A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 69: Art Circles

Alex Janvier continues his hold on me. A month ago I posted in this space about his career retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada (see Feb. 1, Day 32, “Crying in the Gallery). His mostly abstract work is so emotionally charged and impressive, and his story of enduring residential schools so heart-wrenching, it was impossible to not be moved by his show. Through his art his love of beauty and nature, his exorcising of the demons of his past experiences, and his pride in being a First Nations artist come through so powerfully.  It didn’t take me long to learn to love the man and his work.

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend an event that featured a conversation with Janvier. It was a chance to hear him tell his story and to give a painting display live and in person to the few hundred people gathered there that day. It was a rapt crowd hanging on the words of this sweet, funny octogenarian. We were also swept up in the moment of watching him create before our eyes. Here are some photos I took at the event:

I found myself so taken with Janvier and his art that I came into work on Monday and decided to paint on circles. Now, understand, Janvier does not paint exclusively on circles but it is the format that stands out about his work. Despite the fact that gallery curators like to talk about the circle as representing “aboriginal cosmology” and such, Janvier himself said he paints on circles because the company in Montreal that he gets his paper from sends it to him in big circles!

So when I came to work the day after the Janvier event I made a circle template and hand-cut 29 circles out of some leftover copy paper (why 29? For a very deep reason: I thought I had 30 but I was off by one!) Then I grabbed some old paints; a limited selection of colors but it helped me keep things simple. I wanted to work as instinctively and as intuitively as I had witnessed Janvier paint. I wanted to be spontaneous and use the exercise to escape for awhile from the representational style that is the bulk of my own artwork. I believe the circle format helped in this regard: I have almost always used the square or rectangle so typical of so much visual art.

Abstract work demands an artistic leap of faith. It means a letting go of a lot of things that you don’t even realize you are holding on to so tightly. It proved to be a lot of fun and to open up some new ideas for me. Below are the 29 artsy circles I cranked out in a few minutes time at my workplace art studio:

Here they are all together, taped up on the wall in my work space:


A couple of these sketches I really liked. I decided to create my own big circle, like Janvier, and recreate one of the ideas to see what it would look like. Here it is, I’m calling it “Ezekiel’s Wheel”(with credit to my co-worker who labelled that upon seeing it for the first time and was trying to figure out what it was supposed to be!):


The added benefit of this fun exercise in abstraction and spontaneity? It inspired a couple of artists who attend the day program where I work.  The artists there are adults with developmental disabilities. I was struck by the fact that I was inspired by watching Alex Janvier paint and then they were inspired by watching me paint. That is the story of art in a nutshell. So beautiful. When I am able, I will post photos of the circles they have done and are continuing to create, I promise. Maybe their art circles will inspire you to make circles of your own. And on and on that wheel will keep turning…
















A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 33: The Indian Group of Seven


“Lubicon” by Alex Janvier, 1987

I am just over a month into this personal experiment for 2017: A daily blog post having to do with creativity, either of my own or from other artists who inspire and challenge me. Already I have found that it is a rewarding exercise, not only because I get to revisit so many great creators that I enjoy but also because I am discovering new ones along the way. So it is with the Indian Group of Seven.


Following up on my post from yesterday about Alex Janvier and the incredible show of his work at the National Gallery of Canada, I thought it appropriate to introduce you to his fellow Native artists who comprised the Seven (plus one honorary member). Formed in the early 1970’s as the Professional Native Indian Artists Incorporation, they were given the name “The Indian Group of Seven” in the Winnipeg Free Press, an allusion to the famous Group of Seven (Canadian landscape painters of the 1920’s). The group was made up of Alex Janvier, Daphne Odjig, Jackson Beardy, Eddy Cobiness, Norval Morrisseau, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez. Haida artist Bill Reid was included as an honorary member, bringing the actual number to eight. The group worked to shift the thinking around aboriginal art, which was not taken seriously in its own right. They set out to visit Native communities to teach and promote the arts and they set up a Trust Fund for emerging Native artists. They were a remarkable group with high ideals. Today, just two of their number are still with us (Janvier and Sanchez).

At the Janvier show at the National Gallery, there is a small anteroom where you can see examples of the art from each of the artists in the Group. It was a joy for me to “discover” these remarkable artists. I decided to give you a brief gallery of their work below in hopes you will find that joy as well.


“Artist and Shaman Between Two Worlds” 1980 Norval Morrisseau (1931 – 2007) was known as the “Picasso of the North”


“Family Portrait” 1974 Joseph Sanchez (1948- ) is the lone American of the Group


“Black Wings” Jackson Beardy (1944-1984) was a founding member of the Indian Group of Seven


“Haida Raven” Bill Reid (1920-1998) was not an original member of the Seven but included because of his tremendous influence. His artwork has been featured on the Canadian $20 bill.


“Buffalo Dancer” Eddy Cobiness (1933-1996) Queen Elizabeth II has artwork by Cobiness in her personal collection


“Beaverman” 1977 Carl Ray (1943-1978) was an apprentice of Morrisseau and was also known as Tall Straight Poplar due to his height (6’4″)


“Untitled” (Mother and Child) Daphne Odjig (1919-2016) received the Order of Canada in 1986 and the Governor General’s Award in 2007


A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 32: Crying in the Gallery


j-23Ever start crying in an art gallery? Ever start crying in an art gallery and have no tissues with you? Ever start crying in an art gallery and have no tissues with you when you’re there with about 200 other people for a guided tour?

Yeah, I thought it was weird, too. Seemed to come out of nowhere but, really, it built up from the inside until it showed up on the outside.

Last Sunday afternoon here in Ottawa my wife and I attended a guided tour of the National Gallery’s career retrospective of Alex Janvier. Janvier is a Native Canadian artist. I had never heard of him before this show came to the Gallery. I won’t forget him now. I came away believing that Janvier should be treasured by all Canadians. He is an artist of exceptional skill who has been painting for seven decades. Seven. Decades. He won an honourable mention for a painting submitted to a Vatican show when he was only fifteen years old. From Cold Lake First Nations, Alberta, he was sent to a residential school when he was eight years old. It was there that his talent was recognized and encouraged. He became a founding member of an artists’ collective that would be called “The Indian Group of Seven”. Born in 1935, he’s about the same age as my dad.

So it was an incredible show with dozens and dozens of masterful paintings: Why the tears? Whassup with that?

Certainly, I get emotional around really great art. I find myself catching my breath or feeling slightly stunned when I see something particularly wonderful. As an artist I have a sense of the skill and the hard work, the genius and the dedication behind a truly outstanding work of art. Alex Janvier is a giant among abstract painters, of that I have no doubt. But tears over that? No. But the emotional foundation had been set.

j-04I was tired that afternoon, making me more susceptible to emotions getting the best of me. But I’m not in the habit of breaking down crying every time I’ve had a poor night’s sleep. I may be a big baby about some things but that’s taking it too far. However, that may have something to do with it.

It’s funny because even when I was fighting back tears, I was thinking, “What the hell?” They just came on like that. Bam! I remember where I was, too. Not standing in front of one of Janvier’s great paintings. No – I was reading a description on the wall next to one of his paintings. This one below as a matter of fact:


This is an abstract painting having to do with the drum and its place in Native culture. As you look at it you can definitely see the form of the drum. The whole piece dances, there’s a rhythm to it, a Powwow beat. Beside the painting was a description, and in that description was the comment that from the late 1880’s until 1951, according to the Indian Act here in Canada, Native peoples’ were forbidden to use the drum or to celebrate any of their cultural ceremonies and traditions.

And that was it. Right there I couldn’t stop the tears. What was going on?

At the heart of it, I believe it is because I have been struggling so much lately trying to make sense of how people in my “tribe” – Christians – can support the new president of the United States and his policies.  It was just this past weekend that chaos reigned at airports in the U.S., people with all the legal documents they needed and have always had, some who have lived in the States for years, were denied entry; the announcement came, too, that there would be an indefinite hold on accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S., this most desperate of desperate groups in our world today. I was so saddened and disheartened by all of this, and equally angry and disgusted by the American Christians who allowed this to happen in the first place.

What did any of this have to to with Alex Janvier and this show at the National Gallery? I mentioned earlier that at the age of eight, Janvier was sent to a residential school. Most of these schools were run by Christian missionaries. And at these schools, Native children were forbidden to speak their language, forbidden to participate in anything having to do with their culture; punished, in fact, for doing so. They had Christianity force-fed to them and were told that their grandparents were evil, of the devil. Worse, many of these children faced the horrors of emotional, physical and sexual abuse in these schools. The official tally of children who died in the care of these “servants of Christ” is 4,000 but the estimate is many times more. Some died from the abuse, some from starvation and disease, and some simply lost the will to live. Taken from their homes, they were stripped of their identities and backgrounds, everything they had to cling to for support and strength.

If you are not the least bit emotional after reading the above paragraph, read it again.

As I walked through the show, Janvier’s own record of his experience and his lament over the experience of so many Native people hit me at every turn. Injustice, oppression, hatred – and so much of it in the name of Christ; so much of it allowed to happen or perpetuated by the ones who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, the Son of God. This stripping of the drum – the silencing of the heartbeat of the Native people – was the last straw for me on that Sunday afternoon.

So I had my own time of lament. Not for my people but for Janvier’s people; not for the pain I endured but the pain inflicted by people like me. That gallery space was huge but not big enough to contain the heartache that filled the place from floor to ceiling. And yet such beauty, talent, wonder – despite it all, Janvier gave us all this gift. A gift we don’t deserve.

Heavy thoughts, I know. But I was in the National Gallery surrounded by sublime and profound works of art. Sue me.

It was cathartic. And it was an amazing show to witness. The photos I took with my Samsung phone cannot do justice to Janvier’s work and, of course, truly convey the power of being there in person. But I want to take you on a brief photo walkabout in the space below. I would encourage you to look up his artwork online or, if you get the chance, to see it for yourself.

Just don’t forget the Kleenex.

Without further ado, here’s the pics…