As the metal doors begin to open within the visual arts studios above the Walter Phillips Gallery, there are only two studios already open and waiting. Balloons float from their scotch tape base on two metal doors adjacent to each other in the back corner by the common kitchen. The rooms are empty, with traces of thin brush strokes along a wooden table marked with the outlines of past canvases. Connecting each wall is a perpendicular line that in a blur could pass as ongoing lines of brightly coloured ribbons. But up close, the line breaks up into dozens of new smaller works by Cold Lake-based senior artist Alex Janvier.
Image credit: Alex Janvier, "Beaver Castor," Mixed Media on paper.
Janvier has slowly and steadily become one of Canada’s most well known and respected working artists. Known for his sharp rhythmic strokes against a stark white background, at once acknowledging his landscape, his Dene and Saulteaux heritage and European training, Janvier was the subject of a much-lauded solo retrospective at the Art Gallery of Calgary in 2007 to coincide with his appointment to the Order of Canada.
Attending ACAD from 1956 to 1960, Janvier had been raised in the highly contentious residential school system in Alberta. Taking part in the community of St Paul’s art club, professional painter Carlo Altenberg took Janvier under his wing and encouraged him to go to art school.
“He must have seen something in me,” Janvier muses nearly 60 years later, standing inside the larger of his two Banff studios. A recent, well-ruffled copy of the Globe and Mail lies strewn across the couch, and the open air room carries the distinct atmosphere of having been heavily occupied. After a recent health issue that he does not get into, Janvier has returned to painting full time every day. Well into his 70s, but not slowing down, it’s obvious that Janvier is still exploring the potentials and possibilities of his craft.
From Altenberg, who also taught at the University of Alberta, to his European-based instructors in ACAD, Janvier’s techniques and aesthetics didn’t begin to formulate until his third year of art school, when he reconnected with his ancestral culture.
“There’s a rhythm in nature, it gives us so much and we have to give it back,” Janvier says, his eyes still sparkling. “To the youth today, I tell them to get back to the culture.”
As part of his residency, he has began painting in the shapes of traditional mandala drums, using an acid-free paper from St Armand, in Québec. Rhythm continues to be a reoccurring theme in his works decade after decade, a notion he doesn’t find very surprising.
“You never stop learning. Nature is not occidental,” he says.
Being officially selected to partake in a Canada/China cultural exchange in 1985 left an indelible impression on Janvier. Feeling a deeply rooted psychic connection to China, Janvier has started using chinese calligraphy paper and ink, which he sums up as much finer in comparison to the granular texture of acrylic and even watercolours. Exploring not just his history, but a collective transcontinental history, Janvier’s latest body of work also pushes his and others’ theory that the Bering strait was once a traversed land bridge.
As a face of Canadian visual art to the international community, Janvier’s recent turn to exploring transnational identity and aesthetics is just the latest path forged. Known within and outside of Canada as one of the country’s leading contemporary Aboriginal artists, Janvier’s appeal across intertribal and international communities is rooted in his awareness of rhythm as a concept for common understanding. From tuning into the rhythm of traditional dances and letting the movements of the legs sway his visual strokes, to the beat and syncopation of percussion alive in all cultural expressions, Janvier sees beyond boundaries and peers deep into his own inspiration.
“You’re enlightened to look at your background, at your history. That’s what becomes important.”
Alex Janvier, Banff Fiction Residency
Visited Feb 16, 2008
*First appeared in Vue Weekly, March 20 - 26, 2008