’s really about seeking for a meaning, not so much looking for facts, but understanding what it meant to people who were there. Oral history is not objective, it just can’t be, because it’s mixed with personal memories and lived experience, which are really important in oral history. To us, facts are not enough; we need to have the human perspective of those people who lived that experience, we want to know how they interpret and remember it.

FJPR: You will soon begin a new project around the life, art and influence of world-renowned Canadian artist Jean Paul Riopelle. How and when did you come to discover Riopelle’s oeuvre?

LK: When I was a CEGEP student, we had to write an essay about Les Automatistes and the Refus global manifesto. I read Refus global – I don’t know how much I understood it at the age of 18 or 19 – but it did have an impact on me. Afterwards, when I was at Concordia, I remember taking out an original copy of Refus global from 1948 and it was so special to hold it in my hands. Another thing that I recall about Riopelle is when I was doing my bachelor’s degree, sometimes we had long breaks and so during that time between classes I went to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ permanent collection. I remember this one time when I was alone in a large room, it was just me in front of this huge painting by Jean Paul Riopelle. I don’t know exactly how long I’ve spent in front of it, but I really remember this feeling of it being so powerful. His art had almost a physical impact on me. It’s something you don’t experience many times in your life, to feel art giving you shivers. It really was a special moment.

FJPR: How can oral history help us know Riopelle better?

LK: I think, in this specific case, oral history can help us learn about the man beyond his art. Through anecdotes, memories and recollections of personal moments, we should be able to find out was this person who produced brilliant art, but who was also a regular human being, in some ways. Many books have been written about him, we know the historical facts, but I’m really hoping that, through this project, we will get the feeling to know him more personally.

FJPR: How do new technologies improve your work as an oral historian?

LK: The first thing is the quality that we get thanks to new technologies. It’s now much easier with smaller recording devices. It also makes it much more accessible to produce oral history. But even more so, I would say that because of technology, oral history is now much more accessible to the public and that’s the purpose of what we do. There’s not much point in having an interview sit in an archive or an oral history center. What we want is to see these interviews be disseminated and published, so people can hear them and learn from them. With the Internet and all those platforms that we have nowadays, it becomes much more available to anybody who’s interested.

FJPR: In the next months, you will be interviewing dozens of people who knew Jean Paul Riopelle in his lifetime, as well as artists who have been influenced by him. How do you prepare for these interviews?

LK: Personally, I research very minimally the person that I will be interviewing. It’s important, for instance in this context, to know what was their relationship with Riopelle, how did they know him, when did they interact, just to have an idea. But I really don’t want to know too much because if so, then I would be seeking specific information and I would be the one directing the outcome of the interview. What I’m hoping is to be surprised because these stories will decide what the project will look like in the end. As an oral historian, it’s important to let the people tell the stories, so I’m not going there seeking for particular information. The goal is to leave the space and time to the interviewees so they can tell their stories in the way that they remember them and that’s important for them. As an interviewer, I’m going in there knowing that I want to know, for example, about Riopelle and certain aspects of his life, but it’s really up to the person who’s telling the story that has the power to decide how it will shift. It’s up to me to follow where they want to go. It’s kind of like dancing tango; step forward, step back! (laughs)

FJPR: How can the general public and people reading this interview contribute to this project?

LK: We’re currently looking at many different ways that will allow us to open up this research so the general public can contribute to the project. We really want to hear everyone’s stories about Riopelle! We’re hoping that people will come to us and share memories and anecdotes either of their personal experience with Jean Paul Riopelle or the way he has influenced them in one way or another. These platforms are currently under construction, but we’re looking forward to launching them in the upcoming months so people can contact us to share their own stories. Stay tuned!

FJPR: In the end, this legacy project will allow for the creation of a permanent collection of oral history archives that will be made digitally accessible to the public as part of Riopelle’s centenary celebrations in 2023. How do you think these testimonies about Jean Paul Riopelle and his vision will inspire future generations of artists?

LK: I’m hoping that through this project, young artists, who sometimes can be intimated by these legendary and very successful artists who had such a great influence on the art world, will feel a bit closer to the person that Riopelle was. He created extraordinary art, but he was also a human being. Oral history has the power to help us come closer to historical characters on a personal level. That’s what I hope will happen with this project.