Canadian Art

Interview With Ron Spickett (Gyo-Zo) and Nancy Townshend

December 1996

TOWNSHEND: Were you always good at art?

SPICKETT: I was always interested in visual expression. I used to doodle in my school books. At a very young age my contact with art was essentially through the cartoon... Alex Raymond drew Flash Gordon. There were many cartoonists beyond cartooning. Really illustrational drawing.

TOWNSHEND: You got a prize when you were eight years old in drawing.

SPICKETT: Yes, it was at the Regina Sketch Club with Kenderdine in charge of it. Classes held in Parliament Buildings. I was interested in a lot of things in those days. Photography interested me when I was very young. Any kind of image making was interesting to me. I found I could draw. It was something I could do. You do it because it is easy to do.

My first real brush with it was when I worked for the Regina Leader Post as a cartoonist. I hadn't seen any real fine art even up to that point... When I was 15... I used to do a lot of little sketches and put them on the editor's desk related things to the war and what was going on in the world. I was in early in the morning. I was what they call "copy boy." I used to do sketches and put them on his desk. It drove him crazy. One day he said: "Do this one." So I almost fell over. I went and got my pen and ink and did quite a few of them. Cartooning led into what I thought would be the final end which would be illustration but...

TOWNSHEND: Were you aware of Stewart Cameron?

SPICKETT: Cameron was actually a little later... I think the turning point for me was the librarian at the Leader-Post. He gave me a list of words to look up... words like aesthetics. I had never... I turned my attention to a peripheral study of these words and what they meant.

And the depth of art as a creative process.

I joined the navy for two and one-half years and I was overseas. During that time I actually visited the National Gallery in London. They had a few pieces out. That was like another door opened. (The rest of them were sandbagged away in the basement because of the war.) There were a drawing by da Vinci!...

I did a few paintings in the navy. I actually continued to draw and did cartoons. I did a portrait of our captain.

TOWNSHEND: You were 17 1/2 when you joined the Navy. During that two and one-half year experience, at the end of it, did you have particular observations about the human condition?

SPICKETT: You are pretty shrewd, Nancy! In reality it didn't matter what I did. The focus was on the painting, drawing or art. But the profound questions that propped up during my time at sea were the ones that really motivated me.

It is a little bit difficult to explain. But the fall of all the things that generally you can rely on – governments, institutions – were at sea. To get up in the morning, and not know where you are going to sleep is a peculiar kind of rhythm. You begin to look for essentials, at least I did. Philosophical problems. I did a great deal of reading.

TOWNSHEND: What were you reading?

SPICKETT: Everything I could get my hands on. The ship was supplied with books. Some were novels, historic narratives. It was like filling yourself with points of view and attitudes.

I had started this process while I was still in Regina. I purchased what I perceived to be...

TOWNSHEND: Was this before or after the librarian?

SPICKETT: About the same time. There is a store in Regina which was second-hand. I bought Dickens, Greek classics for 25 cents.

TOWNSHEND: You bought them on your own without any advice from anyone?

SPICKETT: Yes, they always had good books. That started it.

TOWNSHEND: Did you have a choice to join the navy?

SPICKETT: I was too young for the army. The navy took people who were 17 ½. But I did not have a very good childhood.

The navy was made up essentially of volunteers... It was a whole milieu of adventure, discipline and new places. And I was very fortunate because I was overseas very quickly... I celebrated my eighteenth birthday at sea.

TOWNSHEND: Any observations of cruelty to mankind?

SPICKETT: In Zen Buddhism there is humour-side. But it is really based on a kind of sense of the ridiculous. Because human behavioural patterns, if you view them in a particular way, they are laughable and ridiculous. They may verge at the same time on the tragic but the senselessness becomes very apparent. So that in order to plough through it, one does not necessarily always rationale, one takes the sense of ridiculousness and turns it around.

The desire for meaning, for the conflict, the enemy, the right and wrong and good and bad is very intense. One can really float along on it. One can take sides and do what you have to do.

But I think people who are of a certain nature like writers and people who have that art tendency tend to want to synthesize. How can they say good/bad? How can there be that kind of division or duality? How can there be hate at this level? These become difficult things to work out. So you look around and follow whatever is given to you, in terms of information, leadership. And you make choices as you go.

But my route was a relio-philosophical route. It has always been that. The art is really so much a part of that, that I tend to now want to even separate. You tend to leave evidence of where you have been, what you have done. You leave footprints.

TOWNSHEND: If you and I were to look back in Western art history in that regard, would you and El Greco be similar?

SPICKETT: The so-called Mannerists painters, the ones who painted from an irrational drive?

TOWNSHEND: I was thinking in a philosophical...

SPICKETT: in a broad sense. Rather than say philosophical, I would say relio-philosophical.

TOWNSHEND: Is there anyone else on Earth which you could equate your art with your transcendental?

SPICKETT: Oh, I think so. You see, Nancy, I think what really happened at the end of the war, there was a reassessment of even art values and image making. You take the explosion that took place during the Abstract Expressionists. That was almost like the Beat generation which was, in a way, my generation. It was like to get to the essentials. What do you do when you paint a picture? What kind of image are you controlling? Is the image controlling you? You know, this is all a kind of a return to the elements, if you like.

Colour, gesture, shape, size, scale. All of these things that affect painting were examined ruthlessly, sometimes desperately, sometimes with great results, sometimes with poor results. But in a way, it was a way of divorcing yourself. Not necessarily denying the past but to resee it, the whole process.

For me it took quite awhile from being image bound,... and go to the elements, the break up of the human figure.

TOWNSHEND: Antagonist (1956)?

SPICKETT: Yeah, somewhere around there.

TOWNSHEND: After Mexico?

SPICKETT: Yes, that was just after Mexico.

TOWNSHEND: When you say "figure," do you mean "figure/ground"?

SPICKETT: Figure.

TOWNSHEND: But here, just the horse? The break-up of the horse, the faceting of the horse?

SPICKETT: It is saying that the thing is made up of elements. And we can do with them as we see fit. We can distort them, break them and nothing is going to change within. What is changing is our perception of it. Our relationship of figure/ground, for instance. It was to me a nothingness. Things emerge, they disappear. They come and they go. But it is like the essence of the shingo, the heart sutra. You are seeing it at the same time as you are not seeing it. It's a transient passing thing.

TOWNSHEND: And this is equated with faceting of the figure or the object for you. Antagonist is an example of one of the first works which does that.

SPICKETT: I didn't know how to do it. So you break it up.

TOWNSHEND: You were getting at the essentials.

SPICKETT: I broke up space into pieces. I broke up objects into pieces and I interrelated them. So what you are doing, you are saying that perceptual space in a way is a kind of choice thing. For instance, the big emphasis on three-dimensional space when you are creating illusionary form what they call nowadays realism, superrealism, I found only mildly interesting because I found it was like freezing something in time and space that could not be done. So I did a little bit at one time.

TOWNSHEND: Pebbles (1952)?

SPICKETT: Yes, that is as far as I would go. But even there you see... I did a lot of scumble. (Scumble is treating the surface, that kind of dry brush.) What you are doing, you are telling people that really is a canvas. I'm not trying to fool you, that really is a sky, that is blue there and the sense of wondering, etc.

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