Canadian Art

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

[after a discussion of Roy Kiyooka's work in Calgary and Mexico]

TOWNSHEND: Wasn't Jock Macdonald a positive influence in a fine art way?

SPICKETT: Yes he was. Jock lived in the shadow world.

TOWNSHEND: What does that mean?

SPICKETT: The reality is not the kind of concrete reality that is commonly considered... He had come from Vancouver. It was his first year there and I don't think he had any intention of staying on at the College. So, as a result, his first year there was pretty casual. He was very friendly. I remember he said to the class one time: "It's the inner man that counts." Well, that at that time. The PITA was really a commercial school and he taught some commercial subjects.

The majority of us who were there were on the veteran's program (Department of Veteran's Affairs).

TOWNSHEND: And you were taking commercial art.

SPICKETT: That's what a majority of them signed up for. Fine art was something that you really didn't think too much about... If you had a lot of money you could maybe become a fine artist but otherwise, you had to learn a trade. You had to, to raise a family. A commercial art course was a justification for being an artist.

I was interested in illustration. I was able to say it was commercial illustration. Macdonald brought this other kind of innuendo to the process. We took history of art which immediately threw us into this other world.

Luke Lindoe taught ceramics. I took some sculpture from him. And he also taught watercolour, I believe. He taught painting as well.

TOWNSHEND: Did Kerr teach you?

SPICKETT: Kerr came the following year (1946). Kerr took over from Jock Macdonald... I had Kerr for painting.

TOWNSHEND: Was that important for you?

SPICKETT: Temperamentally we were so different. We kind of accommodated each other... Just a different type of man than Macdonald. Macdonald had a way of intuiting things. Like he would know what you were saying almost before you were saying it. And he waited for you maybe to put the words into place but he would know essentially what you were saying. Mr. Kerr, on the other hand, was pretty insistent that the words be properly put into place before the idea would reveal itself. So different... I used to come into the classroom with great naivety and perhaps a very stupid enthusiasm for something. So you burst in. You have no idea of what you are going to do. You have no idea of how you are going to do it. But this is a great day. Today you are going to do this. You would find that everything would sort of grind to a halt. Mr. Kerr would say today we are going to do this and this and this. My energy would be dragging. And finally you would get to do it.

TOWNSHEND: Compared to Jock.

SPICKETT: Jock would say: "Go do it. Don't wait."

TOWNSHEND: What about the friendship between Maxwell Bates and Jock Macdonald that year? Were you aware of Bates pre-Mexico?

SPICKETT: I knew Max [Bates] before I went to Mexico. I didn't know about the friendship between Jock and Max.

TOWNSHEND: They were very strong.

SPICKETT: Max [Bates] was the first adult male outside of Jock who took art seriously to the proper level. And we became friendly. Roy, myself and Greg [Arnold] and quite a few of us, we used to go visit him. He wasn't a teacher officially. I'm not sure he ever wanted to be. I think he could of if he wanted to be. Max had a very exciting boyishness to him. He was very interested in what you were doing. Why were you doing this? What do you think of this? It was a good time. It was another kind of world that seem to reveal itself. Max had had a difficult time during the war...

TOWNSHEND: While he was a Prisoner of War, he wrote a lot about art and the philosophy of art. Did he talk about that?

SPICKETT: That was the basis of his life really. He was an architect actually. But art was something... like it was the mystery of the creative process essentially.

TOWNSHEND: Did he talk about that? The romantic, the classical?

SPICKETT: All the time. I think this is something we kind of fed through. Max had painted very small paintings because her was painting on the back of a chair as a POW. He painted whatever he could... a piece of cardboard. Everything was kind of small for Max. When he came back, people were painting big paintings. Resee. His world was very intimate. Very small, in terms of scale. I knew Max during all of that transformation. When Max came back, there were so many new things going on. It was almost like a free exchange. The younger artists like myself who were still going towards something but tended not to be locked into a prior art concept. To that extent he was like Jock. He didn't drive home his point of view. The process was the most interesting thing to him. May or may not work. May not be the thing that society needs. It has this synthesizing, putting it together, the dualities of our lives except... motivated him, drove him or took him along. Jock was that way too. He had his own work, he had his own way of seeing things. But he was not locked into it to the extent that he felt that that is what everyone should, in fact, be doing or seeing. And Max's work went through a lot of changes when he came back.

TOWNSHEND: Absolutely, including the facet paintings.

SPICKETT: And he went through a kind of taschists, drip-painting for awhile... It was like he was looking at himself... mind seeing mind. It's like saying what's happening now. To get right away from what I was saying earlier about breaking the image up. You get right away from that and let it tell you what's going on and participate in the kind of grander scheme. It is like a harmonic happening. It is similar to what I mentioned earlier about the music. Your mind starts to go into an area whereby the selection process becomes very natural. You eliminate. You are not doing it in an ego-based sense. Once it is done you are kind of amazed it is done.

TOWNSHEND: Is there also a part of humour in Buddhism to what has been done before? You are also saying to heck with that. This is a possibility too. Could Bates appreciate that?

SPICKETT: Oh, yes! I was doing drip paintings about the same time. After I came back from Mexico, I was using enamels. I was using enamels in Mexico. They were convenient, they were handy and they were cheap. I used what they called Duco, which is an automobile enamel made by the DuPont company. I think it is called CILSO because it is CIL now. It was thick drying, very hard, very durable, but somewhat limited in its flexibility. You couldn't do with it as you did with oils, for example. I did a number of things in Mexico using Duco. When I came back, I decided to continue using enamels which I did. My paintings became very non-objective, let the paint take over. They were decidedly non-objective, totally. But if there happens to be something there.

TOWNSHEND: Were the drip paintings before or after Antagonist?

SPICKETT: After. I went from figurative enamels to what I call non-objective enamels which are just more organic. And these were just shapes and colours and things splashed all over the surface. From there, the enamel lent itself to a kind of splash technique. And that is what I did. It became grass in my mind. Because it was a kind of hatching of these colours... You are actually throwing the paint on the surface and turning it constantly. It is turned and drips and runs. From these they went to the relief paintings which were done with Gip rock, joint-filler and they were like sculptural reliefs. I decided shortly after these that I should deal with the surface more so I changed the material. They went to almost relief paintings. I still used washes on them... I put washes and drips and what not on it but it had texture to it.

TOWNSHEND: Is the ink drawing Grass after the Slash technique?

SPICKETT: Very closely tied in to about the same thing. I was playing with surfaces and marks. Calligraphic.

TOWNSHEND: And removal too.

SPICKETT: This is little more literal. I would say recognizable. It is three or four steps removed from literal but the texture is still there. The scratches... this was with the reed pen. As the pen runs out of ink, it starts to scratch. I did a lot of these. And many, Nancy, of these were done outside. They've got dirt in them. I used to smoke a pipe at that time. They have pipe ashes in them. But I fell in love with just grass and space in a lot of these.

TOWNSHEND: I have a quote from Chris Varley in 1983. You were interested in "the subtle interplay of forms and textures found in prairie grass."

SPICKETT: That is about it. More or less. You can extend it from there. It is not hard earth. If you look at a prairie grass, you are seeing into it. You are seeing through it. It is moving constantly. It is telling you something. There is a kind of life, activity. But you can see through it occasionally. You can see patches of dirt appearing, a rock here but then it disappears again. I did a number of grass music pieces because the prairie to me has a great sound to it. It is not just visual. It cracks, it aches, it groans, it sings, it hums. It is marvelous.

TOWNSHEND: Would you have done these grass reed works had you not seen prairie grasses?

SPICKETT: We are looking at 1959 here [with images]. There is perhaps more pain than there is now. Because it was like this groping. I remember someone saying to me at the Bay, "still grubbing at the roots, eh?" This is what people thought. That in a way says where I live. I live on the prairies. I was really raised there. This is my landscape. I was born in Regina. I used to go walking in the prairies. That was it. And everything one needs, everything one seeks is there. You do not have to go to the mountains. It is all there.

And the interrelationship between grass and space. Space is where I come from. I remember writing a little poem. "Luckily a boy brings his own space with him." Because we used to sit hidden, we used to go for a hike out of Regina, when I was quite a young boy, take our lunch and go out in the prairies and sit on the grass, completely hidden... the grass was comfort. It was isolation. You were away from everything if you were in the grass. And the seasonal aspect of it too. Being born, being covered. I've done a lot of snow paintings with a little bit of grass showing through. It is never completely gone. It is there. It springs up the first opportunity it gets even though it gets covered with snow. And there is a lot of visual imagery. It is kind of beautiful. But beyond that as you say you don't have to be there to paint it. Most of the grass paintings I did finally I did really in my studio. I went backwards in time. So much of it is recall. I never used a model, Nancy, for figure work...


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