South Surrey arts advocate Mary Mikelson says learning that she was to be awarded an honorary degree by Kwantlen Polytechnic University took her completely by surprise.
“I found out in February, but I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody until they released the publicity,” Mikelson, president of the South Surrey and White Rock Art Society, said last week.
“I really didn’t tell anybody.”
The honorary doctor of laws degree – which was announced last month and presented at the university’s graduating ceremonies on Wednesday (May 30) – recognizes Mikelson’s “unwavering dedication for over half a century to Surrey’s arts and culture sector,” according to a KPU press release.
“I was actually totally shocked when I heard about it, but I feel very honoured that people wanted to recognize me,” she said. “It’s wonderful to get an award for something you love doing. I love promoting artists and making the community a better place – I think through the arts that’s what we do. We feel better when we’re involved in the arts.”
It’s estimated that more than 7,000 artists have shown their work at the Mind and Matter Gallery on 16 Avenue, created by Hungarian-born Mikelson and her late husband, Latvian-born, internationally-recognized sculptor Arnold Mikelson.
And – as she points out – she is a keen supporter not just of the visual arts, but also music, dance and theatre.
The A-frame studio and gallery, on their home acreage on 16 Avenue in South Surrey, was opened in the late 1960s, and has been curated by Mikelson since Arnold’s death following heart surgery in 1984, continuing to showcase both local artists and others from across Western Canada.
The gallery’s annual summer arts festival, which started in the early 1970s, ran for more than four decades until Mikelson decided to wind it down in 2013.
“I think it was a good time to stop,” she said.
“I was getting older and my energy level is not as strong as it used to be. I think we ended on a high note – everyone has a bright memory of it. Wherever I go, people always comment on it.
“I know that artists really miss it – they not only had the opportunity to sell their art, but also network with each other. Artists are usually reclusive people, they put so much into their work they don’t want to waste any time on socializing.”
But Mikelson said she feels that by continuing to discover emerging artists and presenting current work by both new and established artists at the gallery she is still able to do – on a smaller scale, admittedly – what the festival set out to do.
“Whenever children come to the gallery, I love to open their eyes – and minds – to art,” she said.
Mikelson’s public service has extended beyond promoting artists, to terms as a White Rock councillor, as president of the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce and as a member of Surrey’s Public Art Advisory Committee.
Her efforts have also been recognized by the Surrey Civic Treasure Award in 2008 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.
She also has her four children with Arnold, daughters Margit, Sapphire and Myra and son Arnold Jr., and Mikelson noted they all still miss the energetic, impulsive joie de vivre of her husband, touchingly memorialized in her 2015 memoir Mind and Matter, co-written with Barbara Gould.
“I have been very blessed,” Mikelson said.
“To me, the single-most important thing in life is to expose people to the arts – all the arts,” she said. “I still have this dream that one day (as a society) we’ll spend as much money on the arts as we do on sports. Of course, we have to have a healthy body, but we also have to have a healthy mind – and feed the soul.”