Stephen Lowe

[This story was written in 2017 to celebrate the month-long exhibition of paintings by Stephen Lowe (1938-1975) at The Guangzhou Museum of Art in a city of thirteen million people in the south of China. Lowe was born in in Quangdong Province and was a resident of Victoria before his death from lymphoma at the age of 37. The Lowe family, of Calgary and Victoria, spent the year in China, preparing three exhibitions there. The year culminated in the publication of Stephen Lowe: A Bridge Between Cultures, the long-awaited and definitive book on his life and art.] 

Stephen Lowe spent most of his life in Victoria, beloved by students and collectors here. It’s inexplicable how he achieved such skill and produced so much in the short time he had. And it is even more surprising to realize that his work and his example are enormously appreciated in the burgeoning world of Chinese art. 

Lowe’s grandfather, Liu Chang, emigrated from Taishan village in Quangdong to work in the coal mines in Cumberland in the early 1900s. When the turmoil of civil war in the late 1940s swept over south China, his family was stripped of most of its possessions. Stephen, the eldest of 5 children, made his way to Hong Kong at age 17 and his determination to study art led him to Zhao Shaoang (Chao Shao-An), founder of the “Lingnan school”, a progressive and atmospheric style of painting which is the distinctive expression of South China. At the request of his grandfather, Lowe emigrated to Canada in 1956, at 18 years of age. He arrived to find his grandfather living in a lean-to in a ghost town, one of the few surviving emigrés still living in Cumberland. 

Lowe’s talent and personality brought him valuable support in Victoria. Through connections from his first job, as a room steward at the Union Club, he was sponsored for a year in Hong Kong, where he continued his studies and met Eunice, his wife-to-be. On his return he began teaching painting at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The persuasive artist and designer Allan Edwards championed Lowe, and arranged work for him in Eaton’s department store display department. Exhibitions at the Provincial Library and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (with Lawren Harris) followed, remarkable accomplishments for an artist then just 23 years old.

Skipping forward, we note his huge exhibition at the newly-opened Royal B. C. Museum in 1971, and the opening of the Stephen Lowe Gallery in the Humboldt Street side of the Empress Hotel – provided rent-free by the hotel. An exhibition was later held at the United Nations building in New York, and Allan Edwards commissioned 66 originals for the new Skyline Park Hotel in London. Then, in the fall of 1974, Lowe was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. After summoning up the energy for his 23rd solo exhibition, within a year he died.

Lowe’s supporters insisted that his wife continue the Stephen Lowe Gallery, for many years a bright spot in Victoria’s art world. In her tiny shop, and later in the prestigious corner location of the Victoria Conference Centre, Mrs. Lowe brought unique Chinese antiques and works of art to an international clientele. The family opened another branch in Calgary in 1979. While the Victoria gallery closed in 2006, the Calgary store managed by daughter Anna flourishes, with a focus on contemporary painting.

In 1985, just as China opened to the west, Mrs. Lowe took 129 Stephen Lowe paintings for an exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, followed by subsequent showings in Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. The president of the Chinese Artists Association, Wu Zuoren, personally inscribed the banner for the opening. This was a moment when the older generation of artists, long marginalized by the Cultural Revolution, came out in the light of day for the first time. Their approval of this previously unknown artist was overwhelming. 

While to Canadian eyes Lowe’s paintings are certainly Chinese, in his homeland this art spoke with a new accent. Here was an artist who emigrated but did not lose his roots – a message of profound importance to the Chinese of that day. When the exhibition returned to Victoria in 1986 the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria presented a retrospective of 75 of the paintings, curated by Barry Till. In my review at the time I wrote “Lowe’s all-night painting sessions, his speed of execution and his ever-expanding range of subjects are legendary. He painted to challenge the limits of the acceptable and to continue the progress of Lingnan.”

In 2016 Lowe’s paintings were chosen, as “A Bridge Between Cultures”, for the opening of the new Canadian Consulate offices in Guangzhou. Simultaneously, a hugely prestigious show of Lowe’s work opened at the Guangzhou Museum of Art, which is a shrine to the masters of Lingnan-style painting. It’s hard to express the importance of this event. The Lowe family have decided to donate their collection of paintings by Lingnan masters, and a number of Stephen Lowe originals, to that seminal collection. 

Eunice Lowe has created the new, and definitive, book on her husband. Its 330 pages include biographical essays and reproductions of 125 paintings in colour, some of them 50 centimetres wide. The quality of layout, paper stock and binding are beyond anything available in this country. A Chinese-language version has been published by the People’s Fine Art Publishing House of China, and the English-language version, privately published, is available at www.stephenloweartgallery.ca 

Posted by Robert Amos in Art Writing, 0 comments

Emily Carr

Winds of Heaven, a documentary film by Michael Ostroff (2010). 87 minutes, distributed by the National Film Board

It’s magic! 

Michael Ostroff’s new feature film Wind of Heaven weaves a living, breathing evocation of Emily Carr from a basket of disparate elements, bringing us into the presence of a woman of complexity. This is Carr for the 21st century, and Ostroff does this without using an actress to dress up like the feisty lady “on the edge of nowhere”.

I personally hate docudramas, and bridle at any of the well-meaning women who have tried to interpret “our Emily”.  Ostroff agrees, and approaches her by different routes. In a voice-over the superb actress Diane D’Aquila reads the words of Carr, and she does a convincing job of delivering a very carefully chosen script. 

Some of our contemporaries appear briefly in the film: Susan Crean is the author of The Laughing One: A Journey to Emily Carr; Gerta Moray is the author of Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr; and Marcia Crosby is  a Haida/Tsimshian art historian. In their essential books, each of these women has given us a fresh understanding of Emily Carr for the 21st century. Their presence here underscores Ostroff’s progressive and profound understanding of a woman I call Canada’s most important artist.

None of this gets in the way of the visual feast of the film. Ostroff had access to all the great national collections of Carr’s work, and he presents us with new, up-close camerawork of unparalleled sensitivity. Never have I experienced the colours and the characters of Carr’s paintings so intensely. Mercifully, he avoids the swoopy panning which lesser cinemetographers revert to. 

The paintings are beautifully complemented by superb on-location footage from Haida Gwaii and Goldstream. He also presents Victoria – under a dusting of snow, no less!  He takes us to a potlatch, and then to the National Gallery, but his most telling effects come from his meticulously constructed sets. Some are evocative – the old typewriter on Carr’s desk, clacking out her manuscripts, mistypes and all. Others are more extensive – her chaotic and cluttered studio upstairs at the House of All Sorts. Best of all is Ostroff’s faithful reconstruction of The Elephant, her caravan. A rickety old truck tows it down a dusty road in Goldstream. Later, it there sits in the forest, the campfire smouldering and an errant breeze flapping the canvas awning – for all the world as if Miss Carr had just stepped away.

Melding these images together are snippets of archival footage – tree fallers, steam engines, and kids at a residential school. The photos of Carr somehow reveal more depth of character behind her smile than I had noticed before. 

To create a film about art, First nations issues, ecology and spiritualism – this was a challenge. To tell the story of someone we thought we already knew is more difficult. Winds of Heaven is a success on those many levels.

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Pat Martin Bates

Pat Martin Bates is one of our best-loved artists. She was an inspiring teacher at UVic, a Limner, a founder of what became XChanges, the soul of the Community Arts Council and much else. In recent years she has been the subject of two major shows at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. A book of childhood reminiscences, titled It is I, Patricia (Hedgerow Press, 2010) was followed by a monograph by Pat Bovey, Pat Martin Bates: Balancing on a Thread (Frontenac House, 2014).

I visited Bates recently in her Oak Bay home. Among myriad artworks we stopped to examine a pierced and embossed “unique estampille print” titled Empiry of the Silent White Rounds in a Moon-Changing Time. 

Clearly her theme is alchemy. “The moon doesn’t change into gold,” Bates reminded me, “but in a lifetime you are changing yourself into gold.” This print was shown at Galerie La June in Paris in 1968. “It was written up in Elle Magazine,” she mused. “It’s made on old old French paper and is extremely delicate.” The shapes of alchemy beakers are impressed into the paper, and a square symbol stands for salt. “All the dots have a meaning,“ she chuckled, “but I won’t tell you what it is.”

We leafed through the catalogue of the 10th International Biennale of Prints in Fredrikstad, Norway in 1992. “That was beautifully, beautifully done, with artists from from Thailand to Timbuctu.  I exhibited in every one [of the ten]. They gave me a gold medal. I was so astonished.”

She recalled the Fourth British International Print Biennale in Bradford in 1974: “I organized the Canadian selection there. Among the Hockneys and all, I took along Jo Manning, George Clement, Gwen Curry and Richard Yates.” Each of those was a Victoria artist. At the Joan Miro Drawing Invitational in Barcelona, Spain presented her work three years in succession, as did prestigious annuals in France, Poland and Yugoslavia. “Now, there are very few print competitions,” Bates sighed. “The way prints are now, you can print anything, and that changed the whole complexion.”

What is a print? Is it something printed, with a press and pressure? Or is it merely something reproducible? “The Canadian Painter-Etchers would not accept anything but pure etching or pure engraving – whatever it was, it had to be pure,” she explained. “The same was true of the Canadian Graphic Society. They were very stringent with their rules,” Bates noted. “For them you needed to do an edition.” Others were far more liberal. The Ljubljana Biennale of Graphic Art in Yugoslavia accepted “paper that had anything printed on it, as long as it could be rolled up and sent in a tube,” she recalled.

She took me through the stages of one of her unique prints. At first a copper plate was run through an etching press without ink, making an impression on silver Japanese paper ppasted onto French etching paper. She had glued grains of sand onto the metal plate to give the print extra texture. She then superimposed a thin plastic stencil on top of the plate and ran it

through again. Such a depth of relief is very difficult to print. “You have to pack your plate with blotters to protect the impositions, “ she cautioned.

Then came a lot of hand work. The perforating was done with different needles, ranging from tiny needles to her grandmother’s hatpin for the biggest holes. “It took me forever to do this,” she said. “If it hadn’t been taken out of my hands I’d probably still be going on like some sort of madwoman,” she sang out.. “We are mad!” 

Mad with joy, perhaps. 

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Ted Harrison

A few years ago the papers of the artist Ted Harrison were deposited in the University of Victoria’s “Artists Archives”. For months I sorted through his correspondence, read his reviews, arranged his photographs and even laid out the paints, brushes and the paper plates he habitually used as palettes. I catalogued heaps of his correspondence, written in neat italic hand, with more than 20 galleries which had hosted his sell-out shows. It was an honour to write his obituary on January 20, 2015. 

Ted Harrison is gone, but in his 88 years he gave us much to remember. In hundreds of joyful paintings, his uninflected colours seem to shimmer and glow. Rollicking curves define lake shores, swirling clouds and dancing Northern lights. They exactly look like the Yukon, but somehow they convey the essence of Canada’s north. 

When he arrived in the Yukon in 1968 Harrison brought a world of experience. From the slag heaps of Hartlepool, his hometown in the English midlands, he brought a classical art training. The British greyness became infused with the colours of Africa and India where he was stationed during WW2. He taught elementary school with his wife Nicky in Malaysia and New Zealand, and the reluctant scholars helped him hone his drop-dead comic timing. Harrison was the finest raconteur I ever met.

One day in the Yukon, this mediocre traditional painter suddenly became an inspired original. His new “happy” stylewas first seen at the public library in Whitehorse, where it was discovered by a visiting civil servant from Ottawa. He took the news back to our nation’s capital and Harrison’s subsequent show in Ottawa in 1973 found a receptive audience among civil servants. A follow-up show in Vancouver in 1974 sold well and Harrison soon gave up teaching – an overnight success at 48 years of age. 

Harrison’s unique style was adaptable. His illustrations for Children of the Yukon (1977) won him fame at the Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs. The Cremation of Sam McGee (1986) was named a Best Book by the New York Times. Hundreds of editions of screen prints sold strongly; stained glass windows were commissioned for the Whitehorse cathedral; the Yukon pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver was a giant walk-through Harrison painting. 

The Harrisons came to Victoria in 1993, in search of better health care for Nicky’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease. At first they were lonely for the Yukon, but after Ted discovered the whales and fishing off our west coast, he accepted Victoria as home. Social service was natural to Harrison. During his first year in Canada’s north, in Wabasca, Alberta, he noticed his students were puzzled by the urbanism of their “Dick and Jane” readers. So he created A Northland Alphabet (1968), based on their tundra frame of reference. Harrison was active in the Boy Scouts, and then the Rotary Clu. He volunteered for years as “artist in the school”  at Monterey Elementary, and was always a feature of the Moss Street Paint-In. 

I got to know Ted at the annual Painters at Painter’s Lodge event at Campbell River. With his dog Maggie curled at his feet, wearing a Cowichan sweater and paint-spattered apron, Ted sat at his easel and told stories while he painted. Harrison told me he visualized his paintings entirely at night while he lay in bed (he suffered from sleep apnea) and every line and colour was ready when he sat down to his canvas the next day. Though fans constantly interrupted him, Harrison later made himself available in his studio in the front window of his shop on Oak Bay Avenue. He spent his last years at Carlton House.

Ted Harrison was probably Canada’s most popular artist. Once I asked his business manager (for he truly needed one) if she was involved in promotion. “Ted doesn’t need any promotion,” she laughed. “Every school child in this country knows him.” Yet our National Gallery doesn’t own any of his work. That will surely change. His paintings are magic, even better “in the flesh” than in the cheerful reproductions or prints. Who else but Harrison could have successfully illustrated O Canada (1992), a book whose text is our national anthem? His work and his words are a hymn of praise for the country which he came to love. 

Harrison received Honorary Doctorates from four universities, was elected to membership in the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts and was awarded the Order of British Columbia. Personally, my memories of him center on his fund of naughty limericks and the irrepressible twinkle in his eye. Ted Harrison is gone, but his was a life well-lived. We are better for having known him.

 
For the full story, find Katherine Gibson’s biography, Ted Harrison: Painting Paradise (Crown Publishing, Victoria, 2009).
 
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