It’s only fitting that the Glenbow Museum, an institution that among other things seeks to educate, learned a thing or two when it set out to chronicle 50 years of artistic output in Calgary.
One of the earliest realizations concerned the scale of the undertaking. “When we first started talking about it, we thought maybe one really large exhibit would suffice,” Melanie Kjorlien says. As the Glenbow’s vice-president of access, collections and exhibitions, Kjorlien realized she had a problem on her hands. “It quickly became evident there was just too much artwork.”
The solution was to create exhibits focused on each decade from the 1960s to the 2000s. It followed that five curators—Mary-Beth Laviolette, Ron Moppett, Jeffrey Spalding, Nancy Tousley and Katherine Ylitalo—would be needed.
Made in Calgary: The 1960s opened in February 2013; as the subsequent exhibits rolled out, the insights began piling up. “It became apparent there were gaps in our collection,” Kjorlien says. “We were thin on some artists.” As a result, the Glenbow has acquired or is in the process of acquiring works by Wendy Toogood, Greg Payce, Elizabeth LeMoine and Laura Vickerson among others.
It also became apparent that a book, a lasting record of the exhibits, was needed. Made in Calgary, edited by Kjorlien and Lindsay Moir, the Glenbow’s senior librarian, will be launched June 1. It captures many of the themes and trends that emerged in the exhibitions. The most obvious of these is the evolution of the visual-arts scene in the city. As the exhibits and decades progressed, “there was more great work being produced,” Kjorlien says. “There was an increasing vibrancy.” That had practical implications for the Glenbow when it became clear that it needed partners—MoCA Calgary, the Art Gallery of Calgary and the Nickle Galleries—to host companion exhibits dedicated to the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, respectively.
This institutional co-operation serves as an echo of the sense of community underscored by the exhibits and the book. It’s just one of the through-lines that can be found by flipping through the pages. We’ve chosen to focus on five artists—Ron Moppett, John Chalke, George Webber, Katie Ohe and John Will—each of whom appeared in four of the exhibits. Highlighting those who have remained vital creators for four decades seems like a good way to honour the community. Of course, there are other ways of doing so—one of the simplest is to pick up the book. —Bruce Weir
The Glenbow Museum will launch Made in Calgary on Wednesday, June 1, at 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Free.
A young artist hoping to crack the code of George Webber’s enviably long and successful career as Calgary’s unofficial “photographer laureate,” might try this combination: walk, observe, feel joy and gratitude. That, says Webber, is the repeating physical and spiritual pattern that has sustained and inspired him in his work (and his life) for decades.
Webber grew up in Drumheller where he cut his artistic teeth capturing the stark landscape. (The recent reissue of Robert Kroetsch’s Badlands includes Webber’s startling images, both recent and those dating from his early career.)
In the 1990s, a decade the photographer considers his prime emotional, spiritual and creative period, he began documenting the people and places of southern Alberta that would become forever linked with his work. With sensitivity, grit and a talent for drawing the viewer’s eye to beauty that would otherwise go unnoticed, Webber shot the East Village, the Blood Reserve and the Little Bow Hutterite Colony. All three projects became books, a testament not only to his eye but also to his ability to build trusting relationships with his subjects.
Watching the next generation of Calgary artists come up, Webber says he’s “astonished” by their energy and capacity for hard work, as well as envious of the international connections available to them.
“Creative work can be so solitary, but young people now have the ability to have their work seen by people all over the world—that’s so validating and energizing.”
Still, he’s sanguine about his own experience.
“There’s a gift in being 64,” says Webber. “I have a depth of passion and affection for history. My work . . . sure, it’s likeable now, but its real value—if it has any—will be evident retrospectively, years from now. Time burnishes things up.” —Jacquie Moore
“His molten surfaces with strange colours took you somewhere other than planet Earth.” That brief description from Mary-Beth Laviolette, curator of Made in Calgary: The 1960s, is sufficient to establish that she is talking about the late, great ceramicist, John Chalke.
Chalke, who died in 2014, was in the vanguard of Canadian ceramics. In 2000, nearly four decades into his career, he made history as the first recipient of a Governor General’s Award in craft, a discipline that was only starting to be taken seriously in the late 1960s, about the same time Chalke arrived in Calgary from the U.K.
“Chalke was one of Canada’s big personalities in ceramics,” says Laviolette. “There was nothing dainty or folksy about his pottery and sculpture—he was a subversive figure in the clay world, especially in the way he turned the art of making glazes on its head.” Last year, the Nickle Galleries held a large-scale survey of Chalke’s richly textured “clay paintings,” to, as the gallery put it, “explore the horses and cows, bottles and broken crockery, aerial views and archeology of Chalke’s personal iconography.” It was, says Laviolette, “one of the most visually striking and brilliant shows of 2015.” —J.M.
No one escapes John Will’s gimlet eye. “I have a beard and wear a silly black leather hat,” reads an e-mail he sends to help me pick him out of the crowd at Caffe Beano.
As it happens, the hat is more stylish than silly. Worn with the brim upturned, it gives Will the look of a man both open and guarded. It’s an impression reinforced when, citing past difficulties with the media, he presents me with a piece of paper containing his thoughts on the subject at hand.
Will, who arrived in 1971 to teach at the University of Calgary, seems well placed to comment on the history of art in Calgary, but his handwritten notes begin, “Being a cranky old man, my opinions are probably jaded and senile. . . . ”
In conversation, however, they prove anything but. He is happy to talk about his decades-long friendship cum artistic feud with Chris Cran, which included a staged fight—”it was nothing serious”—as well as less fractious collaborations. And he is almost sunny when he says “I do agree that (Calgary’s) visual-art community is amazing in that there is very little backbiting.”
That assessment is borne out by the warm reaction to his work, which often pokes fun at that community by garbling artists’ names (Anything and Everything) or predicting their futures—”wins Oscar,” “cloned and adopted,” “invents new computer” (Forty Years of Purgatory). Will says he hasn’t heard of anybody taking offence. “I hope not, but if they do they do,” he says with a laugh.
Either way, he shows no signs of slowing down. His notes lament the dearth of local curators, serious collectors of contemporary art and the absence of a contemporary civic gallery. But they conclude with this: “On the plus side, I am pleased to see the National Gallery of Canada will at last . . . be giving a one-person exhibition to a living Calgary artist. Offhand, I can’t remember his/her name, but I guess this is something to celebrate.” —B.W.
Curator, teacher and, most famously, painter, Ron Moppett graduated in 1967 from the Alberta College of Art (now ACAD). He was just a kid then, still three decades away from winning the prestigious and lucrative ($25,000) Gershon Iskowitz prize for “mature artists.” Now, nearly five decades into his career, Moppett is as vibrant and relevant as he was at the beginning of his career when, as he puts it, “Calgary’s art scene went nuts.”
Moppett would know. He was well entrenched in “the scene” by then, running the Illingworth Kerr Gallery and painting in his studio every day. “That decade marked a complete change,” says Moppett, who curated the Made in Calgary: The 1970s exhibit that ran in the spring and summer of 2013. “Before that, the art scene in 1960s Calgary had the feel of a family-run store—there was limited opportunity and everyone knew and understood their place in the community. But the ’70s were the department store—more opportunity, probably at the expense of the familial.”
Not that Moppett lamented the change. “That was the start of artist-run centres,” he says. “And there was the new Glenbow, the art school, the reinvigoration of the U of C’s art program—all these new people were coming into town, the city’s population nearly doubled.” With bittersweetness, he recalls that those Lougheed years marked a high point in arts funding—relatively generous support that allowed artists to experiment and showcase their work in ways they’d never done before and, in his opinion, haven’t since. “Interestingly, I find artists are a little more insular now.”
Still, his body of work wouldn’t be as compelling and relevant as it is if he had anchored himself to the past. “My work doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes out of living here and from the people who taught me” and, he adds, referring to the upcoming book as a whole, “the people whose work I see here.” —J.M.
Like many a student, Katie Ohe turned to waitressing to make ends meet.
She was a 16-year-old enrolled at the Alberta College of Art (when it was still part of SAIT) when she got a job at Eamon’s Tourist Centre. In 1954, the restaurant, service station and bungalow camp were eight kilometres outside of town. “Mr. Eamon would pick us up at SAIT and drive us out there. We’d work until around midnight, then be back in class at 9 a.m. the next morning.
But Ohe didn’t find the work onerous. “I was good at it—I liked it,” she says. “It jolted me out of my comfort zone.”
The evolution of her sculptural practice, from figurative work to kinetic abstractions; wall pieces to works that sit on the floor, proves that leaving comfort zones became something of a talent.
Now 79, Ohe continues to push herself in new directions—she and her husband, the painter Harry Kiyooka, are working to create the Kiyooka-Ohe Art Centre and Sculpture Park—but her great preoccupations remain form and space and how we perceive and engage with them.
These phenomena help explain why she has continually returned to Calgary in the course of a career that has taken her to Montreal, New York City and Italy. “My roots are here,” she says. “It’s beautiful here—there’s space.” —B.W.
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