Total Commitment, Total Artistry

TO be an artist in the full sense of the word - totally dedicated, wholly absorbed - there's nearly always a trade-off to be made. You see friends you grew up with establishing themselves respectably and comfortably in law, medicine, academia, finance, and business endeavors. You, by way of contrast, may live in a state of perennial uncertainty, never really knowing if what you are doing is valid and useful. And unless you are independently well heeled, or in league with people who are, frequently you must take any kind of work you can find to keep things together.

Or have times and values changed?

From what I've absorbed over the past 25 years or more as a writer and artist, increasingly the art being produced and exhibited, and the novels being written and published, are coming from people for whom literature and the visual arts are secondary or supplementary pursuits - from teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, and so forth.

Less and less do you find an exhibition of art or a work of fiction from someone who is committed exclusively to those disciplines, and, as such, is first and foremost a writer or a visual artist, to the degree that their creative expression alone determines whether they succeed or fail in the world of work.

It's been argued convincingly that it was ever thus: that over the centuries writers and artists have been, at the same time, soldiers, civil servants, clergymen, members of the nobility, academics. True enough. The question that persists though, is, were they the ones who produced the world's great art - or has the most enduring art come from the relatively few who knew no safety nets, no assurances, no compromise?

What got me pondering all of this was a meeting I had a little over a year ago with Paterson Ewen, a Canadian artist, who had hit the headlines as a result of two major exhibitions of his work, which were crossing the country at the same time. Until then he was little known outside a small circle of serious artists and domestic art connoisseurs, although he had been painting earnestly, with that special depth of conceptual and technical talent that arises from a complete immersion in art, for most of his adult life.

Suddenly here he was, nearing what was considered retirement age, being hailed in the press as an unearthed genius.

In 1946, when he returned from overseas service in the Canadian Army, Ewen had thoughts of becoming a geologist. He was 23 years old, and he enrolled in the bachelor of arts program at McGill University, in Montreal, with studies in science, mathematics, and geology.

Within a year, however - partly because of a lingering interest in art from his childhood days, and the vitality of Montreal's artistic community - he transferred to the university's fine-arts program. From then on art gradually was to take over his life.

Ewen next studied at the school of art and design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where two artists of distinction, Arthur Lismer and Goodridge Roberts, took him in hand.

The influences skidding around Montreal at the time were those of C'ezanne, Matisse, and Picasso. The de Stijl ideology, as adopted by Montreal's Plasticiens group, and Surrealism also influenced him, along with the work and theories of the devoutly Canadian Group of Seven and the fledgling American Abstract Expressionists. Among the most talked-about French Canadian artists on the scene were Paul-Emile Bordaus and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

For years Ewen slaved at art, in the shadow of greater names. His paintings were shown in solo and group exhibitions, essentially on the home front, although in New York on a couple of occasions, and once with a Canadian group in Italy. He didn't go entirely unheeded by art critics and connoisseurs, but neither was he considered to be anywhere near the forefront of Canadian art.

To keep himself, and eventually a wife and four sons, in food, shelter, and clothing, Ewen worked in a hat factory, sold rugs in a department store, peddled insurance, and did part-time work for a provincial government rent-control board. His longest stint as a salaried employee was 10 years as a company personnel manager.

It wasn't until he was 46 years old, while living in Toronto, that Paterson Ewen made his breakthrough. He was working at an idea for a woodcut, in 18th-century Japanese tradition, when it dawned on him that gouged wood could be a more powerful art form than prints taken from it. So he began a series of hand-chiseled paintings.

Gouging with an electric router soon followed. His materials became sheets of plywood, as large as 92 by 132 inches, acrylics, and at times strips of galvanized iron, chain, matting, linoleum, and string.

And with those materials he found himself giving expression to his early interest in natural phenomena - ``how rain falls, and how lightning works, clouds, eclipses, and waves,'' as he explained to an interviewer in 1975.

Even at that, it was another 17 years before Ewen gained wide attention on the Canadian art scene.

I've known, worked with, and written about scores of artists over the years, but none more than Paterson Ewen has impressed me as being wholly an artist. To explain why, I must return to the day of my first and only meeting with him in January 1988.

We met at his home and studio, at that time located in a medium-size city's east end, behind a taxicab stand, on a grim stretch of a main, east-west thoroughfare. Inoffensive graffiti decorated the whitewashed exterior wall around the warehouse door. Inside was a chilly, sparsely furnished space that served as Ewen's sitting room; behind it, the open warehouse area, warm as toast, because the hot-air ducts coursed through it. Near the center of that warehouse floor, a bare mattress; leaning against the wall facing me, a huge, gouged plywood work of art.

For close to 40 years Ewen had given his all to art, and it had left him, in material terms, with little more than that - rented warehouse space in which to live and work, the tools and supplies of his trade, the bare necessities. Only months before had the golden glow of acclaim settled on him to justify his dedication, self-deprivation, and abiding uncertainty.

A great many people, in all walks of life, do a lot of acceptable art and write well-received books. But to achieve anything of lasting significance in the arts, doesn't it require a colossal drive to learn and understand as much as possible about the discipline, and an almost inordinate capacity for self-sacrifice - and valor, and indomitability of spirit?

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