Painting, paddling, and place

By Aaren Madden, September 2014

Painter Ken Campbell finds a journey by canoe can lead to a multitude of destinations.

In his book Path of the Paddle, the filmmaker, artist, conservationist, and legendary canoeist Bill Mason deems the canoe “the simplest, most functional, yet aesthetically pleasing object ever created.” He ranks paddling as among the great art forms of painting, poetry, music, and dance: varying conditions in water and weather lead to endless opportunities for developing skill with “poetry and grace.”

Canoes are embedded in our national and art-historical mythologies: Pierre Berton supposedly (and dubiously) determined that someone is Canadian if they can make love in one; two generations of Trudeaus have plied the waters in them in symbolic connection to First Nations and Voyageurs’ formative paddles. Tom Thomson left his floating in the middle of Canoe Lake. They are part, though certainly not all, of the national idea we have about ourselves.

Canoes are a part of Victoria painter Ken Campbell’s personal story, too—specifically, the classic Peterborough canoe, of wood and canvas construction. The artist’s own affair with the canoe began early, when he was growing up around Thunder Bay, Peterborough and Port Hope, Ontario. From his late teens, he worked as a guide. “I worked with a crew and we cleared portage routes and took kids on canoe trips in summertime 110 miles out of Thunder Bay,” says the now 64-year-old. “Canoes have always been a part of my love for being on the land in the summer.” 

It’s one reason why they make their way into many of Campbell’s paintings. In “Stony Bay, Water’s Edge” two golden canoes float just above the rocks in the shaded shelter of overreaching paper birch trees. The ribs of the canoe are smooth and elegant, the branches of the tree are gnarled, and the stones in the water are smooth. The cool relief of lake shadows on a hot summer day is almost palpable in the purples and greens. It’s evocative and balanced, but more. There’s a story there: Who are the paddlers, and where are they now? Or an invitation: The canoe waits for the viewer to slip in and glide away.

Campbell brings this combination of composition, colour and narrative to his art practice from his upbringing, his studies and his earlier career. His mother worked in kiln-formed glass and his father, about whom Campbell writes eloquently in his blog post “In the Shadow of an Artist,” was an independent filmmaker and artist working in a wide range of media. “Learning through casual mentoring I got to live with, observe, ponder, question, argue, reject, and embrace myriad aspects of artistic thinking and technique as part of normal, everyday life,” Campbell writes. 

He went on to graduate from Lakehead University with a BA in sociology and psychology, but art remained his passion. When he first arrived in Victoria, he became art director for CHEK TV. After a freelancing stint in Vancouver, he returned here and married his wife, Donna, with whom he now has two grown sons, one of whom is also an artist. Soon after settling in Victoria, he built a successful graphic design business, Imagecraft Studios, for about 30 years. He also illustrated children’s books, including River My Friend and Tides of Change, for Orca Publishing, and he continues to create delightfully ascerbic editorial cartoons on local and national issues. 

He had been painting all the while, but in 2001, Campbell embarked full time. “At a certain point I decided I needed to tell my own story, as opposed to always telling other peoples’ stories,” he explains. 

But where to start? Well, it seems he and Mason are on the same page. “I went looking for something that was manmade that I could use my drawing skills on,” Campbell explains. “I have always loved to draw, and so I wanted something that was going to give me an object to play with…and there is something about canoes.” It has to do with his own love for paddling, certainly, but there is an elegance to their lines and proportions that attracts him from an aesthetic perspective. “I paint [them] like I would paint a female model. Slightly angled and from an elevated view, you get this beautiful shape,” he explains. He sees the same appeal in certain musical instruments, like the guitar (which he plays), the lute, or the double bass. But the canoe was the most captivating to him early on, and it has become so to the galleries and clients he works with. 

“I’m the canoe guy,” Campbell smiles. There it is, in works like “Black Spruce I.” The oil on canvas pays homage to the Group of Seven (the cumulus clouds are particularly redolent of the overhead sweep often found in J.E.H. Macdonald’s skyscapes) as well as impressionist brush work, while its dimensions and visual arrangement add contemporary interest. And the canoe—a red one—is certainly the focal point.

Campbell has found that the ubiquitous canoe truly can offer myriad possibilities. Not to say he doesn’t paint works without them, including figures, landscapes, wildlife, and more, but he is finding that both the demand for canoe imagery and his innate interest in new themes and challenges as an artist can still be satisfied. His most recent works will frequently still include canoes, but “instead of making the canoe the star, I am making the canoe part of the environment for other things,” he explains. A painting of water lilies is one example. The canoe rests at the water’s edge, but the floating flowers are what draw the viewer in. “So this is really a piece that speaks about place as opposed to simply object,” explains Campbell. Another large painting is composed so that the reflection of the landscape in the water is the only view of it. It generates intrigue and some mystery in a rare view and perspective of place. Some new works incorporate nudes and play with cubist notions. He has found many ways to explore the wide range of subject matter that interests him, tackle new compositional challenges, and meet the demand for iconic canoe imagery. 

Among these many new works in progress, and dozens of preparatory sketches, Campbell’s studio is filled with exercises and examples that he shares with his students. He teaches workshops and lessons in his home studio and in the community. Perhaps because it made such an impact on him, mentoring others is important to Campbell. “When I see the lights go on, it turns a light on in me, and when [the students] go away, I am completely charged,” he shares. “Teaching, for me, has been a wonderful way of expanding. People will show interest in areas that seem to be very common, things I just take for granted.” He finds teaching brings him the gratification of guiding others in their art practice while becoming more aware of his own. 

And yes, canoes figure prominently therein. Their form, function, and symbolism are part of a larger story combining personal history and art. 


See Ken Campbell’s paintings featured in September at West End Gallery in Victoria or online at Artwork and blog at His editorial cartoons can be seen at

Like many Canadians, Aaren Madden most certainly owns a canoe. And yes, it is red. As for meeting Pierre Berton’s criterion, she’s not saying.