Artful Blogger

ARTFUL BLOGGER: Terry Fox, Alex Colville, and a room full of selfies


The Marathon of Hope van provided Terry and his companions with more than transport. It serves as bedroom, office, billboard, mileage calculator, equipment locker, clothes hamper, kitchen, warehouse, washroom, windbreak, jukebox, and fortress of solitude. © Canadian Museum of History
The Marathon of Hope van provided Terry and his companions with more than transport. It serves as bedroom, office, billboard, mileage calculator, equipment locker, clothes hamper, kitchen, warehouse, washroom, windbreak, jukebox, and fortress of solitude. © Canadian Museum of History

What would Terry Fox be like if he had not died at age 22 in 1981?

Would he still be a national hero, but one now in his 50s? Would he have become a great motivational speaker, an author, a politician or paralypian? One has the feeling he could have succeeded in whatever field he wanted.

I suddenly started thinking about the “what ifs” of Terry’s life upon seeing and talking to some of his friends and family who came to Gatineau to participate in the opening of an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of History called Terry Fox: Running to the Heart of Canada.

These friends and family have all naturally aged since they were first catapulted into the national news in 1980 alongside Terry when he started his Marathon of Hope, his fund-raising run for cancer across Canada.

So what would Terry look like today? Would the curls be gone? A paunch have developed? Would there be a bionic leg to replace the absolutely primitive looking prosthetic he used and is on display in the exhibition?

Terry’s prosthetic leg was built by prosthetic specialist Ben Speicher of Vancouver, British Columbia. © Canadian Museum of History

Those who die young remain young forever in our hearts. But wouldn’t it be great if Terry came back, even just for a day, to pose for photographs with the 1980 E250 Econoline Ford van that was turned into a camper and was his “home” during the 143 days he ran — more of a hop really — from St. John’s, NL to Thunder Bay? That was where the run ended. The cancer that claimed his right leg caught up to him again, this time in his lungs, forced an end to the run and caused his death some months later.

The Ford Motor Co. had donated the van for Terry’s use. When the run ended, the van was sold to a London, Ont. family with the surname Johnston. A member of that family was Bill Johnston, who moved to Vancouver and used the van to tour the country with his heavy metal band Removal. In 2005, Doug Coupland, the celebrated author, artist, and friend of the Fox family, attended a party in Vancouver where someone told him the van was in the city. With Terry’s brother Darrell Fox, Coupland tracked down the van and the Terry Fox Foundation took ownership. Ford has restored the van to the way it looked in 1980.

The van is like the Holy Grail of Canada, a symbol of goodness and generosity and bravery. It is the centrepiece of an exhibition that is bound to leave anyone in tears who can remember Terry’s run and his death and the impact he had on an entire country. The van is surrounded by letters, cards and film clips of people talking about how Terry inspired and helped them. Thirty-five years after his death, we still mourn him.

The exhibition continues until Jan. 24, 2016.

Living Room by Alex Colville
Living Room by Alex Colville

If you go to only one art exhibition a year, visit Colville

Images of Alex Colville’s paintings have been reproduced so extensively over the years on posters, book covers, and other paraphernalia that they have become as familiar as photos in one’s own family album.

You have seen your Colville relatives (and their animal friends) in such familiar paintings as To Prince Edward Island, Horse and Train, Church and Horse, and Dog in Car. These are all snapshots of the menacing, mysterious parallel world of “Colville moments” that lay just beneath the surface of our everyday Canadian lives and threaten to erupt at any moment.

About 100 Colville works, including many of his most famous paintings, have been assembled for an exhibition running from April 23 to Sept. 7 at the National Gallery of Canada. Simply titled Alex Colville, the show ran last summer at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and attracted 166,406 visitors, the largest number ever to attend a show of Canadian art at the AGO.

The exhibition was mainly organized by the AGO’s Andrew Hunter, who focuses on the relationship between Colville’s paintings and the much larger world of pop culture. Example: The late American film-maker Stanley Kubrick personally selected four reproductions of Colville paintings to hang on the walls of sets constructed for the horror film The Shining. The first Colville seen, Horse and Train, appears early in the spooky film at the home of Danny, the boy with the supernatural power called “the shining.” Danny’s father, played by Jack Nicholson, is soon to go wildly insane chasing Danny with an axe. We always had a sense of foreboding with Horse and Train. We just never knew it could presage an axe murder.

Actually, many of Colville’s paintings exude the feeling that something horrible is about to happen. Call them “Colville moments.” The Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men is filled with “Colville moments,” most involving a psychopathic killer (actor Javier Bardem) patiently waiting for the right moment to unleash what we know will be another bloodbath. Colville, who died in 2013 at age 92, was a fan of the Coen Brothers films. The National Gallery show will explore this Coen-Colville relationship.

Colville’s career as an artist dates back to the 1940s, including a stint as a war artist, and a visit to the newly liberated Nazi concentration camp Belsen. Some of the war art, including horrifying Belsen work, are in the National Gallery exhibition.

We also get to explore Colville’s relationship to his late wife Rhoda, who was a model for many of her husband’s paintings. Their intense 70-year-long marriage is another focus of the exhibition.

If you go to only one art exhibition a year, visit Colville. Think of it as a family reunion of sorts. Colville was the quintessential Canadian – patriotic, polite, and humble. But he was also a regular visitor to that sometimes frightening place the show’s curator calls the town of “Colville.” It’s that town of “Colville” that has made — and continues to make — this country into a far more fascinating and complex place.

The Selfie

Remember when Lilly Koltun was trying to create a portrait gallery for Ottawa? Koltun was bursting with great ideas as to what constitutes a portrait: Maybe just a pair of hands or an article of clothing. Who says portraits have to include the subject’s face?

The Caribbean country of Barbados, for example, has a portrait gallery. Some of the country’s heros in that gallery were former slaves who left no paintings or photographs of themselves. So “portraits” were created by gathering objects owned by those freedom-fighters, letters written by them, and other personal paraphernalia.

Three young Ottawa photographers have taken a similar expansive approach to the notion of a self-portrait. Magida El-Kassis, Olivia Johnston, and Jennifer Stewart have collaborated on an exhibition titled Selfies at Karsh-Masson Gallery in Ottawa City Hall.

In one installation, Johnston, one of Ottawa’s most interesting portrait photographers, has arranged 39 inkjet prints on a wall depicting used cosmetic pads. The smears on the pads are like Johnston’s face removed and then reduced to crude smears.

Both El-Kassis and Stewart have large inkjet prints of themselves as ghostly figures in rooms or in a forest. These images, just like conventional portraits, make you wonder what this person is really like. Why did she choose this media? What does that say about her?

Some of the images in Selfies are far more conventional, some are nudes, some show personal objects such as shoes or gloves. The results are innovative, fascinating and brave. Selfies continues at Karsh-Masson until April 19.


Elaine Goble, an Ottawa artist I much admire, has a new exhibition opening April 9 at Wallack Galleries. The show is called The Painted Truth and includes works in graphite, photography, and egg tempera. Goble is best known as a homefront war artist, but her oeuvre is much more extensive. The exhibition continues until April 25.