Closeup/The Arts

That artist fella

Welcome to the neighborhood, Joe Fafard

Suzanne Zwarun July 25 1977
Closeup/The Arts

That artist fella

Welcome to the neighborhood, Joe Fafard

Suzanne Zwarun July 25 1977

That artist fella

Closeup/The Arts

Welcome to the neighborhood, Joe Fafard

Suzanne Zwarun

The ceramic sculpture is called Hank and the name fits as smoothly as the dusty cowboy boots Hank wears. There are hundreds of Hanks in the beer parlors of the Prairies: lanky, weather-beaten men decked out in Western-style checked shirts, fastened with shiny domes instead of buttons. Hank, ceramic or real, belongs to the dusky, cool world of the small-town tavern but, for the moment, he’s been thrust into the blinding glare of television lights. A documentary film crew has descended on Pense, Saskatchewan, for the only reason any outsider ever does: Joe Fafard, an internationally acclaimed sculptor who whimsically chooses to live and work on the lonely prairie. Since Fafard sells his work as swiftly as he creates it, the Hank sculpture had to be borrowed back for the occasion from the collector who’d acquired it. So the ceramic Hank came home to Pense for a little while, with some fanfare.

The real Hank would have been flabbergasted by the fuss.

The real Hank, the unwitting model for the sculpture, was tilting back a few beers in the Rouleau, Sask., beer parlor the day Fafard wandered in. Fafard was new to the prairie southwest of Regina but he’d already discovered that a slight, shaggy-bearded artist was as out of place there as a forest in a wheat field. The usual snorts of derision followed Fafard through the tavern but he pretended not to notice, riding the bigotry with the easy amusement that smooths his survival in smalltown Saskatchewan. This time, it didn’t work. Hank, the loudest of the good ole boys gathered ’round, wasn’t to be ignored. He ambled over to Fafard’s table, settled down without an invitation and challenged: “Don’t you think you’d make more money working than on welfare?”

It was the question chafing every beer drinker in the Rouleau tavern but Fafard had learned to reroute the red-necks. Life had not prepared Hank for the notion of a working artist earning a respectable living but Fafard is persuasive.

“Tell you what,” Hank finally proposed, “I’ll let you make a picture of my horse.”

Fafard declined that generous offer but Hank stuck in his head on the way home to Pense. Working from memory, in a daylong burst of creativity, Fafard captured a foot-high Hank in ceramics. From the shirt

to the boots, from the red nose to the watery blue eyes, it looks just like Hank and like a generation of latter-day prairie pioneers, whiling away the hours over draft beer, venting their frustrations on passing “hippies.” But there is more, an aura that makes the ceramic Hank something other

than just a facsimile of the real man. Fafard caught Hank staring bleakly and blearily into his glass, an instant of beer stupor that revealed an uncertain man, adrift in a world he no longer understands, a man who lived by the rules, then found the game changed.

The theme is repeated in one of Fafard’s latest pieces, Cree Man, a kneeling Cree Indian whose eloquent face is racked by profound sadness and realization. “Indians have been too often romanticized in art,” says Fafard. “Rather than just do an Indian, I wanted to do a man, a man outstripped by the technology around him. Cree Man has discovered the earth is a hostile place and he’s left without tools to fight it, except for his big, skillful hands.”

Hank started Fafard on his quest to chronicle rural Saskatchewan people. Cree Man is the zenith, the best work Fafard has yet produced. By neat coincidence, they’re both owned by the same Regina art collector who jokes that he paid $1,100 apiece for them—Hank sold for $200, Cree Man for $2,000. Fafard couldn’t raise either sum 5V2 years ago when he moved to Pense, halfway between Regina and Moose Jaw. A University of Regina art professor living on “starvation wages,” Fafard found the wind-scoured hamlet on the bald prairie

“not particularly attractive,” as he tactfully understates it. But where else could you buy a three-storey house, on three lots, for $7,000, no down payment required. The choice wasn’t eccentric. Staying there is.

There can’t be a more typical dying prairie town. Once it was a bustling rural trading centre boasting a barbershop and a bank, lumberyards and livery stables, a hotel and a hardware store. The Depression, farm mechanization and the urban exodus whittled the boom to a puff of prairie smoke. Four grain elevators line a dusty road trailing uncertainly into a grain field; the ruins of the main street stutter down the opposite side of the railway tracks. The post office and a cafe remain; the rest is plywood-plastered and fire gutted. With only 370 citizens to keep tabs on, people there stare curiously at strangers passing through, and everyone disregards the few street signs. To find Fafard’s house, you look opposite the school, which is topped with a Woolly Mammoth thumbing its trunk at Regina.

The Woolly Mammoth is a Fafard creation, of course. It was an art class project when he taught in Regina and it so embarrassed university landscapers they banished it from campus. Fafard, hurt, trucked the huge bailer twine sculpture home to Pense where school bureaucrats aren’t so rigid. Woolly Mammoth and Turtle typify Fafard’s conviction that art should be fun and accessible to everyone. He is an unabashed populist who believes an artist must not only have a vision, he must transmit that vision to ordinary people. He didn’t arrive at that heresy easily. Fafard once subscribed to Art with a capital A and lusted for the action. He got it all and found he wasn’t having any fun.

The sixth of 12 children, Fafard, 34, was born in a log cabin in Ste. Marthe, Sask., a French and Metis community three miles from the Manitoba border. If Pense is small, Ste. Marthe, with 15 families, was minuscule and the Fafards were plainly poor. Family legend has him toddling into the kitchen at three, clutching pencil and paper, as a prescient aunt cried (in French): “Here is the great French-Canadian artist.”

Fafard had once ventured as far as Brandon to sell sheep and the jaunt afflicted

him with a restless itch for big-city lights. At 20, he enrolled in the School of Art, University of Manitoba, and fell in love with Winnipeg where “everything glowed.” When Winnipeg started looking small town, he struck out for Montreal, New York, then Penn State University, where he obtained a master of fine arts. His family was bemused but indulgent. “There has always been great respect for personal freedom in my family. No one saw the practicality of art school but they’d known me long enough not to be impressed by my farming abilities and they saw I hadn’t the physique for hard labor. So my father said, ‘Okay, I’ll help you.’ ”

Fafard started out a painter but a compulsory sculpture class unearthed “an affinity and an ability” he’d never had for painting and his final year at the University of Manitoba was spent in a studio, sculpturing. When his well-received Winnipeg graduation show was designated “sentimental crap” by Penn State, Fafard plunged into kinetic sculpture. “Masonite, paint, motorized foam rubber—that sort of thing. I made flying French Fries, palm trees that waved in nonexistent breezes, a high chair for adults.”

Fleeing an America rent by Vietnam, Fafard and his minimal sculpture headed back to Canada where Regina was “a respectable place to be for an artist.” Between the Regina Five and Ronald Bloor the city was gaining something of an art reputation. For Fafard, it was a mistake. “I didn’t realize the activity there wasn't my thing at all. If I’m a populist, they’re elitest. And teaching frustrated me. The repetition of it, the starting from the beginning every time, the conflicts with other teachers. I got totally fed up with art and decided to make a living at something less complex. I figured I’d be a carpenter.”

That decision was undone by Fafard’s introduction to David Gilhooly. Simply put, Gilhooly was into frogs. “He was using clay and papier-maché in a wild, totally irreverent West Coast attitude. He was making things people could get anything they wanted out of. I’d been thinking of art as something out there somewhere. I thought I had to go out and encompass New York, Toronto, Paris and I was humbled, intimidated by that bigger world. It never occurred to me you had to go within yourself. Gilhooly’s frog mythology got me. He was having fun, not worrying about art, and creating something special.”

Fafard decided to stick with art if he could be himself, and that brought him full circle back to Ste. Marthe. Raising a dozen kids without cash had turned his mother into a one-woman folk art industry. She’d sewed, glued, sculpted toys with a paring knife and, family raised, moved onto larger projects, such as a four-foot tall papier-mache bear clad in secondhand fur. “I’d recognized my mother’s folk art as good and I liked her papier-maché cows. I didn’t consider there was anything there for me, though, because I was into abstract art.” But when Fafard tackled a lump of clay intending to enjoy himself, cows kept getting born.

Fafard got off on the “big, round balloon of loose-fitting juices” that is a cow’s stomach. He’d brought in, milked, fed and shoveled up after cows as a child, and he found he could recall with hands every ligament, bone and muscle. The cows graduated, for a time, into satiric ceramic tableaux that made artistic statements— cows as artists trying to get on the breadline—but are back, now, to just being cows. They range from one ounce to 50 pounds, cost from five dollars to $400. They’ve become, for Fafard. a cottage in-

dustry, a morning warm-up exercise, art that anyone can afford. “They remind me not to get too serious, too precious. They’re funny. I like them.” The big, rambling house with the splayed veranda and the hops growing into the third storey studio window is crammed with hundreds of cows in various stages of creation.

It’s a dizzying assortment of Fafard’s own cows, kitsch and china cows sent by friends, antique cows unearthed by admirers. Cow decals decorate the windows and walls, the refrigerator and the van he drives. Cows are painted on glass and canvas, cow tiles line a sink, a black, clay cow’s hoof lies discarded on a drainboard. Cows march across shelves, over mantlepieces, up windowsills and a life-size calf leans in a corner, a joint project of Fafard and his mother. Cows decorate the peepholes in his kiln and march over his shirts.

But even when he was first tumbling out cows by the dozen, Fafard was looking for something else. He tried ceramic portraiture and created malicious caricatures of his art school colleagues, like the elegantly silly half-man, half-horse that stilettoes an art history teacher whose overweening obsession was clothes. He tackled plaster, reproduced the art colony large-as-life, then turned executioner.

The plaster portraits earned Fafard a show; a gallery bought one, a Toronto architect another. “But it got to be a drag. I was confusing reality and art and it was an invasion of their privacy and mine.” One dark night, Fafard drowned his plaster man (the director of an Edmonton art gallery) in a prairie dugout and planted his remaining plaster lady atop some straw bales

halfway to the Qu’Appelle Valley.

It was a janitor who pointed him in new directions. “Alley Haney, who worked at the school, mentioned that his father got letters from artists all over Canada wanting to do his portrait. Then I discovered Alley was 62 and the oldest of his father’s 18 children. I had to meet that man.” Fafard found a straw-hatted, green-eyed, 107year-old, wielding a yellow duck’s head cane, mostly for effect. The old man’s life story was equally exotic and Fafard was spellbound by tales of the Turkish cavalry, bayonetted Greeks, immigration to New York, peddling on the prairie, prosperity in Regina, the belated purchase of a young, Turkish bride. “He just blew my mind. To think he was 36 when the century turned. Alley urged me to do his father in ceramics and I was torn. I wanted to but I couldn’t treat him as lightly as I’d been treating the others.”

Fafard, in one of his intense bursts of inspiration, completed the ceramic sculpture in a weekend and sold it to Alley for $30. Excited by his new adventure in ceramics, Fafard soon abandoned teaching, his last daily link with Regina, and looked for models among people with whom he had empathy, his rural neighbors, starting with Hank. They’ve been, to their bewilderment, his inspiration since.

Often he snaps a candid snapshot of them, then labors over their ceramic twin for weeks, even months. “I don’t invent. I’m more a chronicler of what I, in my innocence, see.” The sculptures do look unmistakably like their real life models; an Indian spotting a friend of his in ceramic

muttered, “My God, call the police. He shrunk Jim.” But Fafard adds his own touches, based on his shrewd, quiet insight into human nature and his own artistic subconscious. The essence, perhaps, is the caring he feels for the people he does.

He introduces the sculptures much as he would real people. There’s George, who lives down the street, an 86-year-old widower whose father was a Newfoundland sea captain. There’s an old school chum who dressed his insecurities in gaudy, city slicker clothes but harbored the faint, sad suspicion he wasn’t making it after all. Even Fafard is there in self-portrait: black, spiky tendrils of hair curling over his forehead, wise brown eyes behind wirerimmed glasses, heavy boots.

“It’s W. O. Mitchell’s magic lies,” says Fafard. “Everything you experience is the stuff of art, not the stuff by which you tell the truth, but the stuff of the really big lie. You take a bit from this person, from that one, you embellish. The final result is not truth as empirically observed. Instead, you invoke a new truth. You filter through your experience, you search your feelings and you bring it together into one thing: a lie, but a meaningful lie.”

Fafard shrugs off the fact that representational art isn’t fashionable. “Abstract art turns people off. It’s for the in-group.

Fafard argues there is a nonrepresentational content and form in his work that is absorbed unconsciously by a non-expert viewer. As far as he’s concerned, form

should remain at that subliminal level. “Abstract art is so hung up on form, it totally excludes content. Form takes care of itself if a thing is worked from an emotional point of view. Feeling takes care of form if you’re concerned with content.”

The world—Great Unwashed or Culture Vulture—has seen Fafard’s efforts as “a new kind of elegance and balance” anywhere from the Pense Horticultural Show to the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris. From the Saskatoon Shoestring Gallery, where his ceramic figures were first shown, his work has vaulted to all the major Canadian cities, Los Angeles, New York, Europe, but Pense still gets equal time because people are important and Fafard’s art is theirs.

Fafard says an artist must go more than halfway to meet his audience; lately, the audience has been trekking all the way to Pense. A couple of carloads of strangers arrive every summer’s day. Fafard had tea with them all until the trickle became a flood. Now his wife, Susan, tours them through the second largest house in Pense, points out the wall-to-wall art, sends them away clutching a Fafard cow. Pense is turning out to be not nearly so isolated as Fafard would like, particularly since he joined the Canada Council, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Canadian Artists Representation, the Saskatchewan minister’s Committee on Art Education.

That takes him out there where he once wanted to be, but Pense is home and the most pressing problem of the moment is a threat to the school by a government proposal to abandon schools with fewer than 100 pupils. Other Regina refugees have followed Fafard to Pense but there aren’t enough of them yet and Fafard and Susan, with three children (Joel, eight, Misha, seven, Gina, four), are embroiled in the battle. Fafard lives at crisis meetings; Susan produces the local paper leading the battle.

In the turquoise booths of the Pense café, which turn up often in ceramics, the morning coffee session is more interested in the state of their gardens and grass than in art. Fafard’s a good guy, they say, but he does baffling, non-prairie things. Like leaving his children unnamed for a month until it became clear what was appropriate. Like booing a Remembrance Day speaker last fall because he considered him a bigot. Fafard’s work, they agree, is “alright.”

Eva Badley, former café owner, probably sums up Pense. Fafard did her as one of his first works and exhibited the sculpture in the local horticultural show. Eva’s friends pulled her away from work and dragged her off to see herself. Did he sell those things? she asked. Fafard, who had a buyer willing to pay $200, offered to sell Eva herself for half price. “A hundred dollars,” she sputtered. “I’m not worth that alive.”

She didn’t buy and Fafard wouldn’t tell her for the world that $2,000 is the going price these days.'v’