Archive for the ‘Art’ Category


September 6, 2012

by Janet Nicol

1-200 East 20 Ave, Vancouver, British Columbia, V5V 1M1
September 6 to 29, 2012
On Main Gallery, Vancouver

Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak have been collaborating on video, performance and photographic work since 1983. With The Long Time, the artistic pair bring together work created over the past ten years. They say their goal is to “engage the viewer and ask questions.” Becoming is a major video installation that captures the evolution of the urban environments of Toronto, Vancouver and Berlin. “It’s an observation of the continuing urban architecture,” Tomczak says. “We look at old buildings against new towers.” Steele adds that they wanted to “create a dialogue between the old and the new.” A second video installation, Before I Wake, turns the camera on the artists. “We’re hypnotized as part of the study,” Steele says of the self-portraits. The final piece is called The Miniatures, a series of videos installed in small frames. Images of nature are juxtaposed with the text of protest slogans. A new photo-text series, ….bump in the night, will also be on public display at the Broadway and Cambie Skytrain station in Vancouver. The artists asked young people on the verge of leaving school at Vancouver’s Native Education College, “what are you afraid of?” — rather than the more frequently asked question, “what are you looking forward to?” Asking the right question led to intriguing results.

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, Fall/Winter, 2012


Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer

May 6, 2012

A retrospective exhibit – March 7 to September 3, 2012 Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver

by Janet Nicol

Northwest coast carver and artist Doug Cranmer shunned the limelight in his lifetime (he died in 2006), but now a retrospective exhibition at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology shines a bright light on a collection of his works known as indigenous modern. “It was all about the process,” says curator Dr. Jennifer Kramer. “He was always trying new things. In his work, traditional and contemporary merged without his losing a sense of self.” Kesu’, the title of the show, means “wealth being carved.” Doug Cranmer was given the name by his Kwakwaka’wakw parents when he was a child growing up in Alert Bay. “His family saw him being carved to be a noble person,” Kramer says.

Kesu’ captures the spirit of an artist who would have rather remained elusive. “He hated to be labelled,” Kramer says. He didn’t want to be called a ‘master carver’ if it meant there was nothing new to try. “He wasn’t going to be able to ‘play’ if he was a ‘master’,” she adds.

While Cranmer took on the traditional leadership duties expected of him, he also worked as a fisherman and logger, and in the late 1950s, he met artist Mungo Martin, who showed him how to carve totem poles. Soon after, he was hired by Haida artist Bill Reid and worked with other carvers on the Haida houses and totem poles for the Museum of Anthropology. His life as a full-time artist had begun. Cranmer stayed on in Vancouver, and became very much part of the art scene in the 1960s and 1970s, creating works in several media and establishing The Talking Stick, the first Native-owned gallery in Canada in 1962, which he ran for six years.

Cranmer’s art sold across Canada and internationally but he wasn’t looking for fame and fortune. “Doug Cranmer was part of the Northwest coast renaissance at the same time as Bill Reid, but he wasn’t interested in selling himself,” Kramer says. “He wasn’t into pleasing others. He followed his own internal focus.”

There are 105 pieces of Cranmer’s work in the MOA exhibition, including carvings, paintings, jewellery, prints on burlap and abstract paintings on mahogany. In fact, Cranmer pioneered abstract and non-figurative paintings using Northwest Coast ovoids and U-shapes. He taught and inspired a generation of First Nations artists, and 20 of these artists’ pieces are also part of the retrospective. In 1996 Cranmer left Vancouver to return ‘home’ to Alert Bay. He was still teaching in the island town’s carving shed in the days before he died.

The show centres on a canoe and paddles surrounded by undersea creatures, carved by Cranmer in 1970. “His work is spare, refined, elegant and simple,” Kramer says of the work. “There’s also a painting of a canoe which is abstract,” she adds. “He was using geometric shapes to show a canoe from every perspective,” she says of an abstract painting of a canoe. “I put this next to the carved canoe, so people can look at Doug’s work from many perspectives too. He can’t be summed up.”

Audio elements in the show include interviews with the artist, the sound of chainsaws — a tool he relished, jazz music, which he loved to listen to and the sound of laughter, representing Cranmer’s sharp wit. It also includes details of his life and personality in family photographs — Cranmer’s widow and sister worked closely with the curator. “I didn’t know Doug Cranmer personally,” Kramer says. “But I spoke to over 50 people who knew Doug.”

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, Summer 2012

Also check out my book review of Jennifer Kramer’s “Kesu’: The Art and Life of Doug Cranmer” in British Columbia History, Fall, 2012.

A passion for trees

February 4, 2012

ROBERT MARCHESSAULT at the Bau Xi Gallery, Vancouver, March 3 to 24, 2012

By Janet Nicol

When Robert Marchessault and his partner moved from Toronto to a farm in the countryside in the 1990s, his long-held passion for trees found new direction. This exhibition shows 15 of his new oil paintings on wooden panels, all ethereal renderings of those trees. “These are not photograph-based,” Marchessault emphasizes. “I use memory as a filtering agent. I train myself to look hard at the trees and at what impresses me. Time goes by and I begin to paint the tree from what I can remember. Memory plays a big role but I am not slavish about memory. I study ways the tree lives and grows, how it branches, moves through space in foliage and form. Then I begin big gestural paintings, and memory informs what emerges.” Marchessault’s love of trees was partly inspired by an Ontario government no-cost tree-planting initiative. He and his partner planted 7,000 saplings on their farm in 1984. He now looks out on to 50-foot-high pines. “You take on a nurturing of the land,” Marchessault says of his private forest. “You’re introducing life and protecting it. This feeling of love drives a passion for art.” Marchessault has also become intrigued by representing water as a foil to trees. New paintings of tree-covered islands appeal to him because they seem ‘mysterious.’

-Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, January 2012

The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton

November 26, 2011

The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton, Sheryl Salloum. Mother Tongue Publishing Limited, Salt Spring Island, 2011. 158 pp $35.95

Reviewed by Janet Nicol

A unique story not to be overlooked, The Life and Art of Mildred Valley Thornton, is the fourth biography in a series of “Unheralded Artists of British Columbia.” Author Sheryl Salloum lovingly portrays Mildred Valley Thornton (1890 to 1967) from her early years in rural Ontario to her unconventional married life in Vancouver. Accompanying the text are several of Thornton’s masterful oil and watercolour paintings as well as family photographs.

Thornton’s legacy includes more than 300 portraits, most of First Nations people. She befriended and learned from her subjects and came to advocate on their behalf. Asked why she chose to paint First Nations people over other groups, Thornton simply said she considered them more interesting.

Several male aboriginal leaders sat for Thornton, but she also painted aboriginal women and vivid scenes of life on the reserves. Thornton painted quickly, as the author explains, skilfully capturing the spirit of her subjects. She felt an urgency to document what she feared was a disappearing way of life. This notion also compelled Thornton to share her paintings and knowledge of First Nations culture and traditions through writing and speaking engagements.

Thornton also painted Canadian landscapes. A few are compared favourably to Group of Seven artist Tom Thomson. Indeed, Thornton was “as Canadian as wheat,” as a contemporary commented.

She lived in a time of of domestic conformity for women, yet histories (such as this book) continue to emerge to indicate exceptions. Thornton was supported by her husband, John who shared in the raising of their twin sons Maitland and Jack, born in 1926, freeing her to spend time to paint and travel. Thornton was also involved with the Vancouver literary community after her family moved here from Saskatchewan in 1934 and was an art critic for the Vancouver Sun from 1944 to 1959.

Another unconventional woman of the times was Maisie Hurley, with whom Thornton befriended. Hurley began publishing The Native Voice newspaper in 1946 and Thornton was an occasional contributor.

Emily Carr was also a contemporary of Thornton’s with a similar interest in aboriginal culture. A quality which separates these artists, the author points out, is Thornton’s sociability and interest of other people. Perhaps because of this, unlike Carr, Thornton portrayed people in her art to the end of her life. The author observes that a male-dominated art world meant: “…the two most talented and independent female BC painters of the day never collaborated or celebrated their achievements; instead,they were forced to compete with one another.”

A wealth of source materials, detailed in extensive endnotes, allowed the author to successfully trace much of Thornton’s life, from her art school days in the mid-west of the United States to her final days as a widow in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale neighbourhood. Interviews with family members including a son, Jack Thornton, now living in Victoria, and two grandchildren Janet and John Thornton, enrich this story as well.

The author explores the reasons acclaim eluded Thornton, garnering viewpoints from members of the art community, past and present. Among her findings, Salloum notes Canadians tend to undervalue portraiture in favour of landscapes. The author also addresses the racial politics of Thornton’s (and others) art work in a sensitive and informed manner and considers its impact on Thornton’s legacy.

While in declining health in her final days, Thornton struggled to find an appropriate public space in Canada for her paintings. She didn’t want her collection broken up or sold to private collectors. The outcome of her efforts is yet another compelling story the author reveals in the concluding pages. Ultimately, the value given to Thornton’s work reflects who we are as Canadians as much as it reflects the reputation of this accomplished artist.

Reprinted from BC History , Winter, 2011

Watch for my interview with Mona Fertig, Mother Tongue Publishing, in Galleries West magazine, January 2012.


September 20, 2011

Slipstitch, Jackie Frioud and Judy Robertson exhibit, September 2 to October 4, Circle Craft Gallery, Vancouver

by Janet Nicol

Jackie Frioud’s stitch-design ceramics complement narrative hooked rugs by Judy Robertson in a show called Slipstitch, at Circle Craft in Vancouver. “I was attracted to pottery as a functional form,” says Frioud, “even though my fine arts degree is in printmaking and sculpture.” She began by creating jewelry boxes, plate sets and other functional forms of white pottery. With a slip-coloured clay, she’s added a blue ‘stitching’ motif on each form. “I’ve sewn in the past and I always liked the stitching pattern used in printmaking,” she says, adding that her designs are influenced by a minimalist, Japanese aesthetic. “I began making multiple slabs to form one piece,” Frioud says. “I realized my pottery, based on function, was now becoming sculpture.” She shares a childhood in the Okanagan with Robertson, and says the muted colours of Robertson’s hooked rugs complement her white porcelains. “Words are embroidered into the fabric before she hooks,” she says. “The text has hidden meanings, giving a subversive element to the rugs.”

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, Fall, 2011

Cold War Artefacts

September 20, 2011


Gil McElroy and Peter Dykhuis, Cold War Artefacts: Logroad: The Baldy Hughes Project, July 15 to October 9, Two Rivers Gallery, Prince George

By Janet Nicol

“I was an army brat,” artist and writer Gil McElroy says. “My father was one of the ‘cold warriors’ in the 1950s.” The Pinetree Line was one of three cross-country arrays of manned radar stations guarding against Soviet attack, and McElroy’s father worked on bases from coast to coast. Some buildings and artefacts of the period remain — including the Baldy Hughes Air Station in Prince George, and now McElroy and collaborating artist Peter Dykhuis have created installations about the Station, the second in a series of four Cold War exhibitions. “A wall of text provides a timeline of the history of the U.S.-built and manned site,” McElroy says. “It was a boring history until the Cuban Missile Crisis came along and things got exciting at the station for a very short time.” The exhibition also includes collages, maps and drawings. McElroy says many bases were either dismantled or simply abandoned and left to decay, and only a handful, including the Prince George site, were re-purposed. “Nobody remembers this time or wants to remember,” McElroy says. “But these military sites existed and shaped the fabric of our communities.”

Re-printed from Galleries West, Fall, 2011.

Unseen Silkscreens

May 10, 2011

May 20 to May 24, 2011, Pegasus Art Gallery and ArtSpring, Salt Spring Island

by Janet Nicol

Lawren Harris, Algoma Lake, silkscreen, c. 1945, 30″ X 40″.

Unseen Silkscreens is a unique historical collection of prints initiated by the Sampson-Matthews graphic arts company in the midst of war. An important contribution to the Canadian art scene from 1941 to 1963, the prints have been gathering dust in attics and institution storage rooms for many decades since. But with this upcoming exhibit, a West Coast curator hopes to bring them back into the light.

“These prints were a complete cross-section of our most prestigious artists,” says Ian Sigvaldason, owner and curator of Pegasus art gallery on Salt Spring Island. “At the time, the art was considered modern, even avant-garde.” He says collectors are just starting to realize the works’ significance. As the value of the original paintings rise, so does the value of the prints, he says. Sigvaldason’s show will consist of about 50 silkscreen prints, several by Group of Seven artists as well as West Coast painters including Emily Carr and B.C. Binning.

A total of 89 silkscreen prints were produced over a 22-year period under the direction of Ernest Sampson, a pioneer of silkscreen printing in Canada, and his partner Charles Matthews. Artists hired by Sampson-Matthews, like Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson, made a ‘translation’ of the original onto silkscreen. It was an exacting process, and eventually became obsolete as inexpensive photographic reproduction emerged, Sigvaldason says. By 1963 the unique print-making project had run its course.

“Making a translation of the painting, cutting the silks and running them through the oil pigments was labour-intensive,” Sigvaldason says. “The staff averaged a print run of three paintings a year.”

The struggles of the Depression era inspired the make work initiative, and it was supported by the federal government and the National Gallery of Canada. “Artists had a hard time making money, and people didn’t have the money to buy art,” Sigvaldason explains. Compelled to focus on their day jobs, he says many artists worked as etchers, engravers and printmakers. Emily Carr ran a boarding house and E.J. Hughes became a postal worker.

“This project was a way for them to gain exposure and earn royalties on the prints,” Sigvaldason adds. Prints were sold through the gallery to banks, railway stations, libraries, schools and other public spaces across Canada. “Baby boomers will remember these prints from their school days.”

Prints also covered the walls in military posts overseas during the war years. Images depicting landscape and people from every region of the nation boosted Canadian soldiers’ morale. “It was the first real exposure to mass popular national identity,” Sigvaldason says. “It gave the message to soldiers, ‘this is what you’re fighting for.’ There was a propaganda feature to the project.”

The prints made art more accessible to the public, and more affordable. “Eighty per cent of Canadians lived in rural communities during those years. People had never seen this art or had only seen it in black and white. This was an exciting national project.”

Some prints, such as Isabelle McLaughlin’s Blossom Time didn’t sell well at the time, so print runs were limited, Sigvaldason says. Others, such as A.Y. Jackson’s landscapes were in high demand, leading to several print runs and financially well-compensated artists. But even if the rewards were modest, artists were eager to have their work reproduced, and hundreds applied.

Many of the original paintings, dating from 1906 to the early 1960s, now hang in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and Sigvaldason is now creating a database to share information about the reproductions. “We’ve overlooked these prints for so long,” he says. “This was public-sponsored public art. The collection is a major part of Canadian history.”

Reprinted from Galleries West magazine, Summer 2011

Wisdom of the Children

February 26, 2011


A Unique Art Gallery in Cusco, Peru

By Janet Nicol

After working alongside colleagues on a project sponsored by the BC Teachers’ Federation in Peru last summer, I travelled to the world heritage site of Machu Picchu. Along the way, I found the Wisdom of the Children, known as Irq’i Yachay in the Quechuan language.

This is the name given to a unique children’s art gallery in downtown Cusco, starting point for tourists heading to the famous mountain ruins. The gallery showcases art created by indigenous children living in isolated mountain communities. These primary-age students are taught by Laura Russell and a staff of about a dozen Peruvian teachers. A film documenting the methodology used and showing the children painting, is also part of the exhibit.

“The children manifest cultural messages,” Russell, a professional art teacher and founder of the workshops, says in a telephone interview from her part-time residence in California. “They have their own way of seeing.” She says students’ paintings reflect the wide open spaces of the Andes, the symbolic condor, and their ancient mountain deity.

“We discovered the cognitive abilities in children were unrecognized by educators,” Russell says. “For instance, these children have a strong sense of design, learned by observation.”

The temporary exhibit I visited proves Russell’s point. Textile art designs filled the walls, painted in vibrant colors. Watching elders weave designs passed down through generations, children are able to express their observations with a paintbrush.

Russell says her workshop team does not “teach” art. For example, lessons in perspective are not offered. Instead students learn how to use a paintbrush and to thicken or thin out the paint—and then, without further instruction, they start creating.

The team of educators travel throughout the rugged Andes, recruiting volunteers to assist them in selected communities. While the culture of the Quechua people living around Cusco is still remarkably intact, Russell says the children are underserved by the nation’s education system.

“We found there was a vacuum in the education system,” Russell says. “The school curriculum does not pertain to the children’s daily lives.”

Russell was making a tourist pilgrimage along the Inca trail more than 20 years ago when she became interested in exploring the artistic potential of the local children. Her ideas turned into a project in 1991, and after building a team of trained teachers, the group set out to teach in 31 communities. The Cusco art gallery was started eight years later, with funding coming from Inter American Foundation. (Gallery website:

By using art, Russell says all forms of knowledge can be transmitted to children.

“We tell students to create a circle on paper and to divide it into eight parts. Then color what you want,” she says, describing a basic math lesson on fractions.

Children can choose a letter of the alphabet and draw a gigantic version of the letter, along with a frame. “Draw pictures of things that start with this letter around the frame,” Russell says, depicting a language lesson.

“The point is to give the students an opportunity for self-expression. This leads to self-esteem and self-respect.” Everyone benefits, Russell believes. “This includes community volunteers, who are typically men,” she adds, “as women have less time to offer.”

“It’s a participatory form of education. The students don’t just copy.”

These innovative teachers are now working on integrating their methods into a regional curriculum. “It’s all about working from the ground up,” Russell says.

Reprinted from Teacher magazine, March, 2011

Entwined Histories

January 29, 2011

BRITISH COLUMBIA: Entwined Histories: The Maisie Hurley Collection, January 23 to August 23, North Vancouver Museum

BY: Janet Nicol

Though she wasn’t Native, Maisie Hurley (1887-1962) spent most of her career as an advocate for B.C.’s Aboriginal people, invited to join the Native Brotherhood of B.C., and founder of the Native Voice newspaper. Throughout the years, Hurley received many gifts from Native leaders in recognition of her advocacy work, and the gifts form the basis of an exhibition of artifacts and artworks from Squamish and Coast Salish cultures at the North Vancouver Museum. The collection includes a blanket made of mountain goat wool and another, more mysterious fibre. Tested at the University of Victoria, researchers discovered the fibres were from a unique breed of “wool dog” raised by the Coast Salish until the 1860s, dating the blanket from before the main period of contact. The Museum is exhibiting the blanket with a new blanket by Squamish weaver Keith Nahanee, and cedar bark regalia made by Nahanee’s cousin Tracy Williams. Co-curators Sharon Fortney and Damara Jacobs will also incorporate oral history interviews and videos with Squamish Nation elders into the exhibition, which will later tour B.C. and form the basis of a book to be published by the Squamish.

This image taken near Jericho Charlie’s home at Senákw, the Kitsilano Indian Reserve, on August 15, 1891, was the inspiration for three pastel portraits by Maisie Armytage-Moore.
Photo Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives.

Reprinted from Galleries West, January 2011

The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre

April 18, 2010

Great Spaces

by Janet Nicol

Among the trendy condos and hotel resorts at Whistler village
is a cedar and glass complex built into a landscaped hillside,
housing the cultural and historical treasures of two First Nations
groups, the Squamish and the Lil’wat. “The two nations have
overlapping territory in the Whistler area, and there were on-going
disputes,” says operations coordinator Josh Anderson. “In the end,
we decided to build a centre together.” He adds that combining
two First Nations groups under one roof is a unique concept.
Begun in 2001 and opened two years ago, the Squamish
Lil’wat Cultural Centre’s activities picked up speed when the
Olympics came to town this year — they represent two of the
four host First Nations in the area, so there were cultural events
on throughout the Olympics.

The Centre was designed by Vancouver architect Alfred
Waugh, with a focus on natural and sustainable materials. Visitors
are greeted by two carved welcoming figures before entering
through large cedar doors. Natural light
streams through the windowed
Great Hall, designed in the form of a traditional Squamish
Longhouse and decorated with massive models of hand-carved
cedar spindle whorls, a celebration of the Sqamish weaving heritage.
The hall is filled with cultural artifacts, including authentic
dugout canoes, and wool and cedar weavings.

The neighbouring Istken Hall is designed to evoke the traditional
underground dwellings of the Lil’wat people, a circular
space with a dramatic backdrop of forest and mountain scenery,
and a living roof. The space hosts artists’ workshops — carving,
weaving, drum-making — temporary exhibitions, and activities
for the Centre’s artist-in-residence program. A recent exhibition
included a canoe carved in 1975 by Charlie Mack Seymour, a
revered Lil’wat cultural leader and teacher, and a youth photography
exhibition displayed images on the theme of biodiversity.

Display pieces are all described in English, and the Squamish and
Lil’wat languages. “The Centre plays a key role in our cultural
revitalization,” Anderson says. “We’re teaching future generations
how we’ve lived.”

Reprinted from Galleries West, Spring 2010