The Okanagan is home to a remarkable concentration of outstanding contemporary artists with national reputations. When I moved to the Okanagan in 2006 I already knew some of the artists here, as their work had been shown and published nationally. Though several had been shown here in exhibitions (some with publications) in both the public and commercial galleries, there was no way to get an overview of the artistic activity of the region. This problem was compounded by the fact that the artists, despite the high level of their achievement, were not widely known in the local community – nor, ironically, was it generally recognized nationally that such a strong group of artists was living and working in the Okanagan. Clearly, there was a serious need for a book and exhibition dedicated to these artists that would showcase their work and add to our knowledge of the creative excellence in the region.
In preparation for this project, I visited all the public and private galleries in the valley and the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO). I talked to artists and those involved in the field and made many studio visits. The resulting book and exhibition features thirteen senior professional Canadian artists of great originality and imagination with well-established careers who now live and work here. The individuals selected have also made a contribution to the development of the visual arts in Canada far beyond the Okanagan through their own exceptional work, as well as teaching, mentoring younger artists and exhibiting their work. They have had solo exhibitions or have been included in exhibitions in public galleries across Canada (some also internationally) and many have dealers in Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. Some have lived here most of their lives and have taken their inspiration from this place, while others had established their reputations elsewhere but moved here for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity to teach at UBCO. The range of media, style and intention is diverse. Some draw on the spectacular local landscape for inspiration, some delve deep within themselves for guidance, still others continue explorations begun elsewhere.
Artists need time and space to develop their ideas; and the pace of life in the Okanagan, slower than in large metropolitan centres, provides the peace and solitude for deep reflection. The locale provides time for meditation, for ideas to arise from the mind. Most young artists need the stimulation of large urban centres to develop their own insights, to see a wealth of different approaches to life and art, and to absorb a multitude of ideas. But once artists are set on their own path, they become selective as to what stimulation they need based on what is useful for their own particular direction. This is the situation for the artists in this book and exhibition who are now well established in the paths they have chosen. Their lives here afford them the stimulation, combined with freedom from distraction, that they need for uninterrupted work. And for broader inspiration they travel widely to major art centres where they can readily experience other places and cultures.
Of all of the artists included in this exhibition, only Byron Johnston is rooted in the Okanagan – he spent the first nineteen years of his life here – and his heritage is integral to his vision: he has a passion for the outdoors which gives this place a particular meaning for his life and work. He uses a wide range of natural cast-off farming and industrial materials as well as manufactured materials in three-dimensional installations which are less about sculptural objects and more about the public's participation and interaction with his work. Bryan Ryley was raised elsewhere in British Columbia but has been nurtured by this place for over three decades, drawn to the unspoiled, wild land where he now resides. This place is a sanctuary where nature presses in and affords him the peace and concentration he needs for his work. Bryan creates vivid abstract paintings in which he says he is “aware of the voice of the land and it is tuned to what I do in my work.” Though landscape is an abiding interest through which Daphne Odjig animates her spiritual heritage, she does not represent a specific place. Rather, she creates symbolic landscapes to express her native ancestry, her history, legends and traditions, in narrative paintings based in nature. Jock Hildebrand moved to Kelowna when he was five years old and was raised in this area. He has spent much of his life in different parts of British Columbia, and returned to live in Kelowna in 1999. All this experience has given him an abiding love of nature and though many of his ideas are based in the natural world, he is a sculptor who approaches his work from an abstract point of view. This reflects his spiritual practice, which he says follows the abstract thought of Buddhism. For him, making sculpture has become not only about producing art, but also a life-long spiritual search.
Some artists living here are moved by the breathtaking natural landscape that is all around them and have an experiential relationship with the environment. Joice M. Hall, Ann Kipling, and David Alexander take their inspiration directly from the Okanagan region. However, they approach their subject from very different points of view and use diverse techniques. For them, nature is a wellspring of ideas providing an immediate source for mind and eye. Joice's panoramic landscape paintings are inspired by the region's idyllic beauty and diversity. Drawing on her own roots in the Catholic faith, she has increasingly made connections between nature and spirituality. Working from the landscape, Ann's drawings define and clarify a visual idea, and capture the movement and energy of the view in front of her home. David is “totally fascinated” with the desert-like conditions in the southern Okanagan and seeks out specific isolated places rather than an overall view. He wants to present what the land feels like rather than what it looks like.
Many artists do not think about a particular environment as a basis for their art. Though the region is conducive to making art, it is not a direct reflection of their inspiration. They draw from culture rather than nature. John Hall thinks about ideas that have to do with art. His primary goal is to describe the appearance of things. He represents commonplace objects in realist paintings, vivid pictures of our desires and beliefs that push beyond the everyday into the realm of imagination. Briar Craig did not come here because of the natural environment, he came here to teach at the Okanagan University College. His superbly crafted screenprints seemingly incorporate incidental and often peripheral experiences in which he combines words and images of popular culture and mass media derived from his interests in photo generated media and contemporary consumer culture. Julie Oakes culls her ideas from diverse sources inspired by her extensive travel and study of art, creating narrative images laced with mythology, sexuality and eroticism. As well, she draws on her Buddhist beliefs for inspiration, guidance and subject matter. For Gary Pearson the Okanagan provides a peaceful refuge from the outside world, a place where he has time to reflect, think and work. His representational paintings have a narrative base telling us stories about human struggle.
Metaphor, irony and symbol drive the ideas of other artists. The brilliant light of the Okanagan enables Jim Kalnin to create works that reflect his spiritual life. His approach to his art is situated between abstraction and representation and, though rooted in his close observation of the natural world, he works randomly and intuitively and often from his subconscious mind. The impact of moving to this natural environment impelled Fern Helfand to modify her approach to her art, so that for the first time she regarded the landscape itself as her primary subject matter. Though she depicts this region in beautifully crafted photographs, her representations are metaphors and critiques of our manipulation and destruction of our environment.
Though many of the artists have established their careers outside the Okanagan, the exceptional natural environment here provides inspiration for their continued perception of the world, and solitude away from distractions to concentrate on their work.
~ Patricia Ainslie, Kelowna, B.C. October 2013
Patricia Ainslie was born in England, and raised in South Africa. She moved to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to work at the Rhodes National Gallery with Frank McEwen, organizing and promoting the renowned Workshop School. Subsequently, she worked as a textile designer in Salisbury and Johannesburg. She lived in Iran and Mauritius before settling in Calgary in 1977. She joined the Glenbow Museum in 1979. For more than a decade, as Curator of Art she built the art collection at Glenbow and made regular studio visits to artists. Her work as a curator included the groundbreaking exhibit and publication Images of the Land: Canadian Block Prints 1919-1945, which toured Canada, England and Europe. More in depth print projects featured artists Margaret Shelton, Laurence Hyde and Cecil Buller. For her important work in printmaking, she was elected to the Print Council of America in 1990. In 1987, she organized the retrospective exhibition, publication and tour for A Lifelong Journey: The Art and Teaching of H.G. Glyde, in 1991, Jack Shadbolt: Correspondences, and in 1998, Frontiers, Frontières, Fronteras: René Derouin. As vice-president of collections from 1993, she worked on innovative museological projects, including deaccessioning, grading of collections and repatriation. She has published widely in scholarly journals and presented lectures on these topics in North America, England and Europe. Since leaving the Glenbow in 2006, Ainslie has worked as an independent curator and writer. She co-authored Alberta Art and Artists published by Fifth House, Calgary in 2007 and Ted Godwin: The Regina Five Years: 1957-1967 published by The Nickle Arts Musuem at the University of Calgary in 2008. She completed a 40-year retrospective exhibition and catalogue Surreal. Real. Ideal: The Paintings of Joice M. Hall for the Kelowna Art Gallery in March 2010. This past summer Calgary’s Frontenac House published her latest book, Okanagan Artists in Their Studios, which accompanies this exhibition.
Friday, November 22, 2013 - Sunday, January 19, 2014
Friday, November 08, 2013 - Tuesday, December 24, 2013