On Nov. 22, just before midnight, Jack Shadbolt died of heart failure. An icon of Canadian modern art, his brilliant career as a teacher and painter spanned seven decades. "His personality was evident in his work," says Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery in Ottawa. "He never looked like he was imitating any other artists, but he did incorporate and synthesize other artistic developments, wedding them to his own vision." Shadbolt’s paintings underwent constant metamorphosis, moving from social realism - Vancouver street scenes - to dark, surrealist postwar landscapes filled with bones and howling dogs, and finally to abstract visions of nature and B.C. aboriginal art. "I think people will continue to find his work endlessly fascinating," says Scott Watson, a Vancouver art gallery director who wrote a critical biography of Shadbolt. "His paintings offer a deep and unruly peek into the world of the psyche. We live in a disturbing century, and that’s what Jack’s paintings are about."
Shadbolt was born on Feb. 4, 1909, in Shoeburyness, England. His father, Edmund, was a sign painter, and his mother, Alice, a dressmaker. In 1912, the family moved to British Columbia, eventually settling in Victoria. From an early age, Shadbolt knew he wanted to be an artist. In the late 1920s, after studying at the Victoria College and Normal School, he met Emily Carr. "I was dumbstruck with admiration," Shadbolt later said. Carr’s renderings of Northwest Coast Indian symbols eventually led to Shadbolt’s own exploration of aboriginal images. But at this time, his paintings focused on what he called the "dark, satanic mills" of industrial landscape. In the late-1930s, he began to teach at the Vancouver School of Art and remained there for 28 years.
Near the end of the Second World War, Shadbolt was assigned to the official Canadian army war artists program in London. One of his jobs was sorting through army photographs of concentration camps. Looking at still lifes of emaciated bodies, then roaming around bombed-out London, had a profound psychological impact on the artist. "He painted gardens," explains family friend Abraham Rogatnick, "but they weren’t like Monet’s. They were all the weeds and rocks and funny bugs." In 1944, he met Doris Meisel. They married a year later, but never had children.
Shadbolt was a muscular, protean painter who was influenced by Spaniards Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, and by British artist Graham Sutherland. Over the years, he became interested in the notion of transformation, painting clear-cut landscapes and the metamorphoses of butterflies from chrysalises. "Butterflies became a metaphor for him," observes friend and artist Alan Wood. "They expressed the fragility of life." Recalls Rogatnick: "He always had this wonderful inventiveness. I remember him taking photographs of football players, painting over them and transforming them into owls."
But despite the bold colors and lyricism in Shadbolt’s canvases, there was also a dark, apocalyptic edge. Butterflies would explode, trees would burn. "There was an incredible foreboding to some of his work," Wood says. The darkness touched a visceral chord with the public, and his work was in such demand people would line up the night before exhibitions at Vancouver’s Bau-Xi Gallery. "Once it was raining, so I invited them in and they slept on the floor," recalls co-owner, Xisa Huang. "Jack’s paintings really communicated to people."
His community work was inspiring, too. In 1988, he and Doris started VIVA, the Vancouver Institute for Visual Arts, which offered monetary awards to local visual artists - two yearly $10,000 awards and one $50,000 every fifth year. He also supported Artists for Kids Trust, generating $500,000 to assist Vancouver-area students.
Shadbolt was planning a new show for next February, but a few months ago he found he no longer had the strength to work. "When I can’t paint, I don’t want to live," he told a friend. Yet his passion to create, his intense humanity and his robust palettes will continue to inspire and engage Canadian art enthusiasts.
Maclean's December 7, 1998
Author JENNIFER HUNTER
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