Revisiting the sixties scene

By Aaren Madden, June 2015

Legacy’s new exhibition illustrates a formative time in Victoria’s modern art history.

During the 1960s, Victoria was a place of particularly rich artistic ferment. This notion is at the core of a group exhibition on now at the University of Victoria Legacy Art Gallery Downtown. Called “Making a Scene,” the exhibition considers just that: how the social and cultural circumstances locally, nationally and internationally brought about a particular mix of people, opportunities and ideas in this place at that time. This fusion coalesced into an atmosphere that nurtured creativity, support and mentorship, and individual creative expression. Not to mention, some truly unforgettable parties.

Emerald Johnstone-Bedell, the curator of Making a Scene, was never at those parties, it’s true. The young grad student is earning her Master’s of Art History at Queen’s University and has worked at Legacy since her time as an undergrad at the University of Victoria. Under the mentorship of Curator of Collections Caroline Riedel, Johnstone-Bedell brings this era to life. 

The 1960s, says Johnstone-Bedell, were “the beginnings of change in Victoria in the arts scene.” Among many larger currents, including the centennials of BC and Canada, was the opening of UVic’s Gordon Head campus and visual arts department. She explains, “More artists had the opportunity to teach in Victoria at a university level, opening up more possibilities for people to make a living wage as an artist here.” It also allowed art students to study here, “so [Making a Scene] includes artists who were coming into Victoria as professional, established artists, as well as young emerging artists at the time.”

Johnstone-Bedell points out that these established newcomers were often trained in the traditional Beaux-Arts Academy style in Europe, and were only too happy to free themselves from the rigid artistic expectations—as well as the post-war social and economic devastation—of their home countries. In the didactic panels, Johnstone-Bedell includes a compelling quote from Herbert Siebner, who came to Victoria from Germany in 1954. He said, “For the first time I could make all the mistakes in art, all experiments necessary to an artist without having a guilt complex about my teachers and colleagues.” 

That freedom said something about there being a comparatively clean slate in Victoria, which allowed for exploration, discovery and, importantly, collaboration. “Someone like Karl Spreitz is a really good example of that,” Johnstone-Bedell says. While he worked in other media, the films Spreitz produced were a particularly significant contribution during the time, and in the ones on display, viewers will find fellow artists in this exhibition like Richard Ciccimarra, Robert de Castro (poking fun at tradition in the film “Don’t”) and others. “They were really all there together, working together and exhibiting together, too,” she observes.

Finding those exhibition venues—and a receptive audience—also required champions. Colin Graham, the first director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, established in 1951, “massaged the local tastes,” as Riedel puts it, putting on shows of modern work from locals and artists from Vancouver and Seattle between more traditional fare. A remarkable fact Johnstone-Bedell notes is that there was no commercial venue for these artists to show and sell their work. “In the early ’60s, they were exhibiting at Don Adams’ furniture shop on Fort Street,” she says, until Pandora’s Box opened in 1966. Later it was bought by artist Nita Forrest and renamed The Print Gallery.

Forrest is represented in this exhibition by one of her watercolours of the human figure, for which she was well known. Johnstone-Bedell evokes a sense of the exchange happening at the time by including a direct quotation from poet Robin Skelton’s reaction to one of Forrest’s works: “They loom and dwindle as if made of cloud stuff, and yet they are also intensely human…” 

Offering these delightful nuggets is a nice choice in that viewers connect intimately with the “scene” while establishing each artist’s contributions artistically and socially—Forrest with her gallery, and Skelton with the added fact that he opened his home to Thursday night “happenings” that nurtured discourse. Skelton, the author of over 40 volumes of poetry, was instrumental in the creation of the Creative Writing program at UVic and established the long-running literary quarterly the Malahat Review. His collage “The Hot Line,” shown on Focus’ cover this month, shows he was also a visual artist interpreting the many social and cultural currents of the time, here offering considerations of the sexual revolution and the Cold War. Throughout the ’60s, and later with the Limners Group, Skelton created and exhibited collages. Often with surrealist overtones and addressing themes of birth, sex and death, they could be considered visual counterparts to his poetry. In 1971, in fact, he published a volume of both: A Different Mountain: Messages 1962-1970: Poems and Photo-Collages.

These threads and more get woven together by Johnstone-Bedell into an exhibition that highlights both a larger narrative and individual artists’ unique styles in two-dimensional works, film, sculpture and ceramics. Her argument is that one could not happen without the other, and so she seeks a balance wherein the sum and the parts are given equal consideration. “These are a selection of artists that were active at the time,” she explains, which is very well represented in the University’s art collection.

The daunting task of narrowing it down was made easier during the research process because she was able to speak to many of the living artists in the exhibition, including Karl Spreitz, Walter Dexter, Pat Martin Bates, Michael Morris, and Carole Sabiston. Provenance also played a role. “Donald Harvey was working in a style that Maxwell Bates called ‘Broken Hard Edge.’ He had an exhibit in the ’60s at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and [“Ripple,” shown in Making a Scene] was in that exhibition. Connections like that were important to me,” Johnstone-Bedell says. “Arctic Window Signal # 3” by Pat Martin Bates is in the exhibition “because it was collected very early on by the university. It was one of the first pieces the university collected by a contemporary artist who was working at UVic—and a woman.” 

That emerged for Johnstone-Bedell as something of significance: “Definitely the role of strong women artists in Victoria really came across to me. It was easy for me to include a lot of professional artists when at that time there weren’t a lot of women artists being recognized for the work they were doing. Carole Sabiston, Elza Mayhew and others were all extremely accomplished at what they were doing and were such important artistic figures nationally and internationally.” 

For her part, Riedel came away with “a greater understanding of what was happening in First Nations communities. Changing perceptions of First Nations arts from historical to contemporary, and the role of Tony Hunt Sr’s Arts of the Raven Gallery and the Royal BC Museum’s Thunderbird Park in teaching—how important that was,” she reflects.

Finding a photo of Henry Hunt carving a pole for Expo 67 led to the inspired decision to include several enlarged black and white photographs that came from UVic’s Special Collections and Karl Spreitz’s private collection. Studio scenes and shots of social gatherings provide fun and engaging context while they float silently above the products of their subjects, all of whom created something larger than their oeuvre by pursuing community alongside their own expression. 

 

Beginning June 3, Making a Scene! Victoria’s Artists in the 1960s will expand to include 12 more artists, including Molly Privett, LeRoy Jensen, John Dobereiner and P.K. Irwin (the married name of P.K. Page, under which she exhibited as a visual artist).

Curated by Emerald Johnstone-Bedell with contributions by Josie Greenhill, Jenelle Pasiechnik, Caroline Riedel, Kate Riordon and Naomi Shields, the exhibition runs to June 27 at Legacy Gallery Downtown, 630 Yates St, 250-721-6562, www.legacy.uvic.ca.

On June 11, 7pm Legacy hosts a free movie screening of To Sir With Love with popcorn and simple cash bar (’60s dress encouraged). 

Upon seeing his photo, Aaren Madden was reminded of the sheer expressive glory that is the face of Maxwell Bates. She urges you to find the shot of Bates’ birthday party, in which many artist revelers are dressed as characters from his paintings.