Ottawa’s Jasmine Murray-Bergquist is building a career one stitch at a time

Jasmine Murray-Bergquist stands in the cutting room at the Banff Centre with some of the costumes she worked on. Photo: Peter Robb

BANFF, Alberta — When Ottawa’s Jasmine Murray-Bergquist was going to Canterbury High School, she was a part of the dramatic arts stream.

She like it all, front and back, but, if she had her druthers, the back stage suited her best.

There’s lots to explore behind the curtain, including work in the props department or hanging lights or even building sets. But her path didn’t become clear until she attended Algonqun College to obtain a diploma in television broadcasting.

The epiphany happened when she spotted a small story in the Ottawa Citizen mentioning that a Montreal production company called Muse Entertainment was coming to Ottawa to produce a YTV sit-com called Family Biz. More about that later.

When ARTSFILE met Jasmine, she was finishing up what is known as a Wardrobe Technician Practicum, one of about 120 courses that emerging and older artists can take at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The centre was founded some 90 years ago and today is Canada’s largest post-graduate arts and leadership school.

With an annual budget of more $70 million a year, it is one of 26 post-secondary schools in the province of Alberta.

As the centre’s mandate is arts education, it’s no surprise that the centre offers so many courses in every possible art discipline from printmaking to costume-making to puppet theatre, to electronica to Indigenous arts. The students, most of whom are Canadian, are taught by some of the country’s best including Ballet BC’s artistic director, Emily Molnar, and the Gryphon Trio, both well-known to Ottawa audiences.

Murray-Bergquist was enrolled in the three month course to continue building the skills needed to expand her resume. She is currently a freelance assistant costume designer and wardrobe seamstress working in theatre, film and TV in Ottawa.

You have to be determined to make a living in the arts in Ottawa and Murray-Bergquist certainly has that drive.

That’s how she got that first gig with Muse.

After she spotted the story in the paper, “I went to the Muse website and emailed every single contact. I’m sure I annoyed a lot of people but two of them got back to me and connected me with the production manager. I sent her my resume and eventually I got a job as a production assistant in the art department on that show.

That was in February 2008 when she was in her last semester at Algonquin.

“I cut class to go to my job interview,” she said with a grin.

The company liked her and kept her on even after the work slowed down in the art department. She moved to the bigger production office and started to get exposed to the range of tasks involved in TV and film production.

“I did everything and anything. After awhile she was made an assistant director.

“One day, the costume designer called me  and said ‘I know you are interested in wardrobe, do you want to try it on this movie that is coming up’.”

She’s now been working in wardrobe in Ottawa for about eight years working regularly with costume designer Jennifer Stroud.

“I used to have a backup job at Rainbow Cinemas in the St. Laurent shopping centre, but I haven’t needed that job for 10 years. The manager called me one day and asked me if I was ever coming back. I said, ‘I don’t think so’ and I haven’t gone back.”

When she was in college everyone would ask her whether she’d move to Toronto or Vancouver after graduation.

“I said, ‘Why can’t I stay in Ottawa?’ There is a film industry in Ottawa. I have mostly stayed out of stubbornness to spite everybody who said I couldn’t, but it has really worked out.”

With the construction of a soundstage on the horizon, it’s looking like Jennifer has made the move.

She was in the Banff Centre to further enhance her skill-set.

“What I do in Ottawa is a lot of contemporary work and for the most part I am working as an assistant designer with Jennifer. I am insanely grateful to her for everything she has done for me.”

But because it is contemporary costume work, it’s actually a lot of shopping, she said, and not much sewing.

She does know how to sew having been taught by her grandmother Kay Murray who is a retired home economics teacher.

“I was taught to sew by my grandmother mostly to keep me from going stir crazy during rainy days at the cottage.”

But, she said, “I have never felt super confident in my sewing skills.”

She had two goals in coming to the Banff Centre program.

“One was to feel more confident and more solid and nail down my technical skills and then learn new techniques and the most efficient way to get things done professionally. The other goal was to learn more about the theatre world. There is a lot of theatre that goes on in Ottawa and I would love to be more involved in it.”

The course has immersed her in the range of things that would confront a wardrobe technician even learning how to do prosthetic make up such as hand and ear castings for fantasy stories.

She’s learned what is involved in tailoring clothing and making a costume from a photograph without measurements.

She was taught how to make a chain mail suit from a woman who had worked at the famous Weta workshop in New Zealand on films such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and the Narnia films. And she also now knows how to  make an Elizabethan era corset “which is a cool skill to have. You have to do this more often than think in period dramas such as Shakespeare. I’m gonna cry when it ends.”

Norwegian designer Stine Sjøgren. Photo: Peter Robb

Getting into the course isn’t easy. It took her three tries. The process involves a personal statement, an extensive questionnaire and an interview conducted by the centre’s wardrobe mistress. Only eight students were accepted this year.

The course also connected her to the world of dance in a two-week program created four years ago by the Norwegian designer Stine Sjøgren, whose is headquartered in the Norway  Opera in Oslo but who also freelances for major companies in Europe.

Designing for Dance paired Murray-Bergquist with a designer to create a costume that was fitted to a dancer with Alberta Ballet. It was a chance to see the difference stresses and complexity of dance costumes.

Sjøgren said that designing for dance is different from designing for opera and theatre.

“The clothing has to show character, but it also has to survive  the movement and the stresses created in a dance performance. For me costume design for dance is at a different level. It is more complex, you have to adhere to so many more technicalities. The costume has to be wearable, durable and beautiful.

The course, she said, brings together designers with different skills and different ages. The theory is that together the group broadens individual perspectives.

Murray-Bergquist, who was paired with a visual artist who works in soft sculpture, would agree with that.

As for the rest of her time in Banff, when ARTSFILE was saying goodby, she was looking forward to a session in sewing latex. Go figure.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.