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David P. Silcox

An Outside View
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

An inaugural exhibition in celebration of the opening of the new Vancouver Art Gallery
at Robson Square, October 15-December 31 1983

[ 3,273 words ]


My arrival in Vancouver early in 1966 was as exciting for me as discovering a new world. Probably it shouldn't have been. Alan Jarvis and others had primed me to think that a mini-Renaissance had occurred there in the 1950s. Moreover, I was a close friend of Toni Onley, with whom I had travelled in Europe. I knew such people as Bert Binning and Arthur Erickson, and in Toronto I had organized exhibitions of the work of Herbert Gilbert and Tak Tanabe. I even owned a large Jack Shadbolt painting. Nevertheless, I was knocked galley-west, as they say, by what I found.

I have asked myself since whether my initial view was distorted by the special circumstances I was then in. For less than five months I had been at my new job as the arts officer at the Canada Council, and I was travelling with the first jury, an historic and super-stimulating event heading for its final touchdown at Vancouver. After three weeks of non-stop meetings, studio visits and assessments, we were close to collapse and therefore probably susceptible to Vancouver's artistic overload.

We had been immersed in the sub-zero of the Prairies and then emerged into the soft, mild air of Vancouver where, to my surprise and delight, the baggage was delivered outside even in the winter! The first spring flowers were springing up everywhere, the gardens were all trim and healthy. Rivalled only by Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco for its spectacular natural setting, Vancouver was entrancing. The juxtaposition of the sea and the forest and the city was a marvel to me then. The impact was exultant and, beneath it all, there was the unmistakeable sense of teeming growth that Emily Carr had caught so well. The thrill of arriving in Vancouver has not diminished with the years.

It didn't take long to discover that Vancouver's natural and sensory delights were matched by its artistic enticements. The young painters and sculptors I found then and over the next few years or so were ample proof of that. What was almost a metaphor of my immediate and subsequent relation to Vancouver was practically the first work I encountered: Iain Baxter's Bagged Place at the University of British Columbia. I still have a photograph of myself wrapped in plastic standing in it, and one of Elizabeth Kilbourn and Albert Dumouchel lying like two plastic sarcophagi on the plastic-wrapped bed. The importance of Alvin Balkind, curator of the UBC Fine Arts Gallery, was immediately evident and indeed it is impossible to think of the work of Vancouver's artists of the sixties without acknowledging his encouraging and discriminating hand at every turn.

A similar and positive attitude towards what was then happening in Vancouver could be found at the Vancouver Art Gallery which was being resuscitated under the dual talents of Richard Simmins and Doris Shadbolt. To Simmins I owe a particular debt, since it was his irrepressible determination which made it subsequently possible for me to change the priorities for art galleries in the Canada Council's programs of assistance. Up until 1966, the Vancouver Art Gallery had received from the Council something in the order of $15,000; this was based on Peter Dwyer's theory that all a gallery had to do was open its doors in the morning and lock them at night. But with Simmins's persuasive support I was soon able to get annual grants up over $100,000, and to find comparable sums for other galleries.

If I had the good fortune to be Vancouver's special messenger, bearing good news and money, I also brought what I had to offer (thanks to the taxpayer) to a community that was incredibly receptive. Although coteries and groups existed, they were generally supportive of each other. Senior artists like Jack Shadbolt or Gordon Smith were remarkably open and helpful towards younger artists. The orientation I tried to give to programs at the Canada Council was to enhance what was already happening and in the case of Vancouver that was not difficult. It meant providing direct assistance to individual artists, funds to enable particular projects to be realized, support so that artists could be easily connected to the rest of the country, and critics and artists from elsewhere could visit. Since the energy and the activity where already there, it was not difficult, with a modicum of imagination and persuasion, to supply these things, especially the critics. I used to insist that visitors to Canada put Vancouver on their itinerary. Indeed, various articles on the Vancouver scene were written by Phil Leider, editor of Artforum, by David Thompson, former critic of the London Times, by Brian Robertson, of London's Whitechapel Gallery, and by Lucy Lippard of New York, to mention only a few. Various artists and impresarios were invited to Vancouver with the Council's assistance, such as British painter Harold Cohen and Richard Demarco of Edinburgh, leading to the Canada 101 exhibition at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968 in which Gary Lee-Nova, Brian Fisher, Claude Breeze, Michael Morris, Bodo Pfeifer, and Iain Baxter were all featured. The New York performance artist Ralph Ortiz was invited at a total cost of $258 to the Canada Council, a grant which produced the Council's widest, if not its most flattering, exposure when Ortiz performed one of his Destruction Concertos: demolishing an upright piano with an axe. My immediate superior, Peter Dwyer, was not amused at this, and when I subsequently recommended a similar grant for the dancer Yvonne Rainer, he turned it down flat, arguing that his friend Clive Barnes in New York thought Rainer was someone of relatively little substance and less talent. It was one of the few times that one of my recommendations went off the rails.

During visits I usually stayed at either the Georgia Hotel or the Bayshore, then both under the same management and the only places in town, indeed in Canada, where the restaurants served limestone lettuce. On each trip I tried to meet with a varied assortment of artists, groups or institutions, but there were constant or recurring folk whose work and personalities most attracted me, or stayed in my memory.

Toni Onley I had known before, but usually I dropped in to see what this prolific and jovial workaholic was up to. We occasionally went flying together in his plane, or just looked at work. Through Onley's lead, Bill Bonnieman received a Council grant to set up Canada's first silkscreen studio for artists. While other artists ate and drank and complained that Onley produced too much, he would be in his studio. Onley had particularly drawn my attention to Iain Baxter with whom I quickly established a special and a lasting rapport. I bought one of Iain's etchings as a gift for Elizabeth Kilbourn (and others for later female jurors); we worked out some possibilities for works together with his wife Elaine. Baxter struck his well-known 'Artofficial' button in my honour. We then did one for Peter Dwyer, my boss, 'Superficial'. I bought Baxter's work for the Council's collection and pushed him among visiting potentates, not that he needed much help since he is one of Canada's few artists to get both American and European attention. It was with Baxter that I set something of a record in those pre-bureaucratic days by receiving a request by phone on one afternoon and having the cheque in the hands of the artist in Vancouver (by mail yet) twenty-four hours later. And knowing Baxter's admiration for Marshall McLuhan, I put him and Victor Doray at McLuhan's table when he was in Vancouver to receive a Canada Council prize. This gesture turned out badly since McLuhan, as I already knew, was visually illiterate and did not really understand a number of the issues and ideas that Doray and Baxter wanted to discuss with him. Baxter later sent him his famous VIP button which stands for Visually Illiterate Person.

Brian Fisher and Claude Breeze and I usually got together for an evening, not infrequently at the Jade Palace for a large feed which would include steamed ginger fish. We once had a wonderful long weekend at Breeze's place on Bowen Island, and the visits continued after Breeze moved to Surrey on the edge of Vancouver. Fisher's work fascinated me with its elegant certainty, and, as was the case with a number of other artists, I bought several of his paintings for the Canada Council collection, following my principle that collecting was a matter of buying worthy people in depth. Breeze was a genuine maverick as an artist and in many ways remains so still. His early career twists and turns were unusual; once I was astounded to be seated in his studio while he put on a white lab coat and then rolled out what appeared to be an operating table and laid out a series of low-relief painted sculptures which looked like human organs in a particular pattern on top of it. Doray was employing him then as an assistant medical illustrator at a hospital. As with many of Breeze's enthusiasms, this one passed quickly, but he was immensely energetic and intense, and there was never any doubt in my mind that he would become, indeed was, a major artist. I coveted his work but could not afford it, even though I did buy a number of drawings at premium prices (less one third), one of which has now disappeared as I had sternly predicted to him it would, since he was using a felt pen which could operate only with fugitive colours.

When I began to buy for the Canada Council collection, one of the first works I got was a large painting by Breeze called Sunday Afternoon: from an Old American Photograph, a work which depicted two hanging negroes and which, when it was reproduced in Canadian Art, raised a furor, including questions in the House of Commons. I had bought the painting sight unseen, based on Breeze's own admission that it was his best painting to date, an opinion that both Alvin Balkind and Brian Fisher shared; that was good enough for me, and Breeze needed the money urgently. It was through my enthusiastic support for both Fisher and Breeze, as with a number of other artists, that they were shown at the Jerrold Morris Gallery in Toronto and picked up by Mira Godard in Montreal.

Michael Morris was something of a prodigy, since he produced remarkably mature and sophisticated work at a very young age. He had a special reverence for Maxwell Bates of Victoria, which gave him firm roots, and he had a rapid and far-reaching mind which stimulated those around him, particularly Glenn Lewis and Gary Lee-Nova. Morris was probably the best-read among the artists in Vancouver, and was responsible for many of the international contacts that were subsequently developed. There was an Aubrey Beardsley-like decadent quality about him which conveyed both the excitement of a potential genius and the sort of waywardness that stops bureaucrats in their tracks. He was a very good risk-taker and he encouraged others to take risks. I usually visited Gordon and Marion Smith at their wonderful Arthur Erickson house in West Vancouver. The house is such a perfect example of domestic architecture that I usually dragged jurors or friends there to experience it and to enjoy the Smiths' wonderful hospitality. I have very seldom been in Vancouver without giving them a call.

Doris and Jack Shadbolt were, each in his or her way, omnipresent parts of the Vancouver scene. Some of the most delightful, humorous, and stimulating evenings were at their charming house in North Burnaby, overlooking the city and the inner harbour. When I first visited them, Jack's studio was bursting to the seams with unsold paintings; had I had the means of Alfred Barnes, his is one of the studios I might have bought in its entirety. His continuing vitality and wide interest in things both artistic and social continue to be a point of admiration for me, and his receptiveness to new ideas has been absolutely crucial to a number of developments in Vancouver, not least of which was the creation of Intermedia.

Doris Shadbolt had a wonderful sense of certainty and tenacity both in relation to the art of young painters and sculptors in Vancouver and in relation to her task as a curator of historical work. Under the protective shield thrown up by Richard Simmins, she was able to undertake some staggeringly ambitious exhibitions such as the magnificient Arts of the Raven and Images for a Canadian Heritage, both still landmark occasions. Before I left Ottawa I helped her to obtain the massive funding for the huge Masterpieces of Inuit Sculpture which travelled around the world in the early 1970s.

In the wonderful multi-media / inter-media world of Vancouver, it was difficult not to run into a variety of different kinds of creative artists apart from painters and sculptors. I used to see the poets bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert and John Newlove frequently, and have continued to do so over the years. On occasion I filled out Canada Council application forms for both bissett and Newlove, and took some pride in the fact that bissett was able to receive Canada Council grants every year that I was in charge of the bursary program -- not a bad record (thought I) for one of Canada's most distinguished young lyric poets. There were numerous others such as Helen Goodwin, Sharon Hassell, Johnny Neon, Ed Varney, Dallas Selman, and Al Neil who were making strong contributions. Usually support was forthcoming for those with originality, but in the attempt to get a Council grant for Al Neil, Tony Emery and I lost a long and solemn battle to the forces of convention and mediocrity. On the other hand, I helped to persuade the Council to support Vancouver's town fool, Joachim Foikis. The sense of the bizarre or the slightly wonky was something that seemed to fit very well in Vancouver, and in fact felt more at home there than anywhere else. Where else would one find an exhibition of custom cars, or of plastic Japanese food samples, or of such remarkable things as Baxter's Piles?

My role in the Vancouver scene of the 1960's was that of enabler and I introduced many people to Vancouver for the first time. Membership of the Canada Council juries I conducted across the country in my five years at the Council allowed first-time visits for such artists as Christopher Pratt, Ulysse Comtois, Yves Gaucher, Marcel Barbeau, Robert Murray, Charlotte Lingren, and Jack Bush. The lines that were established among artists as a result of this travel, and travel assistance to

Vancouver artists to see their colleagues in other parts of Canada, really contributed as much as anything to the sense of belonging and the sense of excitement.

In the first year of my acquaintance with the Vancouver scene, there was considerable talk about developing a centre where technical equipment and facilities would be available for artists who wished to work in less traditional modes of expression. This theme had cropped up in meetings with artists that I had organized in Montreal and Toronto, but it was most forcefully expressed in Vancouver. As a consequence, the artists together with a number of friends in business and from sympathetic institutions got together under the chairmanship of Jack Shadbolt to form what became Intermedia. I assumed after one meeting that it was a fait-accompli and obtained a $40,000 grant (an enormous sum in those early days) in order to establish it. The announcement of this support came before the artists themselves had completed preparations to make Intermedia a legal entity, and the headline in one of the Vancouver papers was 'Canada Council Gives Support to Non-Existent Group.' I was rather pleased that Council support had anticipated rather than come after the fact. In addition to the above-mentioned meetings, I also organized a meeting of poets at the Georgia Hotel. These 'Soundings,' as we called them, were a means of getting a consensus on what forms of support were most needed and most congenial to practicing artists of whatever discipline. The results of these, and particularly those in Vancouver, led to my proposals to restructure the support system for individual artists, a pattern which has remained relatively intact to this day. Needless to say, scheduling meetings in Vancouver was also a way of providing an opportunity for other artists to travel across the country, a matter which I thought most important.

One of my efforts to bring Vancouver to the attention of the rest of Canada was a spectacular fiasco. Gary Lee-Nova had undertaken a number of large projects, some in collaboration with Michael Morris, others with Dallas Selman. The Stratford Art Gallery, adjacent to the Festival, was looking for a special summer exhibition of outdoor sculpture, and they didn't have much money. With a grant of $ 10,000 from the Council, I suggested that they commission Gary Lee-Nova and 'Box' Arnold to produce an entire exhibition. This idea had come up in discussion with Lee-Nova, and he and Arnold had a number of box forms made up by one of the large paper manufacturers — extra-heavy-duty weather-resistant waxed cardboard. They arrived in Stratford in late May and in the space of little more than a week had erected an absolute wonderland of arches, ziggurats, fences, crenellated towers and other delights out of cardboard. They, I, and the Stratford board were ecstatic until two days later when Stratford was struck with the most horrendous summer storm in its recorded history, with seventy-mile-an-hour winds and six inches of rain in one hour.

I have a rich anecdotal memory of Vancouver in the 1960s, from crab legs at the old Devonshire Hotel to a midnight raid to spread poppy seeds on the fields approaching Simon Fraser University with Arthur Erickson and a group of supporters who did not like the proposal by the administration to turn them into football fields. I remember, too, so many more individuals whom I would like to write about at much greater length: Werner Aellen, Tom Burrows, Jack Wise, Michael de Courcy, Sherry Grauer, Jim Wilier, Richard Turner. I have said nothing about Paul Huang whose resourcefulness as a gallery owner was crucially important, although his own paintings used to be the despair of juries. Huang would display his wares, detect the uncertainty, and then volunteer to paint some paintings like Harold Town's, or like Molinari's, or whatever the jury would like. While we never supported him as an artist, he did get some assistance because his gallery was so important.

Artists in other parts of Canada used to complain somewhat about the too-decadent, too-candied, succulent, or indulgent attitudes of artists in Vancouver. But my nose simply detected the city as one of the most important, energetic centres in the country during those years and I was in the happy position of being able to deflect a fair amount of support. I never regretted a penny nor do I think that any of the overbalance that may have occurred was not deserved. And besides, I personally grew so much in the process of doing it that I could never adequately describe my debt.



From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

Text: © Scott Watson. All rights reserved.

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