The Book of George: Sawchuk exhibit opens Friday at CVAG

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.

Purposeful title

“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


Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Gp Vanier in Courtenay. Circa 2018. Photo courtesy Comox Valley Schools
Second COVID exposure alert for Vanier Secondary in Courtenay

Island Health has sent another exposure alert to parents of students attending… Continue reading

“Of Bears at Fridges, drinking Planes and Cinderella’s Shoe” is Jordis Trumby’s first children’s book. Photo supplied.
Courtenay author writes, illustrates first children’s book

When is a collaboration not a collaboration? At first glance, Courtenay author… Continue reading

The 5th Street Bridge requires structural improvements, new coating to repair and prevent corrosion, and deck repairs. File photo
City of Courtenay awards contract for 5th Street Bridge project

The City of Courtenay has awarded the contract for the rehabilitation of… Continue reading

Pumpjacks pump crude oil near Halkirk, Alta., June 20, 2007.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Gas prices jump in the Valley – and experts predict prices to rise even more

“We still could be talking about record prices…”

NIC Practical Nursing instructor Barb McPherson (right) is pictured with student Rebecca Wood in 2018 in NIC’s SIM lab. NIC photo
Learn about Practical Nursing opportunities for Island students

Students interested in exploring a future in health care are invited to… Continue reading

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A survey by Statistics Canada finds Black Canadians earn less than non-visible minority Canadians despite having higher levels of education. (The Canadian Press file photo)
COVID-19 worsened unemployment picture for Black Canadians

Black Canadians also more likely to suffer other hardships

(Black Press Media files)
B.C. teacher transferred then suspended after students report feeling ‘scared, nervous’

Authorities found that teacher did not create inviting, respectful environment for students

Victoria’s Swartz Bay terminal. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries offers cheaper, prepaid fare options

Ferry service preparing for busy terminals when travel restrictions are lifted

FILE - Dolly Parton arrives at the 61st annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Grammy-winning singer, actor and humanitarian posted a video on Tuesday, March 2, 2021, of her singing just before getting her COVID-19 vaccine shot. Parton donated $1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee for coronavirus research. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)
‘Vaccine, vaccine’: Dolly sings ‘Jolene’ rewrite before shot

The Grammy-winning legend turned 75 this year

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland speaks about the Fiscal update during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday November 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
COVID-19: Wage and rent subsidies, lockdown support to be extended until June

Chrystia Freeland says now is not time to lower levels of support

The area on Cordova Bay Road where ancestral human remains were discovered Feb. 22. (Submitted photo)
Human remains discovery a reminder of B.C. Indigenous culture dug up and displaced

‘These are the people who inspired and birthed the generations that we now have here’

Most Read