MONTREAL - Robert Davidson first learned to carve when he was 13, instructed in the painstaking art by his father and uncle.

The British Columbia sculptor has gained renown for his masks and totems, which have been widely shown and are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.

On Tuesday, he was among eight artists honoured with Governor General Awards in Visual and Media Arts and he said he was excited not only about the recognition it gives him but all First Nations art.

"We've come a long way in finding our place in the world, finding our place in Canada and I feel the art has helped me to find the strength to contribute to the fabric of Canada," the resident of White Rock, B.C., said after the ceremony.

A key figure in the renaissance of Haida art, Davidson said prestigious awards such as the Governor General's heighten public awareness of the arts and the accomplishment of the artists.

"I feel that Haida art has gone beyond Haida (cultural) boundaries," he said. "I feel the art merits being recognized by the world. The standard that has been established by our ancestors rivals other art forms."

Also honoured was Toronto-based Rita Letendre, who has worked in Israel and Europe. She did a 1965 painting for California State College at Long Beach that was, at the time, the largest outdoor mural in the United States.

Letendre was associated with the groundbreaking and surrealist-influenced Automatistes in Quebec who transformed painting practices in Canada.

She said after the ceremony that the award recognizes her vision of the world, which is based on communicating with people.

"What an artist does is show in their work their vision of the world, their philosophy, a universe that we create, our universe, a universe that could be for everybody because the human race is pretty similar," said Letendre, who was born in Drummondville, Que.

"If you succeed it means you have succeeded in communicating with people and that's wonderful and when they give you prizes for that, for sure."

She said that when she began painting in the 1950s, there was little promotion for the arts and "there was no concept about art in Canada at all."

But she said the arts are more embraced now and she hopes awards such as the Governor General's would inspire young people to consider the field as a career.

"If you feel that you want to be an artist, you must be sure that's all you want to do," she said. "Do it with passion."

Another recipient was Tom Sherman, who teaches video art at Syracuse University, lives near Liverpool, N.S., and has represented Canada at the Venice Biennale.

Other recipients include filmmaker Andre Forcier, photographer Gabor Szilasi and painter Claude Tousignant, all from Quebec, as well as Toronto-based artist Terry Ryan for his leadership in encouraging Inuit art.

Manitoba-based glass sculptor Ione Thorkelsson won the Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in fine crafts.

Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean will present the awards March 31 during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Winners will receive a $25,000 prize and a work created by Tony Urquhart, winner of a 2009 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.