George Sawchuk was stocky and strong with large hands battered by years of physical labour. A philosopher at heart, Sawchuk’s art blends politics and whimsy, humour and truth. He primarily worked with wood, sometimes live trees.
Sawchuk died of kidney failure in Feb. 2012 but memories of the Fanny Bay resident – and his art – live on.
“The Book of George – The Life and Art of George Sawchuk” opens at the Comox Valley Art Gallery on Friday June 27 at 6 p.m.
A make art project, water tasting and sampling of sugar cookies made from a Sawchuk recipe are scheduled for the first hour, with opening remarks at 7 p.m.
“The exhibit title is based on George’s propensity to put books in trees,” explains guest curator Grant Schilling. “Like a lot of people, I felt a special bond with George. As curator I feel I’m just the vessel for so many people’s love and affection for him.”
For most of his life, Sawchuk worked large and it was no small effort for Schilling and friends to move pieces from Fanny Bay to the gallery in downtown Courtenay. But the show is also unique for the archival material that will be shown publicly for the first time.
“None of George’s work, or this show, would have been possible without the assistance of his partner, Pat (Helps),” notes Schilling. “She was a huge part of the art he created and gave me access to virtually everything.”
Archival highlights include photographs of Sawchuk’s earliest work in the 1960s, as well as sketches he drew on the back of Fanny Bay Fire Dept. cheques.
Go west, young man
Born in Kenora, Ontario in 1927, Sawchuk was sent to Catholic school as a child and developed an interest in communism as he matured. He was in his teens when he rode the rails west, settling in B.C., where he found employment as a logger, fisherman and construction worker.
In his spare time Sawchuk began experimenting with outdoor sculptures. In an earlier interview, Sawchuk said that he’d read about many Canadian artists but hadn’t come across anything he considered truly Canadian. He asked himself, “What is Canada known for? What would be distinctive Canadian art?” The answer was simple: trees.
Forced early retirement led to art
When his leg was crushed in an industrial accident, early retirement meant more time for art. Then his next door neighbour, conceptual artist Ian Baxter, saw what Sawchuk was doing. Canada Council grants were applied for and received and Sawchuk’s work was shown in prestigious galleries in Vancouver, Montreal, Seattle, Portland, Saskatoon and other locations. At one show in Washington DC, every single piece sold.
“George is an artist unencumbered by intellectual notions of what contemporary art is supposed to be,” former Comox Valley Art Gallery curator Tony Martin said in a previous interview. “He is exactly who he is, there is no pretentiousness, no artifice. So many artists, art writers and curators in BC feed off the mainstream and cutting edge that comes out of New York, Los Angeles, London and other centres. But not George, he is just himself.”
Fanny Bay days
In the mid-1970s, Sawchuk and Helps bought property in Fanny Bay which they cleared by hand. As well as creating sculpture, Sawchuk built paths through the second-growth cedar and hemlock and combining windfall trees and found objects such as faucets, mirrors and glass balls to design a unique outdoor art gallery.
Sawchuk’s sculptures eventually wandered over his property line onto Crown land. In 1997, government officials told him to remove his work. But a public outcry and impressive show of support from the arts community resulted in the demands being dropped.
Helps would like to see a 1.8 acre parcel containing many of Sawchuk’s sculptures become a park.
A potluck celebration of the Forest Gallery will take place on July 1 from 2 p.m. on at 372 Bates Drive, Fanny Bay. Authors Terry Glavin and Elizabeth Bachinsk will be reading from their work.
Commemorated at CVAG
In 2008, CVAG named one of its galleries after the artist and the Comox Valley Community Arts Council awarded Sawchuk the honorary title of “Valley Treasure.”
“George Sawchuk has a national reputation and has shown his work internationally,” said CVCAC director Robert Moon at the ceremony. “He has made a genuine contribution to the culture of the Comox Valley.”
“George didn’t display his work much later in life so this is a rare opportunity to see some of the pieces and gain some insight into his life,” says Schilling. “The exhibit honours George and his work. I hope people will be able to share some stories as we all continue to read and write the book of George.”
Also opening at the gallery the same evening is “Wildwood Stories,” paintings by Suzan Marczak and “If You go down to the Woods Today,” mixed media by students of Roseberry Preschool.
The Comox Valley Art Gallery is located at 580 Duncan Ave. in Courtenay. For more information visit www.comoxvalleyartgallery.com.