It was a breakthrough as dramatic as the lightning that streaks across Ewen's landscapes. It led the artist beyond the more conventional figurative and abstract styles that he had pursued during his "canvas period" in Montreal in the 1950s and '60s - a time when he exhibited with such prominent Quebec artists as Jean-Paul RIOPELLE and Paul-Emile BORDUAS. The plywood works - powerful, semi-abstract interpretations of stars, rain, lightning and other natural phenomena - have also had an impact on contemporary Canadian art. "The sheer physical scale and power of the works," contends Matthew Teitelbaum, chief curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, "revitalized interest in painting and in landscape as a subject matter."
Paterson Ewen: Earthly Weathers/Heavenly Skies, a major survey of Ewen's work now on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (until Jan. 12), confirms his status as one of the country's leading painters. The exhibit - which travels to the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art next May - includes more than 50 paintings, watercolors and drawings spanning five decades of Ewen's career. The magnificent large-scale plywood works - particularly Northern Lights (1973) and the luminescent Halley's Comet As Seen by Giotto (1979) - steal the show. "These great metaphors of the heavens," writes author Michael Ondaatje in his forward to Paterson Ewen, a fascinating book about Ewen's life and works published to coincide with the exhibit, "seem to have been torn out of the heart and earth... made with great difficulty as something to hold on to."
Like the surface of his gouged plywood paintings, Ewen's life has been marked and scarred with troubles that began in early childhood. "My father was alcoholic and the home was not happy," says Ewen, who has experienced frequent bouts of depression and anxiety, aggravated by his own alcoholism. "I used to drink too much," he admits. Growing up in Montreal West, the son of austere, middle-class Scottish immigrants with no interest in art, Ewen fantasized about becoming an artist. "But I thought I would never be one," he says, "because to be an artist you had to have God-given talent - which meant that when you drew a cow it didn't look like a horse." For a long time, Ewen ignored his artistic ambition. Following a brief stint in the army at the end of the Second World War, he enrolled at McGill University. A year later, in 1948, he finally followed his dream and transferred to the School of Art and Design at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where he studied under renowned landscape and figure painter Goodridge ROBERTS and Group of Seven master Arthur LISMER - a time he calls "the happiest years of my life."
While in art school, Ewen met Françoise Sullivan, a French-Canadian dancer and sculptor who was a member of the Automatistes, a radical group of artists led by Borduas. The avant-garde painter encouraged Ewen and invited the young art student to participate in one of the Automatistes's exhibits. So did the Montreal Museum - a double coup that led Lismer to unceremoniously "graduate" Ewen halfway through art school, with the result that he lost his Veterans Affairs salary. By that time, Ewen and Sullivan had married and were expecting the first of their four sons, so the promising young artist had to take on a series of full-time jobs, from carpet salesman to personnel work. For more than 15 years, Ewen could paint only at night. "I would start after supper," he says, "and I would paint until two or three in the morning."
In 1968, Ewen suffered a nervous breakdown after his marriage ended and he lost his job. When he experienced a second breakdown a short time later while staying with his sister in Kitchener, Ont., a local psychiatrist admitted him to a hospital in nearby London and treated him for depression. "They gave me shock therapy and it worked," says Ewen. Broke and alone, Ewen started over in London. Within weeks, he became friends with artists Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, David Rabinowitch and other members of the city's lively art community. Teaching jobs at a high school and, later, at the University of Western Ontario provided the income and time he needed to paint. Encouraged by the London artists' use of nontraditional materials, Ewen experimented with plywood and incorporated wire, metal and chain-link fencing into his works.
But Ewen continued to suffer from depression exacerbated by drinking. And alcohol could make him belligerent. "I didn't look for a fight," he says, "but if somebody was looking for one I was quite willing to oblige." Prominent American artist Eric Fischl, who met Ewen in the mid-1970s when both were teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, says that one of the saddest stories he has ever heard was when Ewen lost all of his presents after he got into a bar fight on his way home from Christmas shopping. "The first day he showed up at the college, I woke up at 4 a.m. with him banging on my door - he had lost his keys and he was blasted." But the New York artist says that "there was a certain romance" about his colleague, who lived "the myth of the angst-ridden bohemian artist," and produced "paintings which are spirited and playful and filled with a childlike wonder - it's a wonderful feat of the creative imagination to see past the immediate pain of your life."
Ewen - and his art - appear to have overcome the chaos of the past. Last year, he married a former student and longtime lover, Mary Handford, a 40-year-old architect who manages his career. The couple recently moved into a new house on the outskirts of London, a dwelling spacious enough to accommodate a studio where Ewen continues to paint almost every day - although he now has occasional help with the heavy physical work of routing plywood. Last week, an exhibit of new works opened at Toronto's Olga Korper Gallery. Says Ewen: "Goodridge Roberts, my teacher and friend, once said, 'It's not difficult to be one of Canada's best artists and to be recognized for it because everybody else quits.' That's true - it takes years and years before the public pays attention." Then, after looking around the gallery at a lifetime of paintings assembled for Earthly Weathers/Heavenly Skies - and the handsome new book about him sitting on a nearby table- the gentle, heavyset artist leaned over and whispered, "Isn't this really something?"
Maclean's October 7, 1996
Author SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER