Alex Colville remembered for his ability to tap into human condition

HALIFAX – Alex Colville will be remembered for his ability to tap into the human condition with the dab of a brush, reflecting both the tranquil and unsettling moments of life, members of the Canadian art community said Wednesday after hearing of the artist’s death.

Colville’s work spoke a universal language that reflected what it meant to be human, said Sarah Fillmore, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

“The more you look at those paintings, the more they kind of unfold, and our own experiences become his experiences,” she said.

“The best thing that art can do is help you to see yourself.”

Colville died of a heart condition Tuesday in Wolfville, N.S. He was 92.

His death drew tributes from artists and curators across the country who remembered Colville for his unyielding depictions of life’s everyday moments that others glossed over.

“What Colville was probably tapping into was something about the human condition that he felt was absent from what he was seeing in most images around him,” said Crystal Mowry, senior curator at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery in Ontario.

“I think it ties into a notion of not feeling as though the artist’s job is to describe beauty all of the time. Perhaps the artist’s role is to really show us all sorts of different vantage points of what life is like.

“Sometimes that’s anxiety, sometimes that’s beauty, sometimes that’s disgust, sometimes that’s sorrow.”

Mowry said it was his ability to communicate moments rich with uncertainty and possibility that set Colville apart from other artists in his time.

Fillmore, whose gallery features some of Colville’s work, said the distinguished painter will be remembered not only as an extraordinary artist, but also a gentleman. That was a sentiment echoed by Sue Melvin, the programming co-ordinator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

“Very courteous, very gracious, very charming,” said Melvin, who first met Colville in 2002 and organized various events with him over the years.

“He was a very human person,” she said. “He’s going to be missed.”

Charlie Hill, the curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery in Ottawa, said Colville’s death is a great loss.

“I think his legacy is his great humanity, his intellectual rigour, his consistency and vision,” Hill said.

“When one sees a painting by Colville they know, it’s Colville.”

Colville’s work, which includes “To Prince Edward Island,” “Nude and Dummy” and “Horse and Train,” was ubiquitous. His sketches, paintings and murals appeared in art galleries, magazines, book covers, television, coins and even on the cover of a Bruce Cockburn record album.

He began his career as a military artist and famously documented the landing of troops at Juno Beach on D-Day, becoming the most prominent painter to document Canada’s involvement in the Second World War.

The Canadian War Museum, which is planning a special exhibition of Colville’s works to honour his memory, also paid tribute Wednesday to his legacy.

“Alex Colville’s genius as a war artist stemmed from his ability to capture the human dimension of armed conflict through his creative interpretation of what he saw and experienced,” Laura Brandon, an art historian and acting director of research at the museum, said in a statement.

“His work will forevermore enhance our understanding of war in general, and the service and sacrifice of Canadians who served overseas during Second World War.”

A memorial service for Colville will take place at the Manning Memorial Chapel at Acadia University in Wolfville next Wednesday.