In the Autumn of 2000, while I was a student of Fine Arts at Mount Allison University, I had the pleasure of having dinner with Alex and Rhoda Colville. It was a small gathering of a few faculty, administration, and students after the opening exhibition of a large retrospective of his work that was produced while he was teaching Art from 1946-63.
I knew his work and the chronology of his life experiences, I had studied it, I knew the long list of accomplishments that he had accumulated over years of art-making that made him one of Canada’s most celebrated artists – and I was terrified to speak to him. What do you say to a man who constructed such a large portion of Canadian Art History?
We spoke of the weather. He inquired about my studies, my family, and my home in Cape Breton – he liked Cape Bretoners, he said, they were honest and a bit fiery. I liked him instantly, just as I liked his artwork. I wanted to ask him so many things about his time in the war, his experience teaching Fine Arts, his reluctance to follow the ‘art game’, as he called it – but instead I watched as he interacted with the room, and how he was forever mindful of his wife. Watching him was like looking at his artwork – simple, attentive, and deeply laced with the complexities of life and the realities that come with having lived a true human experience.
In his 92 years of life, Alex Colville witnessed the devastating realities of the Holocaust in WWII, the tranquil sense of peace that comes with domestic life on the east coast of Canada, and the area in the middle of these extremes – where the potential for something good or bad to happen is ever present. As a war artist his job was to simply report what he saw, no matter the raw emotions it evoked – but finding beauty among devastation is a daunting task that many believe was a formative edge in his work and his life for years to come.
In his 1957 serigraph entitled High Diver, he shows this complexity in the simple beauty of the bridge on the Tantramar Marsh in Sackville, New Brunswick, with a diver in mid-launch. This typical rural scene on the East Coast has the peace and tranquility of the rural landscape mixed with the exhilarating joy of the diver as he flies into the water. It is a simple scene with only a few elements to digest, but in this moment he is able to show us the edge of where joy and simplicity can to turn to devastation.
Alex Colville’s work from the Tantramar Marsh and the Canadian East Coast hint to the intimacy of knowing a place, and the raw emotional experiences that come with knowing oneself truly and, if lucky, another person. In his 1955 serigraph print After Swimming, the two swimmers coming out of the water depict a familiar scene with the most simple of gestures – the man wrapping a towel around the woman. With this one movement, the raw emotion of love and devotion is communicated in the most miniscule way.
After dinner, as I sipped my wine and watched this icon of Art History, I admired his quiet demeanor and sense of self. He lived life from all sides, and sought to visually communicate the experience of being a human in this world. In one moment, I glanced in his direction just as he placed his hand on the small of his wife’s back and I smiled. They were the Swimmers, and this was a life well-lived.
Alex Colville passed away peacefully in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, on the 16th of July 2012, 7 months after his wife, Rhoda.
The Cape Breton University Art Collection houses one of the largest and complete collections of Alex Colville’s work on the Canadian East Coast.
For more inquiries on these and other Colville work, contact the CBU Art Gallery at 902-563-1342.
Jennifer (LeBlanc) MacPherson is a Seasonal Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences.
This blog originally appeared in the Cape Breton Post’s, Community Post.