Capturing the universe in process

Gillian MacKay June 28 1982

Capturing the universe in process

Gillian MacKay June 28 1982

Capturing the universe in process



Gillian MacKay

Sometimes, when Paterson Ewen finishes a painting, he and his girlfriend, Mary, will lift the huge 135kg piece of plywood off the wooden sawhorses in his studio-cum-living room and prop it up against the wall. From the opposite end of the room, they will sit on the blue velvet sofa and gaze upon a landscape—a dazzling cloudburst over water, or a gigantic, primitive red moon—so powerful that it seems to shatter the tidy boundaries of white walls and shiny wooden floors in their renovated Victorian home. “We sit in silence and then the most used words are ‘crazy, nuts, it breaks all the rules,’ ” says Ewen. “I become a little more crass the next day, hoping it will sell or something, but at that moment it’s so thrilling that I can only think,

‘There it is, God, I did it, and it’s better than the image I had in mind.’ ”

On this sunny morning in the spare light-filled room in London, Ont., the artist’s paints, brushes and tools sit idle around the four paint-splattered sawhorses. The battered

books crowding the mantel piece contain a rich harvest of images—rainfall patterns in a meteorology textbook, undulating coastlines in an old Japanese navigation manual—for his painting. But too many weeks away from work have heightened the habitual nervousness of this artist. It takes a double scotch and two tranquillizers at noon to put a mellow cast on the day, to bring out the engaging wit of the raconteur. What he glumly calls the “pallor of not painting” has settled in, even as he prepares to mark a milestone in his career. This summer his rough, romantic paint-

ings of heavenly and earthly phenomena will represent Canada in the Venice Biennale, the celebrated international art exhibition which opened this month. He has been described as “one of the best, if not the best painter in Canada right now” by Jessica Bradley, assistant curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery. Not since high school in Montreal’s West End, when he recalls being “everybody’s hero,” has so much attention been paid. Yet, with not enough time to start a new work before he and Mary fly to Venice, his days are filled with such domestic adventures as the conquest of tent caterpillars in the backyard, diverting enough, but hardly the exploits of genius. “I almost disdain people who enjoy puttering around,” he grumbles in his slow, quiet manner. “I think, ‘What are they doing with their lives?’ I have to be doing something important.” The 57-year-old painter is one of the rare artists who, like Cézanne, blossoms suddenly in middle age. In a sense Paterson Ewen has had two lives, the first in Montreal where he grew up, married dancer and

choreographer Françoise Sullivan and raised four boys; the second in London, where he matured as a painter. Cutting his world down the middle was a 14month nervous breakdown that occurred in 1967, after he left an unhappy marriage wracked by infidelity on both sides. He ended up at Westminster Hospital in London, where he underwent shock therapy for depression. When he emerged, he was alone, at 43, in a strange city with $150 in the bank. He took a room above a tavern where he knew local artists congregated and survived by selling the odd painting and, later, teaching. In Montreal he had painted at night in the basement until the early hours while working to support his family during the day.

At various times he had been a carpet salesman, a night attendant at a motel and, lastly, a personnel manager at a paper company. Too frequently for his liking, he also cooked and cared for the children while his wife pursued her artistic career. In London, for the first time, he was free just to paint.

It was what he now describes as “my to-hellwith-you” period. Since 1950, when Arthur Lismer unceremoniously handed him his diploma in the hallway after only two years at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School, he had been swept up in the myriad currents of postwar painting. Among his richly varied influences in the explosive Montreal art scene of that day were his teacher Goodridge Roberts; Paul-Emile Borduas and Les Automatistes with whom he exhibited; and hard-edge painters Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant with whom he shared a studio. Always accomplished and modestly successful, he was nonetheless frustrated by his inability to achieve a style of his own. Says his Toronto dealer, Carmen Lamanna: “He would see people painting stripes so he would try stripes and then he would feel guilty. He needed the freedom to be himself.” Finally, in the early ’70s, he came to loathe the emptiness of abstract art and the very act of painting on canvas. In a spirit of play and rebellion he decided to make a gigantic woodcut print, recalling his youthful fascination with Japanese prints. As soon as he started to gouge into the plywood, he knew he had found his medium. “From then on it just took

Ewen loved the new work. So did his dealer and friends. But the public and the art establishment ignored it. In 1973, a year after his first show of the wood paintings, Ewen wrote an angry letter to Jean Boggs, then director of the National Gallery, asking why none of her staff had been to see his work. He loves to tell of how, one week later, two curators showed up at Carmen Lamanna’s gallery “white-faced and looking as if something terrible had happened.” Next, they visited him in London and bought three paintings on the spot. The most ridiculous part of it, says Ewen, bursting into giggles, was when one curator exclaimed, “They’re so wonderful, so Canadian. They’re made of wood!”

Ewen shrugs off the notion that there is anything particularly Canadian in his feeling for landscape. He does have an intense, almost religious, love of nature which is relived in the act of painting itself. “I feel when I’m painting— this is a bit embarrassing—as if I’m part of what’s going on, whether it’s water, rain or sun. It takes you out of the mundane world to a level of yourself so unused, it almost séems like a force from outside.” The force of his passion rings like a thunderclap through his paintings of suns, moons, rainfall, hailstorms, northern lights and distant galaxies, and yet they retain a lyrical delicacy. Says Globe and Mail art critic John Bentley Mays: “He opens our eyes to the universe in process, to its mystical unity, and that’s why I’m grateful to him.”

Paterson Ewen at work is part spiritual seeker, part child at play. He broods for many months on an image and paints only about four works a year, taking anywhere from three days to six weeks to finish them. His unique method is to carve the image into the wood with an electric router—slashing out lines of rain or ripping background areas away to bring a moon into relief— before applying acrylic paint and other materials, such as metal and canvas. Dressed in face mask, ear plugs and hockey kneepads, he actually gets up on the painting, which is mounted on the sawhorses, and crawls over it “like a washerwoman,” attacking the wood with the router.

The strong, almost athletic enjoy;

ment he derives from this physically demanding process recalls his youth when sports and games, not art, were his passion. He enjoyed a “Tom-Sawyer-like childhood,” catching crayfish in a creek and shooting sewer rats near his home in the English-speaking suburbs. At high school he was captain of the football team and president of the student council but a poor pupil, a failing he blames on a miserable home life. His father, whom he deeply admires, had emigrated from Scotland to work with the Hudson’s Bay Co. in the North, and became general manager of a fur auc-

tion house in Montreal. An alcoholic, he fought incessantly with his wife, a cold, high-strung woman, who at times physically abused her two children. The Second World War provided an escape for Ewen, who volunteered in 1943 for the most dangerous work his poor eyesight would permit and wound up a machine gunner in a reconnaissance unit. When he returned from the war in 1946, he found his refuge in the world of art.

Today it would seem that life has fallen into place for Paterson Ewen. Recognition, though still inadequate, is starting to come. His new paintings are

as exciting and inventive as ever and they are in demand, even at prices between $30,000 and $35,000. Last year he made more than $100,000 from painting and teaching studio art at the University of Western Ontario. For three years he has enjoyed a supportive, playful relationship with Mary Hanford, a 26-year-old architecture student who also looks after him, keeping track of dates he can never remember, putting off pestering callers and driving him around in their new blue Cadillac.

Yet, despite all this, he is rarely at peace with himself. Anxiety and depression still afflict him, as do the old wounds that his memory keeps fresh. Overweight and perpetually dishevelled, he looks, as one old friend put it, “uncomfortable in his own body.” He is often preoccupied, lost in the world of his paintings and his past, but can express a “warmth and finely tuned sensitivity to other people when it’s required,” says Robert McKaskell, a close colleague at Western. Though close to all his children, he feels a special bond to his eldest son, Vincent, 31, who is emotionally disturbed. One of Ewen’s rare portraits is of his son and incorporates a remarkably sensitive poem written by Vincent when a child. Says Ewen: “He must have dropped from another planet, a superior one probably.”

The world may weigh heavily at times, but the making of art remains a constant source of joy. In the end, all energies of body and soul come together in that vital process: “I started out by assuming that I could save the world through art,” Ewen recalls with amusement. “That quickly changed to a desire to be the best artist in Canada. Then, having achieved something quite close to that, I realized it didn’t make any difference. So we’re back to sitting on the sofa again, looking at a work that’s just finished, and it’s so exhilarating that nothing else really matters.”