Canadian Art

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

TOWNSHEND: I want to go over chronology. In Mexico, figurative enamels. After Mexico, non-objective enamels that are sort of organic.

SPICKETT: I should take it back to Mexico where the figure first broke up. That is where I began to what I always used to say I exploded the figure. And the figure became, (and when I say the figure I mean the human figure which has always been of compelling interest to me) the elements that make it up. As a result, it could move. It could go anywhere it wanted. It would become grass, it could become anything. Finally it became non-objective. Because the linkage of some of the earlier figures that I broke up were so close to being totally non-objective paintings that only I would know probably that they had a figure base to begin with. My year in Mexico gave me the opportunity to come to grips with the painting elements and if you like, a kind of attitude toward painting itself which carried me. A very valuable year.

TOWNSHEND: Who were some of the important people in Mexico during that year for you?

SPICKETT: Jim Pinto was the senior painting instructor. And he was an interesting guy. We got along very well together. He was hard nose and tough. But he knew what I was doing. He was a student of Enrico Le Brun and Pinto had a lot of Le Brun in him. (He did macho-paintings.)

TOWNSHEND: Was he a Cubist?

SPICKETT: He was a Cubist of the Picasso line, the way Le Brun was. Pinto was Czechoslavakian. Le Brun was Mexican-American... there was a lot of pain, even in Le Brun's painting... There is a lot of death in Mexico. Death was kind of a constant thing. They accommodated death because life was not too rewarding. So in many cases death was to be desired. Life and death in Mexico, it hit me very strongly when I first went down there because the sense of hope, and the sense of future, everything that existed around me. I could not close my eyes to the poverty. Mexico no longer becomes a romantic thing; it becomes a difficult journey to resolve. And you can't superficially glide over it. That too had its impact on top of the war.

TOWNSHEND: What about your interest in murals? Like the technical problems of execution?

SPICKETT: Mural was another feature of Mexico... Sequeiros and Rivera. They had used it as an educational tool. I studied fresco. Mostly just because I was interested in the mural concept, big spaces, big walls. We went around. We toured quite a bit, looking at quite a few murals. I studied murals just because of the history of art curiosity. For me, it was interesting to know how to work on a plaster surface and secco fresco, which is a little different and using other materials on fresco... It's a hard job.

TOWNSHEND: (quoting Spickett on murals) "Murals had a lot of uses. To pull it together as it says there is a kind of visual sense. It is one of the things. It gives you human scale. You go into those buildings, so enormous, all glass. To relate to the building, sometimes impossible because it is very impersonal, plastic, antiseptic looking. But a mural somehow placed somewhere in there gives you a human link. It's got a usefulness. I'm not sure that it is used as much as it could be used."

TOWNSHEND: When you were a third-year student at the Tech from 1948 to 1949, you painted the mural Alberta Pioneer. Can you please tell me about that opportunity?

SPICKETT: When I was a student, there were a lot of murals being done in United States... I think the first sketch I did had to do with construction - men digging ditches. I remember Mr. Kerr saying to me that is very nearly good. So try another one. So I did another one and this was the second one I came up with. We had no idea how to do a mural, just get up and paint it on the wall, so that is what I did... We put a little chalk in the paint to make it a little more a matt surface... Roy [Kiyooka] did one too at the same time.

TOWNSHEND: Can you please tell me about your mural commission for the Bowlen Building, Calgary (1967 – 1969)?

SPICKETT: The architect Bill Milne asked if my name could be put forward. I actually did the whole thing on plywood pieces. I took it up to Edmonton and showed it to the Department of Public Works. It was approved. It was a very difficult job to do because there were strikes going on and all sorts of things. But I finally got it done. I didn't see the whole thing completed until it was finished because they had boxes and everything piled in front, and crates. I'd do a little more. But I was hoping at the time that the government would do more. Marion Nicoll did one... but they did not carry the mural idea forward as I thought they might do... Mural painting to provide an extension of the actual architecture itself, either mural or sculpture or... a little more of it... You learn by doing it.

TOWNSHEND: I want to quote from a review about your work in a Montreal newspaper in 1956. "... masguerade comic like Tamayo's work." Do you have any comments about that?

SPICKETT: I admired Tamayo's work probably but I was certainly not influenced by him. It was nice of him to say so.

TOWNSHEND: This article mentions "a kind of order."

SPICKETT: This was right at the very beginning of the real plunge into non-objective painting. And that was with the enamels, and the break-up of the figure, the splash paintings came after the non-objective.

TOWNSHEND: You used to have arguments with Greg Arnold about the validity.

SPICKETT: Yes, I used to say what is the point of it, what is the use of it. Our discussions went back and forth. And when I finally broke up the figure exploded and went into non-objective painting, I think I sent him one of the first ones.

TOWNSHEND: Were the relief paintings non-objective?

SPICKETT: Yes, the relief paintings were non-objective but organic based because some of them are almost prairie themes. That very kind of subtle space, a bit of texture. I scratched into the surface while the Gip rock was still wet, so you can get some calligraphy.

I did some mural surface painting for a bank in Edmonton... I did some grass relief things in copper tubing. I worked directly on the surface with cement, with stones and some suggestions of textures. Then I came off the surface with some welded tubing which was almost like hatch work. They were based on some bamboo sculpture I had done. It was just a texture thing. I did a rain cloud and a grass field and various things like that. So that it almost reached an end.

Then I went to Japan in 1962. In the midst of my relief paintings, I went to Japan for the first time. When I came back, I went into my studio and it was like I was looking at corpses. Over. Finished. So I just packed them all up, and went back to the figure with a whole different sort of sensibility. I went back to the figure. That figure that the National Gallery of Canada has came about that time. That was an Ecclesiastic Figure.

TOWNSHEND: a Mother and Child?

SPICKETT: Yes. I decided I would do a series of what I refer to as Ecclesiastic paintings. These were the ones they have in Edmonton. These are the Judas figures, The Tearing of the Robe. Even though I had by that time pretty well philosophically moved to the Buddhist practise, I still cherished the Christian images. There is a rich tradition there. So I thought I'd do it. It was something I had always wanted to do but I did it from my point of view.

TOWNSHEND: Greg Rasmussen of the Edmonton Art Gallery is trying to explain your point of view for the Last Supper. He talks about it as being the sub species eternae from the point of view of eternae. That when you have the multiple actions of a figure, frontal and profile, whatever, that you are getting at the in - between moments.

SPICKETT: Well, it is a time/space thing. It is interesting... The images are archetypal. They are everybody. Like The Judas images, the whole process, it's everybody. The Tearing of the Robe... They are moving through time and space. The Kiss of Judas to me offered perhaps the greatest challenge because the fact of male kissing male, has to move away from all that sort of connotations. But the kiss has to be a kind of collision, almost. And that is what happened to it. But that kind of decision really has nothing to do really with Christianity or anything else.

It's like the human journey... The figures themselves are loosely painted and there is a flat impersonal ground... To reconcile the dualities we face... eternality and the present, good and bad, and the emotional involvement and the indifferent. All these things which human beings deal with. These were the kind of visual devices I used. And to not fix them in time...

TOWNSHEND: To not fix them in time because you want to give the sense of, not quite eternity, but the human condition throughout man's existence anywhere in the world?

SPICKETT: It's continual man. It goes on. It's like, I always say, everything is everything else and everything is consuming everything else. But it is continuous. It's like nothing goes. We thinks things go and disappear. But nothing comes and goes. We are, in fact, both at the same time. We are both the horizontal and vertical. We are within the horizontal transient of time. Today, tomorrow and the next day. But at the same time, we are right at the point of eternality which is timelessness...

When I was breaking the figure up, in the pure psychological sense, related to sociological, to perceive the figure as moving through time, as having more than one facet. To not fix it in time, to see it as a transient thing, to see yourself as transient... so that perceptually what I did, and what was done, even in terms of non-objective painting was a kind of blowing away of a restricted way of seeing or a limited way of seeing...

TOWNSHEND: Can you please tell me about your relief paintings?

SPICKETT: They were the hardest paintings that I ever did simply because they were heavy. I did them on big sheets of masonite, and I did them with plaster. I had to work rather quickly because the thing set up and dried. But the interesting thing was that some of the stains I put on were latex. As soon as I put them on, they would freeze. So, as the studio heated up, so the paint started to thaw... You had to be very alert to catch something when it looked interesting. So I'd turn them constantly.

TOWNSHEND: When did you first become interested in Zen Buddhism?

SPICKETT: I first came to Zen Buddhism probably in 1955... I almost pioneered it...

The Rider included the so-called rider which is being thrown from the horse as well as the rider itself. Plus the use of the gun. And the gun as a solution was so much a part of what was happening in the '60s. They were getting in what they called efficiency experts... But they were fast guns. And they got on a horse and road off. That quick gun as a solution. Plus the ugly aspects of it which was assassination. So it has been going on.

This is multiple image of self killing self. Aspect of the Wipe-Out. The illusion that you are killing someone is, in fact, that you are self killing self. And it is a formalized one but it is the shape... In a very plastic sense, the cowboy costume is interesting. The big hat and the chaps. You can do a lot of things with it which I did. I had a lot of fun with that just enabling me to manipulate figure and play with it. But symbolically it could have gone on forever. I had a really good time. I even used the posse. In the '60s people were forming groups and going after one another... You had groups forming self-righteously, not always rationally, so I used the posse quite a bit too. The Rider emerges in the early '60s and went right on to almost the '70s. So I did drawings. It just loaded with possibilities. It filled me up.

Ron Sickett is Gyo – Zo of Calgary.


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