Fighting for David Marshall's Legacy

–Monika Ullmann, December 2013

David’s body of work; the legacy of an entire lifetime of obsessive devotion to his Muse, is in danger of becoming famous for being mired in lawsuits instead of its genius. This makes me sad. As his Biographer and friend, I wish that he had listened to George Drake, a lifelong friend and supporter, who offered a coherent plan to establish his name in the international art world where David’s art belongs. David refused and died without a plan. It has proved to be a serious mistake, as I predicted in my biography, The Life and Art of David Marshall (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2008)

David was an Internationalist, in style and vision. His work should not be tucked away in a tiny provincial gallery in Gastown and characterized as ‘BC Sculpture’. It is much more than that. David was a sculptor who worked in a late modernist tradition that is international in scope. Why anyone would want to diminish him to a ‘local’ scale baffles me. It does him a disservice. At the very least, he deserves a global platform, and Drake’s website, and its controversial contents certainly does that. I hope it’s not too late to make David Franklin Marshall’s legacy available to a wider audience. This is an enormous task, and I salute George Drake for tackling it—again. Meanwhile, the legal wrangling is ongoing.

Artists who leave a legacy without making specific arrangements might want to learn from the Marshall story. Marshall’s failure to think ahead might have had something to do with his distaste for the commercial aspects of the art world and his assessment that art didn’t have a place in Canadian culture. In this, he was certainly not alone. Starving or thriving; Artists in Canada have long felt that the average citizen regards art and artists as something a bit alien and hard to place. Unlike Hockey and shopping, the visual arts struggle with the perception that they are an elitist enterprise at best and an incomprehensible fraud at worst. When your own Prime Minister believes that artists are a bunch of people who hang around cocktail parties, and therefore do not deserve any special support, where does that leave the entire enterprise of art in Canada? In a political and cultural no man’s land, that’s where.

David Marshall wanted to change all that, and not surprisingly, he failed. At the beginning as well as at the end of his life, he bemoaned the fact that nothing had changed in the status of the artist during his lifetime. Canadians were as uninterested as always, especially average working people. These were the people that David identified with; he considered himself ‘a working stiff’, and I doubt that he ever attended a cocktail party in his entire life. His dream was to make art part of the fabric of Canadian life. In fact, I would argue that his ideal was the role that arts and creativity plays in tribal societies such as the Inuit whose works he so admired and also collected. He wanted Canadians to be more like the Inuit: to use their artistic talents to collect as well as make art and to fight against the commodification of art in general. It was a conundrum he never resolved and even while he sold some expensive works, he remained deeply conflicted about making a living as an artist.

For him, art was a personal vision based on universal principles, an expression of life, of hard earned skills, of dreams. It was definitely not just an economic enterprise though even the Inuit carved for the market to the south and came to rely on that income. His life long aversion to the art market, and its modern excesses is not unique. I have yet to meet an artist who doesn’t feel this way, at least some of the time.

However, Marshall’s refusal or inability to deal with the commercial aspects of his legacy before his death has unleashed a cascade of events that is ongoing and described on this website in detail. His widow Carel’s inability to deal with the enormous task of finding a permanent home for the collection has made her a target for apparent abuse and certainly, exploitation. It is ironic that David’s work, the epitome of classical proportion and harmony, is causing so much strife. The takeaway here is certainly this: if you’re going to leave a large body of work, make sure it has a home before you die. And barring that, find your own version of George Drake to take care of it.

David Marshll sculpture at Big Rock Garden Park in Bellingham, USA