The Canadian Art Database

Daniel Donovan

Building the Collection
[from Signs of the Spirit: The Donovan Collection at St. Michael's College,
University of Toronto 2001.]

Although the process of putting together the collection only really began in 1980, its roots reach back much further. The initial stimulation came from what I have always considered to be the high point of my undergraduate experience at St. Michael's and at the University of Toronto, a course entitled, 'The Philosophy of Art'. The text was Jacques Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. More important than the book, however, was the professor, a diocesan priest from Halifax named Gerald B. Phelan. His open and questioning mind as well as his palpable love of art influenced me in ways that I only came to understand over decades.

Between 1958 and 1962, I studied theology at Université Laval in Quebec City. Living there exposed me to something of the rich heritage of French Canadian art and architecture, especially, but not only, in its church forms. The subsequent four years in Europe, divided almost equally between Rome and Münster in northern Germany, were decisive for my appreciation and love of art. As demanding and time-consuming as my biblical and theological studies were, they still left some time for another kind of education. Rome and Florence, London and Paris, Munich and Vienna were to me immense storehouses of history, art and architecture. I took to what they had to offer with enthusiasm and delight.

On returning to Canada in 1967, I brought with me two woodcuts by a German Jew, Jakob Steinhardt, who had escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to Palestine in the 1930s. Although the style of the works is Germanic, their content is drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. One is entitled Job and the other Habakkuk. The portrayal of Job suggests the end of the story: everything is in ruins; the clouds, however, have parted and the sun is visible. Job still does not understand why the innocent suffer, but he is not giving up. He continues to trust in God and in life.

Habakkuk is one of the lesser known of the biblical prophets. The piece I have evokes the opening lines of the book that bears his name: 'How long 0 Lord, how long?' Habakkuk's gift enables him to rise up out of the darkness that has engulfed his people and to confront God: 'How long is this to go on?'

Although originally purchased as souvenirs of my years in Europe, Steinhardt's woodcuts turned out to be eloquent harbingers of what would come later. Over the years they have taken on an added strength. I now realize that they were never just about the biblical figures they portray. They were about the war and the Holocaust and about humanity's ongoing history of suffering and longing.

In 1980 I had some money available and without really thinking that much about it bought and donated to St. Michael's a large outdoor stainless steel sculpture, Kosso Eloul's Zen West. With this one rather spontaneous gesture the ice was broken. I was well on my way to becoming a collector, if only on a modest scale. Even as this was happening, however, I realized how little I knew about contemporary Canadian art, and so I began a pattern that has continued until today: Saturday afternoons are set aside for visits to Toronto art galleries.

The collection really began with the purchase of a work by Ted Rettig, an artist whom I had known since he was an undergraduate at York University. He and I were both part of a small community of students, professors and others who gathered on Sunday evenings between 1969 and 1973 to celebrate the Eucharist. When Ted did his MFA in the mid-70s, he produced as his thesis project a liturgical set: an altar / table, a processional cross, a stone hollowed out as a baptismal font and a tabernacle. It happened that some of these were included in a show at the very moment that I began to explore the Toronto art world. I bought the tabernacle. It is a somewhat awkwardly shaped cube of limestone hollowed out in a cave-like form with simple but subtle markings carved into its outer sides. The interior is visible through a bronze door that includes in its centre an open Celtic cross.

The tabernacle has a special place in the collection. Not only did it come out of experiences of which I was a part some thirty years ago, it set the tone for much of what was to follow. Strong but in no sense obtrusive, it suggests a multiplicity of meanings. It has an air of mystery about it, evoking something ancient and precious, something outside of the ordinary.

What began with the tabernacle has grown into the present collection. As I look back over all that has been involved in putting it together, I am grateful to a wide range of people, especially the artists. Conversations with them, their dealers and others in the art community have been for me a source of pleasure as well as of intellectual and aesthetic stimulation.

I am grateful to President Alway and the Art Committee at St. Michael's College who agreed to accept the collection and to house it in the beautifully renovated Odette Hall. It is hard to imagine a more apt setting for it. To be able to work in the very special environment the collection has created has been for me an enormous pleasure. It has been an equally great pleasure to be able to share my enthusiasm for contemporary art with those who have come to visit the collection.

My special thanks go to all those who have contributed in any way to the present catalogue. I know that in many cases their contribution has been an expression of friendship. I am particularly grateful to Marcella Tanzola whose generous gift to St. Michael's has made it possible to document the collection in this way.

What I have been able to bring together inevitably reflects my taste and my sense of art; even more than that, it reflects my life and education, the things that matter to me. I am a priest and theologian and have tried to be both in a way that is personal and honest. The collection is an integral part of who I am and what I do.

Art speaks to us on many levels. In collecting, I have been more attracted by its ability to express thoughts and feelings than by its stylistic and formal qualities. I think of the works as signs of the human spirit, signs especially of that spirit as it reaches out beyond the ordinary and everyday to what I think of as the Mystery that surrounds and permeates and gives depth and meaning to our lives. In a religious culture the expression of such things involves traditional images and forms. In a more secular world, the artist is often forced to develop his/her own imagery. Whatever the imagery, the works in the collection invite the viewer to look, to think and to respond. Through the signs the spirit speaks.

Text: © Daniel Donovan. All rights reserved.

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