Behind the Canvas

BEHIND THE CANVAS: Art Notes from the MTP Underground
#1, Spring, 2012
Tired of ‘official’ art news. Fascinating, rare and obscure Canadian art history information often lands on our desk or in our mailbox looking for interested readers. So instead of letting these treasures pile up unseen, disappearing into dusty deep files for another few decades, we unveil them, here, for you.

Bly Kaye of Salt Spring Island writes that she ‘really enjoyed reading about your father as an artist. I wondered if you would be interested in reading about my mother, also an unsung BC artist hailing from Montreal, in a website just recently created by my sister and 2 friends. Turns out that P.M. Ritchie is an artist with an international pedigree, who studied in Paris, received a Robert Redford grant, and worked in Quebec and Naramata, where she lived from 1956 until her death in 2004. There is just no end to the wonderful artists this country produces, but really has no time for.

Renee Alexander writes about her father, Robert Samuel Alexander:
“ …was born 1916 and died 1974.  He was a contemporary of Toni Onley, Gordon Smith, Gordon Caruso etc.  He was an honours graduate from the Vancouver School of Art and received a scholarship to study at the Art Students' League in New York.  He won many art competitions including two for the Seattle Art Museum.  UBC commissioned him to do two portraits, which are both hanging in the main Library.  In the early 1960s he received a Canada Council Grant.  He also published a couple of books. The Penticton Library and Civic Centre restored a mural he did in the early 60's for the then new Penticton Airport and it now hangs in the Civic Centre.  In the book 'Letters from Nan' one of his paintings was referenced as the only great painting in the Confederation of Artists show.
For some reason he has not been recognized in the Vancouver scene today like many of his contemporaries though he was viewed as a rising star in the early Vancouver art world.  I can only put it down to the fact that he was not an aggressive self-promoter and died at the age of 57.
A number of years ago I did a CD of my father's work. Copies may also be found at the Vancouver Art Gallery, UBC special collections, the National Gallery of Canada, Emily Carr, Penticton Library and Civic Centre etc.”

Susan Walker, former editor of the new Canadian Art from its inception in 1984 until the spring of 1988, and an arts and entertainment writer for the Toronto Star for over two decades, writes to us about William Featherston, another unheralded artist who lived in BC from 1972 to 2009:
“Bill Featherston was really quite well known -- mostly outside the country. Born in Toronto, he served in World War II, and got an education on his return that led to his becoming a practising artist. In the 1950s and in the 1960s he taught and made art in Toronto and then in Cornwall. He joined the Faculty of Fine Art at UVic in the early 70s, when he was mostly doing sculpture. From then until his death in 2009, Featherston was a painter, mostly of a realist-political type. Out of step with the painting fashions of his time, he wasn't much regarded in Canada, but his work is in some major collections. He was a gruff guy, but fascinating and really very gentle when you got to know him.”

One of our gems is an unpublished ms on Jack Wise, The Art of Jack Wise, edited by Doug Henderson, with a Foreword by George Woodcock and poetry by Marguerite Pinney, Michael McClure, Scott Lawrance, and Gary Snyder as well as photographs of paintings from various collections. We were also given a also a copy of an NFB film on Jack Language of the Brush,. Jack was a spiritual man, a teacher and artist whose work is infused with the Zen Buddhist philosophy he embodied throughout his life. His aim was to bridge the chasm between East and West in his art. He is perhaps best known for his Mandalas and Calligraphy. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria gave him a one man retrospective in 1999. After living in Victoria and various Gulf Islands with his wife Mary and their three children, he moved to Denman Island where he worked until his death in 1996. Excerpts from “The Secret Diary of an Artist” by Jack Wise –Denman Island, 1996, transcribed by Robert Amos from the University of Victoria Artists’ Archives

“61 Chung Fu
3 Kan Chen Difficulty in the beginning

All the metaphors of the process of painting can be transposed from sight to sound. My first Vancouver exhibition was painted to music - to Glenn Gould
playing Bach - dense little partitas and inventions - multileveled structures which refused to be captured by the limited focal lengths of the
camera's lens - some years later I painted a series from the
sound-structures of Beethoven's Bagatelles - layering, overlayering,
multidimensional webs woven by brush strokes played as one would play an
instrument of music - tempo - interval - thick thin bright birds for the eye
of the ear - Yes! the tone has colour! The colour has tone - I find it
interesting that the often-asked question when viewing certain paintings
"what does it mean?" is seldom asked of a piece of music.

What they insist upon, the Art Critics and brokers, is the insistently
recognizable corporate logo, the "style" - the finely honed predictability
which authenticates ego - continuity - the style = the man (or woman) = the stable identity = having "found ones-self" in aesthetic terms ======
countability - currency - commodity -. art as picture making - Art as premeditated ego-affirmation -

Serrano quotes Jung as saying ". I am somewhat frightened by the sudden
success I have had. I am afraid it is not good, because real work is
completed in silence and strikes a chord in the minds of only a very few.

So it unfolds - this journal - beginning in poverty of spirit from the
person of an old ill cranky man - peevish and put upon - slipping into an
impoverished and lonely leave-taking - drugged with pharmaceuticals and
shaking through weakness - Not very good company! Perhaps this writing is
working its own purpose - slipping off - peeling by peeling, the onion-skins
of ego-identification - what tricksters we are - our dreams tell us that.

The sun has just arrived - pale but capable of radiating enough heat to
start melting clumps of snow off the trees.”

We have a rare collection of Palette letters from the 1950s: Palette, alias Delisle Parker, (1884-1962), also known as John Parker, John F. Parker and John Frederick Delisle Parker, was the leading art critic in Vancouver in the pre-Second World War period, writing for the Vancouver Province under the pseudonym Palette. Parker was also a painter, a sculptor and an early supporter of Emily Carr. His style is realistic and his subject matter included landscapes, nudes, portraits and even a sculpture of a dog. He had a solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1937 and his work is available in online auction houses including the Heffel Gallery. The Palette Letters include letter from some notable artists of the day: Ellen Neel, Beatrice Lennie, Nan Lawson Cheney, Lawren Harris, BC Binning, Bess Harris, Howard O’Hagan, and Charles H. Scott.
Oscar Cahén at The Cahén Archives™ Vancouver Gallery, on West 6th Avenue, was one of those mercurial figures of genius who lit up Canada’s art scene from 1943 to his tragic end in a car accident in Ontario in 1956. Born 1916 in Copenhagen, he was a committed anti-Nazi and fled to Canada in 1943, living and freelancing in Montreal until he moved to Toronto in 1943. His flamboyant personal style and brilliant work as an illustrator, painter and designer pointed to an unusually rich career that still resonates today. Viewings of his work are by appointment at the Vancouver Gallery, 108 — 1529 West 6th Avenue, Vancouver, BC V6J 1R1. 
Denes Devenyi is one of the premier portrait and photographic artists working in mid-century Vancouver. His photograph of hippies in Stanley Park is one of iconic images that sum up an entire era and one of the most reproduced photographs in the world. He also photographed many of Vancouver artists during the 1950s, and 39 of these brilliant studies were exhibited at the VAG in 1961. Devenyi was born in Hungary and came to Canada in 1957, fleeing the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets. He has won many awards for his photography and lives in Vancouver with his wife, who is also a well known artist.
Tomhu Huron Roberts was a pioneer, both as an artist and as a gentleman, born in 1859 in the Township of Nattawasaga on the shores of Lake Huron, of Welsh descent. He owes his middle name to the lake where he was born. Roberts is the first to live in Vancouver as a ‘registered artist’. He painted nature with atmospheric effects, portraits and subjects inspired by books.
Joan D. Gambioli (1920-1985) is one of the few BC women sculptors working in stone during the 1960s 70s and 80s. She was part of the 1975 International Stone Sculpture Symposium, held at what was then the brand new Van Dusen Gardens. Her piece is still there, nestled among the cedar trees with the other dozen or so sculptures created during that summer of creativity.

Margaret Peterson was born in the US in 1902 and died in Victoria, BC, in 1997. She studied for a Masters Degree at the University of California and in 1931, she went to Paris, studying with Vaclav Vytlacil and André LHote. She was fascinated by Native cultures, studying them in North and Central America and travelling widely. She taught for 22 years at the University of California.
Joy Zemel Long, born 1922 in West Vancouver BC - resides in West Vancouver BC. Long attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal and the Vancouver School of Art in BC. Her work is figurative and explores family relationships. Her style is based on French painting reaching back to Post-Impressionism artists like Matisse and Vuillard. She has been exhibited widely in the US and Canada.

Judith Morgan is a member of the Tsimshian First Nations, born in 1930 in the small Gitksan village of Kitwanga on the Skeena River. She began painting as a teenager and, still in her teens, Morgan won an award from the British Columbia Indian Art and Welfare Society that allowed her to study the designs and carvings of west coast First Nations art at the Provincial Museum and Archives in Victoria. She continued her art education at the Kansas City Art Institute (1952). She returned to Kitwanga in 1983, where she continues to work using traditional aboriginal images.

We invite more BC ( and Canadian) art history secrets, anecdotes, and treasures for BEHIND THE CANVAS: Art Notes from the MTP Underground. (We edit the original emails for errors and brevity) Send your brief 100-300 words to: info at