#986 Unsung artists find their voice

The Pocket Guide to The Unheralded Artists of BC Series; the Life and Art of Jack Akroyd, George Fertig, Mary Filer, Jack Hardman, Edythe Hembroff-Schleicher, LeRoy Jenson, David Marshall, Frank Molnar, Arthur Pitts, Mildred Valley Thornton, Ina D.D. Uhthoff, Harry Webb, Jessie Webb
by Mona Fertig (editor), with an introduction by Marsha Lederman

Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2020

$24.95  / 9781896949826

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve

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If someone on your Christmas list cares about art or enjoys looking at beautiful things, you have found their gift. You will need an extra one for yourself.

In fact, the whole series of which this volume is a distillation, has been a gift: ten gorgeous volumes appearing one after another between 2008 and 2017, introducing British Columbia readers to art and artists that have been around us all the time, almost unnoticed and “unheralded” (i.e. “unknown, unrecognised, unsung, unnoticed, unpublicized, unacclaimed, unproclaimed,” according to the online Free Dictionary).

The project grew from publisher/ poet/ promoter Mona Fertig’s memories of her father’s struggles for recognition as an artist. She knew George Fertig was not the only one among his contemporaries, “to toil away in obscurity, making magnificent work nobody will exhibit or buy or give them a grant for,” as Marsha Lederman puts it in her introduction. Whatever the reason for their neglect — political, socioeconomic, the gallery “rush to embrace modernity,” the artists’ refusal to “work the system” — still “they keep going.” And so, with the assistance of an impressive group of writers and researchers, Fertig published the Unheralded Artists series for as many years and as many artists as she was able.

Ina Uhthoff, Girl Welder at Work (1943). Collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Jack Akroyd, First Nations Art Show at the Bay (1969), gouache, 32” x 27

This little book does several things at once. It accomplishes its avowed intention, to serve as introduction and guide to the complete series of comprehensive, in-depth volumes, by tempting with abridged biographies. Three artists, Molnar, Hardman, and Jensen, share Volume Two of the series, but here each receives equal space and the same number of lavish illustrations, linked by Lederman’s overview and commentary. If the narratives sometimes seem a little out-of-breath, this is how it should be, reminding us that a lot more can be found, more leisurely, in the larger books.

Then, by bringing the stories together into a single volume the Guide offers a portrait of a community of artists and writers “at the height of an immense creative surge in the province.” At first, I thought I knew only one of the featured artists, but then began to recognise places that had been gathering spots for artists and poets between the sixties and eighties — apartments in Burnaby and Kitsilano, a bookstore on Davie Street, a gallery on the edge of Stanley Park. Some artists were even in their heyday better known for supporting art than making it — Jack Hardman at the Burnaby Art Gallery, Ina D.D. Uhthoff at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Harry Webb for his designs of Vancouver parks.

Jessie Webb, Joy’s Sewing Machine (1964), progressive linocut, 11 ½” x 19”
Mona Fertig. Photo by Janet Dwyer

Finally, another achievement: The Pocket Guide is handsome and informative, a small treasure in itself. Each image has a page to itself; Fertig is determined to do justice to her no longer “unheralded” artists and their individual talents. Have I a favourite? “Peggy” by Arthur Pitts? “Joy’s Sewing Machine” by Jessie Webb? “First Nations Art Show at the Bay” by Jack Akroyd? I am struck by the contrast between Mary Filer’s mural for the Montreal Neurology Institute and her later transcendental glass works ranging in size from under 14 inches to over 14 feet.

Lederman, who is Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe & Mail, in her introduction incorporates Fertig’s rationale for the series: its aspirations and its limitations. It has been pointed out, with some severity, that none of the artists is Indigenous or ethnically non-European. Mildred Valley Thornton and Arthur Pitts did work closely with First Nations people, but that of course is not the same as being First Nations.

Arthur Pitts, Indian Grave, Tsartlip Reserve, Saanich (1934). Courtesy Royal BC Museum
Marsha Lederman wrote the introduction. Photo by John Lehmann

In this, Fertig has been taken to task for not achieving what she never set out to do. Lederman explains: “This series is in no way comprehensive. Fertig considered other artists, but she was hampered by a dearth of documentation, or couldn’t find appropriate writers. You will probably notice the absence of non-white artists. Fertig is aware of this, but had to end the series before she would have liked; it became unsustainable. Like her artists, she had created these books in spite of financial challenges and lack of recognition.”

Of course there are artists missing — that is the point — and that is why Lederman uses the present tense “they keep going.” Neglect of artists is not something from a distant past when we were less culturally aware. Mona Fertig found some of our artists who deserve to be better known. I can think of several more. So can you. The Guide and the series invite us to celebrate the creators among us. Lederman concludes: “there are artists all over this province, right now, producing magnificent work far from the spotlight that is worthy of our attention. Find some – even one — if you can.” You can.

Meanwhile, enjoy how this little book glows in a dark season.

Mary Filer, Untitled (1990), laminated float, coloured antique and textured glass with steel supports, 14’ x 18’ x 6.’ At Simon Fraser University downtown campus, Vancouver

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Phyllis Parham Reeve

Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications, including the foreword to Charlotte Cameron’s play, October Ferries to Gabriola (Fictive Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community. More details than necessary may be found on her websiteEditor’s note: for The Ormsby Review Phyllis Reeve has reviewed books by Lara Campbell, Connie GreshnerKen LumSusan McCaslin & J.S. PorterIan HamptonRobert AmosJoe Rosenblatt, and Eileen Curteis, among others.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Mary Filer, detail of The Advance of Neurology, mural, 1954, egg tempera on plaster, 21” x 6’7” at McGill University
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