Mount Allison University’s Owens Art Gallery recently received a magnificent gift from the late Alex Colville, a complete set of the artist’s serigraph (silkscreen) prints. Colville made the gift to the university in March of this year shortly before his own death in memory of wife, Rhoda, who had died in the fall of 2012. To the gallery’s and the artist family’s knowledge this is the only complete set of Colville prints in a public or private collection, which makes the Owens Art Gallery, more than ever, the centre for the study of the artist’s work as they already own several of his paintings and a large collection of his drawings. Mount Allison is also home to the Colville House which was the artist’s former home and studio in Sackville, New Brunswick and is now a museum and archive.

The thirty-five prints in the collection, that date from 1955 to 2002, will be on view at the Owens Art Gallery until mid-March of 2014 and it is unlikely that they will be exhibited as a complete collection again for a long time. This is a rare opportunity to see an important artist’s lifetime body of work in a particular medium. 

I first met Alex in the mid-1970s when I moved to the Maritimes to become Head of Mount Allison’s Fine Arts Department; at that time I wrote a long article in this magazine on his work that appeared in the fall 1976 issue. I said, at the time, that there had not been enough study of his prints and I still believe that to be true. He completed many prints since that article and what they all demonstrate was a continued growth both in the medium and artistic vision. 

When Alex studied art at Mount Allison (1938-1942) and later taught there (1946-1963) the department did not teach printmaking. He wanted a method of making multiple images and he thought that silkscreen would be an easy solution. However, it presented him with a whole set of problems as it is difficult with silkscreen process to get the kind of detail that was common to his painting with egg tempera and, since 1963, acrylic, but true to his meticulous nature, he found a way to make the medium his own. I try to make it a habit, if possible, to observe artists that I write about working in their studios and I was fortunate to be able to do this with Alex on more than one occasion. Unlike many painters who work with master printmakers in print shops to make prints of their work, Alex did the whole process by himself in his home studio. He cut each screen by hand, one for each colour that could number up to seven or eight screens. Then, after very careful registration, printed each colour on each sheet of paper of the edition. The editions, from 1968 on, were limited to seventy copies. Tedious, exacting, time consuming; yes, but the results are stunning.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from this body of Alex’s work as they vary greatly in subject and size (from 11.4cm x 11.4cm to 43cm x 70cm), but there are some common themes and the most common of all is animals. A nice bookend to his animal print works are his second print, Cat on Fence, 1956, and his penultimate print, forty years later, Black Cat, 1996. He has always brought sensitivity and nobility to his images of animals and these cat images are no exception. I remember him telling me that animals, in particular, cats and dogs, have noble qualities that humans often lack. 

Another common subject in his work was his use of himself and Rhoda as models, but almost always anomalously. To my eye, every woman in this set of prints is based on Rhoda even if she is identified in a 1978 print titled as, Hotel Maid. With few exceptions every man in his print was based on himself. The obvious are Cat and Artist, 1979; Artist and Blue Jay, 1993; and, the before mentioned, Black Cat, 1996. There are prints where they appear as a couple like Sleeper, 1975, although all you see in this print is the artist’s foot, and Morning, 1981. Morning, a circular print, 54.5 cm in diameter, is a favourite of mine, it shows a nude couple sitting on a bed with a front view of the female figure and the back of the male. The woman is holding an antique mirror, which blocks her face. The mirror image was borrowed from the collection of the Royal Ontario Museum, as I remember Alex telling me, and if you look at wall in front of the male figure you see a fragment of the Cat on Face print which places the location of the image squarely in Alex’s and Rhoda’s bedroom. The artist, through his imagery, lets you into his personal life, but only if you know code.

Thirty-five print editions is not a lot over a career that spans over sixty years and Alex’s painting production, as well, was not large. This was because he always chose quality over quantity. One of my best memories of him was sitting in his immaculate studio and watching him paint dressed in a cashmere sweater, grey flannel slacks and beautiful polished shoes. Compare that to photographs of Francis Bacon working in this studio, where the artist was knee deep in trash. Mind you, I like Bacon’s work as well, but their ways of working couldn’t be more different. I ended my 1976 Vie des Arts article on Colville with the words: “In short, Alex Colville is a gentleman.” with the exception of changing is to was, I have no reason to change my ending. 

The Owens Art Gallery Mount Allison University Sackville, New Brunswick
2 November 2013—16 March 2014