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Artist who created meat dress among Gov-Gen visual arts recipients

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TORONTO - This year's eight wildly creative recipients of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts suddenly turned pragmatic when asked what they were going to do with the $25,000 prize money.

Halifax-based visual artist Jan Peacock is spending the cash on an "archaic" piece of equipment that will allow her to digitize old video pieces, Saskatchewan-born performance artist Margaret Dragu is funnelling the funds into a documentary on her artistic alter egos entitled "The Multi-Personae Disorder of Madame Dragu" and Toronto photographer Geoffrey James is putting his money toward projects he's working on in Paris and Cuba.

In other words, the artists will simply use their prize cash to make more art.

"We live to work," James said following a news conference unveiling the winners at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox on Tuesday.

"We don't need to drink better wine or whatever — really, (work) is what we live for."

Other recipients of the Canada Council for the Arts-funded prize included influential 68-year-old Toronto painter Ron Martin and Toronto-reared sculptor Royden Rabinowitch, also 68.

Fellow honouree Jana Sterbak of Montreal actually remembers studying the work of both men when she was in art school in the '70s.

The Prague-born, Montreal-based Sterbak has worked with sculptures, videos, installations and performances but she's perhaps best known for her famous piece, "Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic" — otherwise known as the original meat dress, a garment she constructed from nearly 30 kilograms of flank steak in 1987.

"I made it around the age of 30. I was concerned with getting old — you know how we all are at a certain point in our life," said Sterbak, 56, with a smile.

She wasn't surprised to be asked Tuesday about her controversial 25-year-old creation, acquired by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1993.

"I think the awards do that. They focus attention on specific people, and hopefully create curiosity on the side of the public that perhaps would not be there without them," she said.

"This is what we all hope for."

Calgary artist-goldsmith Charles Lewton-Brain — credited with inventing a unique metal-smithing technique called "foldforming" — received the Saidye Bronfman Award, while National Gallery of Canada curator Diana Nemiroff of Ottawa was honoured for her outstanding contribution.

At 56 years old, Peacock observed that she was among the more junior winners this year. She said that illustrates that the award's jury demands a truly formidable body of work.

"I've been at this for about 30 years, and you'll notice that everybody in the group of laureates is of a certain age — it's a kind of life of experience that we're sort of bearing witness to," she said.

"There's no young 'uns here."

Sterbak and Peacock were both selected as winners the very first time they were nominated for the award. Others weren't so fortunate.

As Martin took the stage to accept his award, he joked that it took five nominations before he finally won. Dragu had similarly been through the process several times before without winning, but she said that only made the final result more satisfying.

"I just really never thought it would happen. I was completely gobsmacked, really," said the multi-disciplinary performance artist, now based in Richmond, B.C.

"I was totally shocked and thrilled. And it's more fun than you can possibly imagine."

"It's always wonderful just being nominated for things — everyone says that at the Academy Awards, don't they? Well let me tell you, winning is better!"

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