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Renaissance Master: Owen Brierley

The Master of Masters

To understand the scope and scale of Owen Brierley's contributions we need to revisit the concept of the hero's journey. It requires explanation, but Brierley's work is worth the time.


Much is known about Joseph Campbell's study of the hero's journey and the pattern he called the mono-myth. As an aggregator of character and purpose, Campbell's model frames such popular myths as George Lucas's Star Wars, The Matrix and every successful Pixar film.


Our belief in the power of Campbell's formula is so strong we often dismiss it as overly simple. If it is so simple, why is it still the most productive model in storytelling?


The 'hero's journey' codifies human life. What seems like a formula is really a shared history of life as mortal beings. When Campbell joined Bill Moyers for a six-episode discussion of his work, he summed his research and provided correctives to its use in popular culture. (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth)


There are three phases to the hero's journey: a beginning, middle and end. Unfortunately, the most important part happens off camera after the credits roll. As difficult as it is to set out on the journey, and to face our dragons, the real challenge is the return. It is a challenge both for the hero, and for the teller of the tale, which is why it is wrapped up like part of an unfinished meal from a restaurant and labelled, "and they all lived happily ever after."


Consider Bilbo's story at the opening of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Fellowship of the Ring opens with Bilbo Baggins writing out his story.


Bilbo is the returning hero sharing the lessons he learned. His return gives rise to the next journey. His work is essential, but...now that it is done it is simply not as interesting as the beginning of the next journey. The Lord of the Rings is Frodo's journey. Bilbo draws us into J.R.R Tolkien's universe, but now is little more than an exposition-machine. Bilbo sits in the paradox of endings, which is why the beginning of Lord of the Rings is the telling of the ending of The Hobbit.


As a master of masters, Owen Brierley's work serves as a model for breaking free of the paradox of endings and waking up to Campbell's true lesson:


Beginning: Owen Brierley moved constantly as a child. Adding tools and skills, a childhood of travel became a youth of road-work as an actor / singer for stage and screen;


Middle: trained and established as a performer, Brierley turned to digital technology gaining access to emerging art-forms such as electronic music, VR and video games;


End: combining performing arts, digital technology and working across fields Brierley emerged as one of our country's leading voices in public policy and education, while continuing to create. He led organizations, joined creative teams and founded and ran our country's first successful digital arts college, the Edmonton Digital Arts College (EDAC).


Brierley, like all great artists / heroes cannot be found in a story. He reminds us, as Campbell repeatedly did, that the hero's journey is not a narrative; it is an ever-expanding universe.


Campbell shows that the return is not the end, it is the next beginning.


Owen Brierley is an actor, a singer, a dancer, a programmer, a father, a husband, a public servant, a VJ/DJ, a research scholar...and...several things we have yet to see. He is the wise master, and young student simultaneously. His work reminds us that completing a circle creates an endless cycle. The story only stops when you choose to get off the ride.


Renaissance means rebirth. To be reborn, you must die. The hero must return, end the story, and be reborn into the next adventure.


Campbell's greatest adherents embed this lesson in their most powerful characters: Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White, Dumbledore as the Phoenix, dies to rise from the ashes; Neo learns from the Oracle he is not The One 'in this lifetime,' then dies and is reborn to become the one. Obi Wan teaches both the audience and his foe directly by declaring, 'if you strike me down, I will return more powerful than before.'


Owen Brierley is a Renaissance Master who shows us the return is another beginning. He is the master of masters because he also has the ability to train others to do the same.


Brierley, like so many of today's Renaissance Masters hails from Edmonton, Alberta. The story of Brierley's work, and of the contributions of that city needs to be told in full. The more we learn, the more Brierley's role will come to the fore. Until then, let us capture a paradigm-breaking tool Brierley uses to be master of masters:


The old maxim says, "those who can, do; those who cannot, teach." Brierley proves the opposite is true. To be a true master, you must do both, and do both well. Anything else is child's play.

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