One of Canada’s Treasures passed away yesterday: Alex Colville. I interviewed him for a magazine a few years back, and when the issue ultimately got pulled and the magazine went bust, this little ditty never saw the light of day.
It’s 3:30 on a November Saturday. The oak leaves on Alex Colville’s back lawn bunch up in spots like mounds of golden fleece. The air is crisp despite warning of rain and the threat of wind. Blue clusters of berries droop from spindly branches that hang over the driveway, and a small dog stands ready to greet anyone daring to intrude on his driveway. In all, a regular type of autumn day in Wolfville.
Colville, one of Wolfville’s most recognizable residents, sits in his living room with his back to the window, but angled enough that what light does strike his face, does so on only one side. The other is left in just a hint of shadow. He could be a portrait himself in this light, except the gaze behind his barely-there glasses roams his walls every now and then to light on several serigraphs he designed and created. A heron sweeps across an expanse of mossy water in one, a willow tree with two figures and a small dog–a dog that looks remarkably like the canine now lounging on the carpet—in another. This particular one is his last serigraph, done four years ago, and it’s stunning as anyone would expect. There’s an ambiance of nostalgia to the couple who enjoy a bit of refreshment beneath the tree branches and a quietness—or sense of grace—to the illustration as a whole. A grace that Colville exudes in his muted grey sweater.
“I always save one for my wife,” he says of the serigraphs. “I don’t give her any of my paintings because that’s how I make my living.”
His living. What Colville does for his living is very visible on the world stage, and consequently, fetches an ever-increasing price tag. Yet a casual visitor would never realize the scope of his reach from the inconspicuous manner he displays. He doesn’t press it. Art is simply what he does, and well-known simply is what he is. When a German film crew comes to Wolfville for two weeks to film him, he takes it in stride, like he takes most requests for interviews or opinions.
Colville was born in Toronto during August of 1920, a year of great cultural and civic progress; this is the year that women are finally granted the right to vote in the U.S. and the year the League of Nations has its first meeting in Geneva. Twenty two years later, in 1942, when Mussolini marches on Rome, Colville, in a smaller, younger part of the world, enters the Canadian army. He’s already a two-year marriage veteran when the world has its gaze on Europe and its beaches and concentration camps. Some of these scenes will later be viewed as watercolor drawings done by Colville, who has been sent overseas as a war artist to capture in images what soldiers often can not repeat in words.
The army eventually takes him to Ottawa, where he finishes his war artist duties. He spends several years teaching art history at Mount Allison University and has already had three personal art exhibitions. When the ’60s bring world attention to Martin Luther King, JFK, and John Glen, Colville is receiving honors like the Dunn International Award. He’s being commissioned to design Canada’s centennial coins, and is obtaining exhibitions of his art in New York, Venice, and Toronto. By 1978, when Pope John Paul II succeeds Pope John Paul I, Colville is invited to design a medal for the Governor General and Mrs. Jules Lèger.
These are just his early years. In his time he has received a raft of honors: Officer of the Order of Canada, honorary degrees, Canada Council awards, just to name a few. By 1982, he becomes a Companion of the Order of Canada, and by 1993, he has exhibited his works around the globe.
And yet, all of this under his belt, he still enjoys painting the everyday. He enjoys seeing the extraordinary in a simple image. “I like this kind of ordinary kind of stuff,” he says. “There is a certain kind of situation–a person, an animal…a conscious being in a particular situation, that seems to help. I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t interest me.”
His style has been described in many ways, and each of the descriptions seems to fit: Magic Realist, Naturalist, Impressionist because his work is detailed, concentrating on showing more than it can tell in a single glance. Indeed, there’s the touch of the metaphysical in each piece that takes an everyday setting and turns it into something more, and in the end, that’s what Magic Realism (sometimes called Metaphysical Realism) is all about. “They all involve a kind of joining of what you might say are plain things which seem to have something else in them,” he says. “What that something else is, is sometimes known as metaphysical realism.”
He could have sculpted; did, in fact for a brief period, but it didn’t provide the sense of fulfillment that comes for him when he explores atmosphere and what tensions can be created by light and color. “In painting, you see what I call relationships,” he says.
It’s these relationships between living beings and the places they find themselves in, the story of what brought them there, and how it makes a difference to that moment, that appeals to him. And it’s just these qualities that viewers of Colville’s paintings appreciate: there’s always something more, just beneath the surface. Something extraordinary in the ordinary.
Which may be the appeal to Colville of the Valley. He could live anywhere; in fact, before he moved to Wolfville in 1971, he was offered and accepted an opportunity to work as a visiting artist in Berlin. Paradoxically, he was once offered an opportunity to apply for a Guggenheim fellowship but declined the invitation because it would have meant moving away from his studio. “My wife is very attached to this area…and because I’m an artist, I can live wherever I want. She likes to be here; I like a small, college town…I like this type of ordinary place.”
It’s easy to see the correlation between the simple things Colville likes to imbue with a touch of the mysterious and the fact that he lives in an ordinary hamlet that itself has a tinge of the astonishing. If he sees himself as plain, his work, his history, and the effect they’ve had on the artworld paint a different picture.
“I lead a pretty unspectacular life,” he says, and his voice is as hushed as the atmosphere. “I get up at 6 a.m., go bike riding, then have my breakfast. After that I go to work till noon.”
By late afternoon, the leaves have rustled a bit, readying themselves for their dance on the wind, the berries still droop over the driveway. The rain has yet to come, and Colville gets back to doing the little things he does everyday that make him the spectacular man the world knows him to be.
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