Tuesday, March 23, 2004
Making Art as a Positive Force
One of a Series, commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
"Paradise" is how artist George Glenn describes Saskatchewan. Born in Regina's Lakeview neighbourhood, "right next to the prairie", Glenn remembers his boyhood there when the "tumbleweed would roll down McCallum Avenue." Today he's a visual artist who makes his home in Prince Albert, where he has been working as an artist and teacher for more than twenty-five years. Glenn has found that Saskatchewan is a place where he can create, exhibit, and enjoy a community of friends who are, in his words, "artists of life", though they my not necessarily be working in art.
Glenn mostly stays close to home, but he speaks of "trips", "travels" and "space", which seem to be recurrent themes in his life and art. In 1959, when he was a teen, and his interest in art had already surfaced, Glenn's family moved to Winnipeg, where he went to Grant Park High School and the University of Manitoba. In 1970, after receiving a degree in Fine Arts, he moved to Alberta and worked as a curatorial assistant at the Glenbow Museum for two years. His next move took him to the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Cincinnati where he graduated in 1974.
He says his most significant influences were teachers he encountered at the University of Manitoba. Alex Bruning, Ken Lochhead, George Swinton, and Ivan Eyre, though very different in their painting styles, all "demonstrated enthusiasm about the making of art." The enthusiasm was infectious for Glenn. In 1975 he returned to his home province to take up an artist-in-residence position in Prince Albert, which was sponsored by the Saskatchewan Arts Board. This position began Glenn's teaching career which would continue until today, and would influence and encourage many new and emerging artists just as he had been influenced by his teachers. One former student who claims Glenn as an influence is successful Manitoba artist Aganetha Dyck, who has committed herself to innovative art making, and has gained an international reputation.
In his visual art, Glenn's concept of space encompasses, like the prairie's scope, the near and the distant, the surfaces and gaps, negative and positive space. He is more of a conceptual artist and abstract painter than he is a realist, yet his works evolve from concrete observation and contemplation. His 'still-lifes' hint at representation of their subjects, but are also more than them, because of details Glenn 'chooses' to include or exclude. Glenn says he "works from the moment," where "there may be significant gaps in patterns of notation," (the marks and brushstrokes that comprise the painting). He works with contrast and contradiction, with space and enclosure. Many of his paintings seem to contain both the fleetingness of the glance and the focus and release of meditation. Recently he has been working on a series of more than thirty self-portraits, which he claims "register the absences of mind." In all his work he's interested in "saying something more than I'm thinking". There's a reach here beyond the day-to-day, beyond what we 'know'. He compares his process to "throwing out a fish net to look at what doesn't come back." Glenn says, "It's all really mysterious. All the spaces are greater than the conscious moment." After a work is complete he often wonders where he 'was' at the time of creation.
What comes back shows in Glenn's drawings and paintings, but also in his three dimensional work such as 'The Plexiglas Room', which showed in 2000 at the Mendel Gallery and in other prairie galleries. This was a room with transparent walls that contained a multitude of objects and artifacts arranged in an orderly clutter. Like Glenn's paintings, it raised questions and invited investigation, more than it offered a pat and passive experience for the viewer.
These days Glenn rarely shows in commercial galleries where his work would be sold. "It has been unrewarding" he says. Commercial galleries can have a have a tenuous existence, and some that have shown Glenn's work have eventually closed their doors. It's a tough business. When there are sales --- for the buying public is small - Glenn says, "the response is hardly what you can live on." He has shown at public galleries -- the Little Gallery in Prince Albert, the Mendel, Mackenzie, Dunlop, and Medicine Hat galleries. Exhibiting is a goal of most artists, and an aid to their finances, but Glenn finds that "exhibiting takes a lot of time and energy", time away from his primary job of making art.
And it is the making that Glenn values the most. "Art is not the commodification of something to sell," he says. "It is an activity that spins positive energy that empowers people." This awareness came home to Glenn as he watched the rhetoric of war scale up after September 11, 2001. He feels it was happening too fast for understanding and analysis. He believes that humans need to find another space for careful thinking and observation, a channel for good energy. Here he reveals his mystical side, a facet that is visible in much of his art. For him, art, like meditation - simply the doing of it -- can create a positive, contemplative and affecting dynamic that will ripple outward. "Plant art, and the crime rate will drop," he claims.
But the artist must eat, and Glenn does earn fees from exhibitions, and some revenue from sales, but it his teaching, mostly in Prince Albert through University of Saskatchewan Extension Division, that has enabled him to survive. This is a common artist's story of the second job used to finance the primary work.
Glenn has established a reputation that is respected by Saskatchewan artists and art appreciators, and those beyond our borders. As well, he has served Saskatchewan's artistic community through two stints on the Board of Directors of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, most recently in the mid-90s. "We have a rich arts scene here because of the Arts Board. Many grants have been given to members of the community enabling that community to develop." He worries, however, that the budget for these grants is too low and that young and mid-career artists are being "cut off" from funding that would enable them to develop their skills and their reputation. Such subsidy is essential in a field where market success comes only to a few, and only after many years of work. And market success is not the only measure of quality or contribution to Saskatchewan's, and Canada's cultural life.
Yet, George Glenn has persisted, drawn to his art, and drawn to the land around Prince Albert where he can "go to the junction of the two rivers, or across the river into pines and lakes, or to hills and farming country. There are three landscapes here within one-half hour of town." These landscapes provide inspiration, and places for reflection, where Glenn can look outward, while also looking inward, where he can let his mind tumble "in a kind of consciousness I couldn't have predicted". This consciousness, found in his particular paradise, results in compelling and provocative art.
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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