WENDY ELLIOTT: Alex Colville's iconic images featured in Toronto show

Wendy Elliott
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Seven Crows, 1980, captures a Cornwallis River view.

Wishing I was in Toronto this week to stroll through four vast galleries containing iconic images from Alex Colville’s 60 years of paintings and prints. There are close to 100 works on the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).

Colville, who died last July, spent over 40 years in Wolfville and many of his best known images were painted locally, so I had fun recently chatting with Shiralee Hudson-Hill, who helped plan the exhibition that runs until January, about what’s in and what’s not.

Landscape, whether it was the marshes around Sackville, N.B. or the dykes of Kings County, had a long-lasting impact on the renowned artist. There are images like dark crows flying above pastures and the overpass looking toward Cape Blomidon.

“A deep sense of place was critical to the way he approached his work and many of his most recognizable paintings were inspired by his surroundings,” Hudson-Hill noted.

But Colville was also a keen observer of people. Hudson-Hill, who attended Colville’s alma mater Mount Allison, says we would recognize many of the paintings, such as wife Rhoda loading groceries in front of the post office.

She told me that some rarely seen paintings, like Professor of Romance Languages, are included, adding that in many of his images tragedy is not far off. That painting features an Acadia prof, who lost his family in the Holocaust, walking in front of the university heating plant smoke stack. Colville, a war artist, made a clever juxtaposition with that painting, but most often Hudson-Hill said he captured a particular moment in time.

Hudson-Hill also told me how, while Colville was rooted in the Maritimes, his images were out in the world as book (Alice Munro) or record covers, or in movies, of which there were many. Apparently Wes Anderson was a big fan (see his flick Moon Rise).

“These are iconic scenes of Canadiana,” she said. “Many Canadians grew up in an urban setting, but many also grew up in rural communities like Amherst and Sackville.”

“His work resonated deeply with Nova Scotians, Canadians and also internationally,” she said. “It’s hard sometimes in a very Canadian way to toot our own horn. Here is one of our own, one of the greatest painters of the 20th century and it’s time for a big retrospective. The last one was 13 years ago.”

He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1982 and won a Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award in 2003. I remember how gracious Colville was about returning calls when such awards were made if one took care not to call during his morning painting hours.

This winter the Colville exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Alas it won’t be coming to Wolfville and I’m sad there are still no talks going on about a way to honour this artist locally.

There is a virtual exhibit that the AGO has mounted at www.welcometocolville.ca.

Organizations: Art Gallery of Ontario, National Gallery

Geographic location: Toronto, Wolfville, Sackville Kings Cape Blomidon Canada Ottawa

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