New exhibition honours the life and work of longtime teacher Gay Hansen (1954-2021)

18 Mar 2024
"of a feather," featuring the photography of Thaddeus Holownia and Karen Stentaford and curated by Emily Falvey, is at the Owens Arts Gallery until May 15

It is now a famous Mount Allison love story. In 1979 photographer and fine arts professor Thaddeus Holownia discovered a dead but fully intact Blue Jay. The brilliant plumage on the bird led Holownia to think a colleague in the biology department may appreciate having the specimen. Holownia found himself meeting ornithologist Gay Hansen, who had recently joined the department. It was the beginning of a more than four-decade-long relationship, where the two would raise a family, build a life together on their much-loved Tantramar Marshes, and collaborate on several projects that united the skills of the scientist and the artist.

Holownia’s photographs of the actual Blue Jay feathers that started it all are in of a feather, an exhibition in memory of the life and work of Hansen. The exhibition includes photography of birds and landscapes. It considers how close relationships with the natural world strengthen our bonds with each other.

Thaddeus Holownia, of a feather portfolio, 2022, archival pigment prints, courtesy of the artist and Corkin Gallery, Toronto. Photo: Roger J. Smith.

Gay Hansen passed away in 2021. She was a gifted teacher, mentor, ornithologist, and friend. She spent decades working as a Mount Allison lecturer and lab instructor, interacting with generations of students and inspiring in them a deeper curiosity and appreciation for the natural world.

“Her enthusiasm was contagious,” says Holownia. “Gay brought optimism and compassion to everything and everyone, and her life was largely defined by the love she had for helping others including her family, her students, and members of the community. She had such a huge impact on my life and so many others, and is the type of person we should be celebrating in this world.”

The laboratory where Hansen spent much of her career houses more than 1,000 specimens including bird mounts, study skins, nests, and eggs, and much of the collection came directly from Hansen, who was also a talented crafter and taxidermist. In the fall of 2021 shortly after Gay’s passing the University re-named the lab the Gay Hansen Ornithology Lab.

The Gay Hansen Award

The Gay Hansen Awards were also created to continue her legacy and support future generations of students. The Gay Hansen Award in Biology and the Gay Hansen Award in Ornithology are being supported by donations from Hansen’s friends, former students, and colleagues.

“We used to have discussions about these types of awards,” says Holownia. “We talked about the need for something that wasn’t just about high academic marks but that would recognize the enthusiasm, hard work, and devotion of students in their second or third year, a passion that the biology staff would see and want to help grow.”

Winners of the Gay Hansen Awards are selected by lab technicians. Holownia hopes the of a feather exhibition will help raise awareness of and donations to the awards.

“I know she would have loved seeing everyone come together to support future students this way,” says Holownia. “Gay spent so much time interacting with Mount Allison students, inspiring them and helping them find their place in their studies.”

The of a feather exhibition in memory of Gay Hansen is at the Owens Art Gallery until May 15, including through Convocation and Reunion Weekend (May 10 to 12).

Those interested in supporting the Gay Hansen Awards can do so at mta.ca/donate.

of a feather, a book with photographs by Thaddeus Holownia and poems by Harry Thurston will be published by Anchorage Press and available at Convocation. The book is dedicated in the memory of Gay Hansen.

Students Say Thank You

“It was really exciting to receive the award and it felt nice to be acknowledged for my work. I actually met Gay briefly in 2017 — she was very welcoming and kind, and I am really honoured to be given an award in her name.” – Amanda Traylor, fourth-year student, recipient of a Gay Hansen Award in Biology

"Receiving this award encouraged me to value my inherent excitement for animals and learning about them. My self-confidence grew — I feel hopeful about the positive impact I can have in my career. Though I sadly never met Gay, the legacy she left because of her love for teaching is clear. Her legacy, and Thaddeus's dedication to honouring it, inspire me to stay grounded by the animals and people I hold near and share the joy they bring me." – Janie Brooks (’23), recipient of a Gay Hansen Award in Biology

“I’m not your average student. I’m a mature student, a single mom with two children, and I commute from Moncton. So, on the financial side of things winning this award was a huge help and took a lot of stress off. It was also the affirmation — it was really nice to have that reassurance that I am doing well. I never met Gay, but I’ll tend to ask people about her and have learned a fair bit. I can tell she was very well loved, and very well respected, and very good at what she did.” - Heidi-Lyn O’Connor, third-year student, recipient of a Gay Hansen Award in Biology

“It is truly an honour to be recognized as the inaugural recipient of the Gay Hansen Award in Ornithology. This award has not only provided me with immense motivation to continue my ornithological pursuits but has also connected me to the incredible legacy of Gay Hansen. Learning her skills through practicing study skins has been a way we can honour Gay and contribute to her talented collection featured in the of a feather exhibition.” — Mackenzie Warman, fourth-year student, recipient of the inaugural Gay Hansen Award in Ornithology

Banner image: of a feather: Thaddeus Holownia and Karen Stentaford,  In Memory of Gay Hansen (1954-2021), installation shot, Owens Art Gallery, 20 January-15 May 2024. Photo: Roger J. Smith.

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