By Paul Gessell
It is rare for someone to use the phrase “quintessentially Canadian” without referring to maple syrup, hockey, or the Mounties. We used to apply that term also to Eaton’s and the Dionne Quintuplets but they have dropped out of sight in recent years.
So, what about artists? Is there such a thing as a quintessential Canadian artist?
Yes. And her name is Joyce Wieland. And thankfully her art is far more interesting and truthful than the fantasyland wilderness landscapes cooked up by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. That gang never even hinted at the fact there were sawmills, mines, and First Nations communities behind each clump of pine trees in their supposedly people-less environments.
“Quintessentially Canadian” is the expression used — and used wisely — by the Canada Council Art Bank to describe the late Wieland, whose paintings, quilts, films, and other artworks from the 1960s and 1970s perfectly captured the forces of feminism, patriotism, politics, kitsch, and good humour prevalent at the time.
Recall Wieland’s 1968 quilt carrying the words “Reason over Passion” — the artwork ushered in perfectly Canada’s long-running love-hate affair with Pierre Trudeau, whose personal motto was Reason over Passion.
Wieland’s quintessential Canadian-ness makes it fitting that her mixed media work, Maple Leaf Forever II, created in 1972, should be used this week to launch 40th anniversary celebrations of the Art Bank. Maple Leaf is a work that, 40 years later, is still relevant, moving, and funny. That’s the mark of a true work of art for the ages.
“Created in 1972, this renowned work by one of Canada’s most celebrated artists features lightly-coloured female lips mouthing a patriotic song, framed in a series that references film and animation, set against a quilted cotton background with intricately stitched maple leaves,” says an Art Bank press release. “It is quintessential Joyce Wieland and is quintessentially Canadian.”
To mark the Art Bank anniversary, 40 signature works have been selected from the bank’s collection of more than 17,000 paintings, prints, photographs and sculptures. Each work represents a year of the Art Bank’s existence. These 40 images will be posted every Monday, until October, on the website of the Art Bank and on the Canada Council’s Facebook page.
The online presentation of the 40 works will be followed by a real bricks-and-mortar exhibition of the same 40 works at the Art Bank, on St. Laurent Boulevard. Called Spotlight on 40 Years: Artworks from the Canada Council Art Bank, the exhibition will be held Sept. 28-30 during Culture Days. The public will be invited to view the exhibition and tour the Art Bank facilities.
The Art Bank’s 40 years have been turbulent at times. It was initially formed to help put money into artists’ pockets. Artists could sell work to the Art Bank and then buy back those works when finances permitted. Artworks in the collection were rented out, mainly to federal government offices. Following a near-death experience a decade ago, the Art Bank was recreated to make it run more like a business. Now, it only buys work deemed to be “rentable” to government or private sector clients. Many unrentable works in the collection — including installations, videos, and paintings of nudes — were sold back to artists or donated to museums.
Revenues from the rental of artworks is used to purchase more works each year. A jury of artists and other art professionals decides what works to buy.
Because of the need for artworks to be rentable, certain media and subject matter are excluded from the Art Bank collection. So, it is not a true representation of the artwork being created in Canada each year. But it does help dozens of artists every year to put food on the table and it is still a great entry on an artist’s resume to say he or she has sold work to the Art Bank.