Link to reproductions
Joyce H. Admason
John K. Esler
School Setting and Dedicated Staff Inspire 1950s Student Printmakers
by Dianne Scoles
Impressive in its sophistication, technical innovation and aesthetic diversity, the collection of student prints from the 1950s in the School of Art at the University of Manitoba raises the question: What inspired the students to create such work? Part of the answer, although certainly not all, might lie in what was happening in the school during those years when a pioneering university-based program was established, with staffing coming mainly from one American prairie university with a strong printmaking program.
What brought about the university program? In June of 1950, the long-established Winnipeg School of Art, housed in the Old Law Courts Building on Kennedy Street, closed its doors; in September of that year the School of Art of the University of Manitoba opened in the same location. This Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program, the first to be offered in western Canada, and only the second in the country,1 moved art education in the province of Manitoba into a new era. Four graduates from the University of Iowa: William McCloy (MFA 1949; PhD 1958), Richard Bowman (MFA 1949), John Kacere and Robert Gadbois came in August 1950 to transform the Winnipeg Art School; it was merged with the University of Manitoba. How it came to be that most members of the new staff were graduates of Iowa State is an interesting story in itself.
On December 29, 1950, Dr. A. H. S. Gillson, the President of the University of Manitoba, wrote a "personal and confidential" letter to Donald Buchanan, editor of Canadian Art. He began his letter by thanking Buchanan for recognizing, in a recent issue, the new School of Art at the University of Manitoba. He then went on "to set the record straight" regarding his choice of four Americans for its faculty. Having written to "most of the senior artists in Canada" and receiving "little or no aid," he was pleased, on the other hand, to have been provided by Iowa State with a "number of excellent suggestions, backed by proper documentation of men who might be available." 2
Dr. Gillson came from England, immigrating to Canada in 1921 to teach mathematics at McGill University. Before entering Cambridge, he studied painting at the Slade School of Art in London. In Canada he maintained his artistic interests and, in 1947, was elected President of the Canadian Federation of Artists.3 In 1948 he was chosen President of the Canadian Arts Council. 4 That was the same year he was offered the position of President of the University of Manitoba. Not long after, named Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Art Education in the Province of Manitoba, Gillson recommended "the development of a school of art as an integral part of the structure of the University of Manitoba." On December 19. 1949, the Board of Governors of the University approved the task of establishing the new school. Initially both a four-year degree program and a three-year diploma course would be offered that would "produce artists who have a wider cultural background than artists normally have when trained in the ordinary way." 5
The responsibility to organize the school was left to Dr. Gillson who accepted his new duties enthusiastically. Immediately he set out to write his artist friends and acquaintances in Canada, England, Scotland and the United States. But things did not proceed smoothly. In May, the University of Manitoba was under water along with a large part of the city of Winnipeg in what has since come to be known as "The Great Flood." Although convocation was cancelled and students pressed into service to sandbag, floodwaters began receding in early June and Gillson returned to writing to artists all over Canada. The list of recipients of the letters reads like a "Who's Who" of the Canadian art world of the day: Andre Bieler, B. C. Binning, Alex Colville, Charles Comfort, Lawren P. Harris, Lawren S. Harris, Edwin Holgate, A. Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Jack Shadbolt, Will Ogilvie, H. G. Glyde, Jack Nichols.6
Gillson was anxious to settle the matter of a director before he left for a planned trip to England at the beginning of July. Some of the respondents had given the matter some consideration; some offered suggestions; all finally rejected his invitations. Only Iowa State University, with one of the largest fine arts graduate schools in the United States, seemed keenly interested in answering the need for capable staff. Dr. Gillson invited the one candidate he thought most promising, William Ashby McCloy, to Winnipeg for an interview. 7 Because the central United States was crippled by a rail strike, it was a number of days before Gillson and McCloy were able to meet. Gillson was impressed by McCloy and offered him the position; on July 2, McCloy accepted by telegram: "Consider it a great opportunity." 8 Gillson received the message in Montreal while on route to England where he had been forced to stop because of the international crisis in the early days of the Korean War. He wired back, urging McCloy to make some staff suggestions and course proposals. Still in Montreal on July 15, Gillson received McCloy's letter recommending the hiring of John Kacere, Richard Bowman and Robert Gadbois.
McCloy brought to the art school and the community a complete dedication to his art, accepting what could be called the missionary role of bringing the concept of "modern art" to Winnipeg. 9This meant that his stay in the city was not without controversy. A staff show in 1951 that included a display based on the fifteen-year development of his work, brought a charge from the public that the whole show was a "Morbid Hoax." McCloy countered the charges, calling the exhibition a "sincere presentation of sincere work . . . an artist doesn't paint pictures to hang on walls any more. He is more of a research assistant." 10
The controversy was good for the city, creating "in Winnipeg a vigorous contemporary art movement." Often there was "standing room only" for panel lectures organized by the School of Art. 11 Frank Mikuska studied for several years at the Winnipeg School of Art before continuing in the new university program. He recalls his first instruction in the old school being in "the academic style." Once "the Americans came," the School came alive with a sense of freedom; "it was exciting to be around." 12 McCloy, Mikuska recalls, was very personable and even-keeled, and very much involved with the art community, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the patrons. Ivan Eyre, a 1957 graduate of the school, studied under McCloy for one year. He recalls that McCloy painted in his office between classes, conveying to his students the very positive image of an artist totally committed to the aesthetic life. 13
Tony Tascona, Bruce Head and Don Reichert have reminisced that the 1950s were difficult times for artists. Tascona once remarked: "No one was making money at art; there was no group or society in Winnipeg like the 'Painters Eleven' for example . . . art news was minimal. . . . You had to go to the art school for information." 14 Don Reichert recalled "that there was a very good atmosphere at the school....the instruction was very interesting . . . and thorough . . . with McCloy introducing all kinds of projects and conceptual challenges. 15 Tascona, who had attended the old school for two years, found the new school a "complete transformation." 16 McCloy had you look into your subconscious to find shapes which related to yourself, and once you discovered it there was no going back. . . . Everything was possible. Working with their young professors, students also learned practical skills such as how to crate and ship their work, submitting their art to such shows such as the Montreal Spring Show in 1951 where their entries were described as "exciting." 17 Tascona, in fact, recalls in the early 1950s entering an Iowa State print competition in which he as a student received recognition, while his professor Bowman, who had encouraged Tascona to submit, secured none. 18
In 1954 when McCloy and Bowman returned to the United States, Richard Williams, also from Iowa State, was appointed director. Williams made a long term commitment to the School of Art, retiring in 1987.19 The Directors in those days were expected to carry a heavy load: two adult evening classes, Saturday morning children's classes, etching and engraving studio classes as well as teaching both principles of art criticism and introduction to art survey courses in art history. Working to broaden the interests of the student both artistically and academically, Williams is remembered as well for his dedication to the general health of the school. Throughout his directorship, he always provided both strong support and encouragement to his staff. 20
McCloy hired painter and print maker Robert Nelson, a graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1953. Students were inspired by his dedication and "disciplined prolific work habits and professional acumen about the art world." 21 One of the many things he did was to establish a weekly film night at the school that was open to the public. Nelson, "who liked to win converts to surrealism,"22 went on to head the art school at the University of North Dakota when it opened in Grand Forks in 1957.
George Swinton, who emigrated from Austria in 1939 and studied art at the Montreal School of Art and Design and the Art Students League of New York. was appointed in 1954. Swinton was particularly involved in the community for many years. Calling him "one of our popular art critics,"23 Winnipeg newspapers published his well-informed art criticism on a weekly basis; television shows regularly featured his appraisal of current art issues through lively panel talks. Others who taught at the school over the Kennedy Street years were Roland Wise, Robert Bruce, Don Moulton, Mashel Teitlebaum, Nick Bjelajac and Dwayne Eichold.
These early years were also marked significantly with changes in the directorship of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, located across the street from the school, in the Winnipeg Auditorium. The selection in 1953 of Dr. Ferdinand Eckhardt, a graduate of Vienna University, as director, a position he held for twenty years, brought a wealth of international experience to the position. The Women's Committee of the Gallery, officially organized in 1951, became more active during Eckhardt's term. Members of this committee became the patrons of many of the School of Art students and graduates. The part the school played in developments there can be seen in the institution of the juried Winnipeg Show, a joint effort of the Women's Committee and the Art Student's Club of the University of Manitoba. Richard Williams brought the necessary expertise to the planning committee composed of the Women's Committee and student representatives as well as Dr. Eckhardt. Assembling in 1955 an exhibition that would "represent the best in Canada,"24 the organizers had to answer to a number of critics, including Mrs. W. J. Waines, the wife of the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University, who found herself "practically physically nauseated" by some of the work in the show. Her comments attracted national attention. 25 From that beginning the Winnipeg Show assumed an important national role as it continued to bring together the best work of Canadian artists. 26 Many of the students who simply volunteered to hang the paintings and prints for the shows in the Winnipeg Art Gallery said that they felt part of an important period in Canadian art history.
Other factors played a part in the dynamics of the school. The downtown School of Art had relatively small classes, graduating only twelve to fifteen students in the early years. The school building itself was inspirational. A dramatic doublewide staircase led from the government offices on the first floor up to the second floor, which housed the offices of the Director, the Registrar and the Secretary. In an imposing position right at the top of the stairs was a spectacular stained glass window of Justice and one of the turret towers housed the still-life materials left from the old school which included the plaster cast of Michelangelo's head of Moses. 27 The two main studios featured beautiful twenty-five feet high ceilings with wooden barn roofs. Plenty of light came from the five by ten foot windows. Up on the third floor were more studios as well as small studio spaces for the professors. There were plenty of opportunities for sketching in the downtown area, and nearby boarding homes and cafes provided reasonably priced living quarters and comfortable meeting venues for the students.
One can quickly appreciate that the staffing of the school, its inspiring backdrop and excellent location in the heart of the city across from the art gallery, provided a nurturing milieu. Does that entirely answer the question of what informed the diverse range and aesthetic complexity of the 1950s prints? No, but that setting does shed some light on an environment in which technical experimentation and artistic innovation were encouraged and celebrated.
1 A four year Bachelor of Fine Arts degree was offered at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
2 Dr. A. H. S. Gillson, Letter to Donald Buchanan, Dec. 29, 1950. University of
Manitoba Archives (UA) 20: President's Papers, Box 118, Folder 6. Canadian Art, Christmas-New Year, 1950-1951, 84.
3 The Federation of Canadian Artists was formed in the early 1940s with the desire "to unite all Canadian artists,related art workers and interested laymen for mutual support in promoting common aims; the chief of these is tomake the arts a creative factor in the national life of Canada and the artists an integral part of society." As quoted inPaul Litt, The Muses, the Masses and the Massey Commission, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 23.
4 The Canadian Arts Council, a coalition of artists, was a lobbying group that was founded in 1945. Litt, 23.
5 Draft of proposal to establish a Department of Fine Arts. Undated. UA 20, Box 106, Fd. 18.
6 UA 20, Box 117, Fd. 27.
7 McCloy graduated with both a B.A. and M.A. in Psychology from Iowa State University and did his graduate
work in Art and Art History at Yale. He had been an Instructor of Art at Drake University and Assistant Professor
of Art Education at the University of Wisconsin, returning to Iowa State where he graduated with an M.F.A in 1949.
8 McCloy, Telegram to Gillson, UA 20, Box 118, Fd. 6.
9 Ferdinand Eckhardt, The First Ten Years of the Women's Committee: An Enthusiastic Venture, (Winnipeg:
Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1961), 1.
10 Winnipeg Tribune, Dec. 9, 1952.
11 Winnipeg Tribune, April 5, 1951.
12 Frank Mikuska Interview, April 26, 1993. All interviews footnoted were conducted by the author for an
unpublished paper written in 1993 on the history of the School of Fine Arts, University of Manitoba 1950-1965.
13 Ivan Eyre, Interview, April 17, 1993.
14 "Recollections of an Era," Tony Tascona.
15 Ibid., Don Reichert.
16 Tony Tascona, Interview, April 22, 1993.
17 Robert Ayre, Montreal Star, Oct. 20, 1951.
18 Tascona Interview.
19 Richard Williams, Interview, April 20, 1993. Williams graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in
Pittsburg and with an M.F.A. from Iowa State.
20 George Swinton, Interview, April 19, 1993.
21 Ann Cameron, Curator, Art in Winnipeg: 1955 to 1959, Gallery 1.1.1., University of Manitoba, 1982, 14.
22 Eyre Interview.
23 Victor V. Murray, Winnipeg Tribune, Feb. 28, 1957.
24 Jean-Paul Mousseau, "The Great Winnipeg Controversy," Canadian Art, Winter 1956, 244.
25 CP Release, Nov. 7, 1955: "Winnipeg Modern Art Show Launches Bitter Dispute."
26 The Winnipeg Shows were held annually until 1962, then biannually until 1972.
27 Eyre Interview.
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