I went to Mount Allison in the 1970s. Alex Colville was almost like an artist-in-residence, not in the sense that he was physically there in person , but because his art hung everywhere. There was a giant mural over the fireplace in Truman House, the boys’ residence, memorable because it showed a very wide horse’s rear end as its centre focal point. In the library on one of the walls was a small painting of a sailboat, perhaps done before Colville’s magic realist era; I can’t remember anything about it anymore except that it was beautifully executed.
The artist died yesterday at the age of 92, and I felt a real sense of loss. From what I understand, he had a good life and a full life and more important he marched to his own drum, as his daughter said on one of the many stories that aired about him. At a time when others painted abstracts, he stuck to what he wanted to do, and did it the way he wanted to. His work was technical, and almost documentary in nature, although much, much more than that.
I heard an archived interview with this great artist yesterday too, and what struck me about it was him saying that art has the capacity to inspire hatred as well as love. He didn’t use those words exactly: he pointed out instead that someone could stand in front of one of his works and find it wretched– ‘completely detestable,’ I think was the term he used– and yet someone else would look at the very same work and love it. The very same work, he emphasized. He closed off by saying you shouldn’t let the bad reviews get to you: art is subjective. A lot of the time it’s about them, not about you.
I think these are important words for writers because one’s writing is just as subjectively interpreted by those reading it as visual art is by those viewing it. The reader, like the person looking at art, brings with them their entire life experience when they make the judgment call as to whether something resonates with them or not. And so we can have readers who think our work is the best thing they’ve ever read and others who can’t stand it.
I think any kind of imaginative, artistic work– music, film, sculpture, dance etc –hat evokes an emotional response has succeeded, whether the response is a positive one or a negative one. And I also think that if creative people allow themselves to get discouraged by negative feedback, or change their work because of it, pretty soon whatever distinguished our work will be gone, and we’ll all look like everyone else.
Alex Colville swam against the artistic tide a lot of his life; he had his detractors as well as his fans. But he stuck to what he was doing, even when it wasn’t in fashion, and eventually people came to recognize his greatness. Even so, there were people who didn’t like the magic realism or the mystery behind his works and people who just didn’t get it. But there were many thousands of others who found his enigmatic work just as brilliant as the man.
Thanks for the life lesson, Mr. Colville, both in that old interview and in those wonderful paintings that I “grew up with” at my old alma matter. I will never forget the many times I sat in Truman House at an event and watched some visiting speaker pontificate under that horse’s ass: a reference to it has even crept into one of my books. My recollection, which could well be wrong after these almost 40 years, is that there was a dispute over the payment for that particular work and that’s why it ended up as it did. But that could just be legend. RIP, Mr. Colville, and thanks again.