John Armstrong

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 Director/Producer: Andreas Schultz, 
Colour, 67 minutes, English, 2008

Thanks for inviting me to introduce German director/producer Andreas Schultz's film on Alex Colville: it was an unexpected challenge. Canadian Art Foundation sent me a preview video, and I watched it with the third-year painting class I teach at Sheridan College. I asked my students if they were acquainted with Colville's work and they said yes, Colville is a high-school artist. High school artist? They explained that he is one the artists you learn about in high school, as opposed to the artists you learn about in university. By which they meant that Colville is an iconic Canadian artist — a status Colville has had for sometime. Colville was the artist who created the images of Canadian wildlife on the Centennial coins I had enthusiastically collected as a boy in 1967. Perhaps more importantly, during the time I was in high school, he was the artist whose haunting 1954 painting Horse and Train was the cover art on Bruce Cockburn's similarly dark 1973 Night Vision album. This painting is discussed in Schultz's film.

Colville's work — art and illustration — may be seen as having a populist bent; his example and teaching motivated a number of artists who work in the Maritime Realist vein — I am thinking of Mary and Christopher Pratt, and Tom Forestall.

Colville taught at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick from 1946 to 63, at which point he quit to devote himself fulltime to painting. I attended Mount Allison in the mid 1970s, and the school still attracted students looking to develop their work in the realist tradition established by Colville. This was not the direction I chose, but I was very happy to go on a class excursion to Colville's studio in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. (The very place we are all about to visit in Schultz's film.) He took us up to his second-floor studio, and on his easel was a painting, almost finished, of his wife Rhoda sailing a one-handed dinghy. It was a side view of the boat, and the sail cropped her upper torso so we couldn't see her face. Colville wouldn't entertain discussion around the painting he was currently working on, nor was he keen on our exploring the meaning of his past works.

What Colville wanted to talk about was the integration of his life and art. He painted everyday in the mornings, and left the afternoon open for other activities. He felt that one's art should be carefully balanced with one's life. Colville was very proud of his carpentry skills; he made his easel, his drawing table, his print and drawing cabinet; he prepared the particleboard supports he painted on, framed his completed work and then built the crates to send it off. His London UK dealer, Fischer Fine Art, employed his daughter, and the gallery, he told us, sold his work very often to Germans.

As I watched Schultz's film I was impressed with the director's ability to draw the artist out, to get to the side of Colville that we, as students, could not. In the film, Schultz gamely sets out to plumb the meaning of Colville's often-enigmatic paintings by making connections to the artist's biography or by quirkily propping up reproductions of Colville's paintings in the landscapes depicted in the works. What Schultz has done exquisitely well is to enter into Colville's art and life, to combine these elements and create the filmic equivalent of a Colville painting, a contemplative place where time is as palpable as wind-swept marshes and ocean, and as measurable as sturdy clapboard architecture. In short, Shultz has created not only a documentary but an independent artwork that both illuminates and parallels Colville's art. My students loved the film. During the screening they were rapt and silent. A rare and beautiful thing.

I hope you too will enjoy the film.


Remarks delivered on 27 February 2010 at the Canadian premiere of Andreas Schultz's film Colville at the Canadian Art Foundation Reel Artists Film Festival, Toronto