We explore the world of a pre-eminent, abstract artist who paints “notably native”.
If there is a grandfather of Contemporary Indigenous art, it is Alex Janvier, a Denesuline man from Cold Lake, Alberta. As an artist, he stands alone in the realm of abstract painting. He is collected by several National Galleries worldwide and Alex is on every private art collector’s wish list. Art curator’s fuss over him wherever he goes. To have a Janvier on your wall is indeed a badge, a recognition that you know your art. Or that you have the money to buy his work. I am new to art collecting and all I have is a coffee cup, an Umbrella and two pillowcases of the same piece: The Morning Star.
Choosing artists to profile in our TV documentary series, Petroglyphs to Pixels, is not unlike the task of curators. We needed to find people who were accomplished, have a message and just as importantly, willing to work with us. I placed several calls to the Janvier gallery. I was summoned by the Master to pitch him my idea’s. We first visited the Janvier studio and gallery in Cold Lake Alberta during late summer, 2016.
JANVIER: THE ARTIST FORMERLY KNOWN AS 287
Alex Janvier is a walking paradox, a man who defied all expectations, surviving a system that was set up to oppress him. He attended a school that punished him and his peers for speaking their indigenous language. They were beaten and abused. He had to petition his oppressors for permission to leave the Indian reserve to attend college. He carried a permit with him when he attended art school in Calgary. He had applied to the Ontario College of Art, and to the London County Council UK, although accepted at both, the Indian agent intervened and would not let that happen. That didn’t stop him.
Miraculously, paradoxically as indigenous art curator, Lee Ann Martin says, “Alex came through all of that to become a modern artist. He not only survived the Indian residential school experience but he learned his first art lessons while attending the residential school in Saddle Lake Alberta. This is a paradox. In art school, they wanted him to attend industrial design. He said no.” Alex never forgot the obstacles. Indeed, his success and reputation for not being vague about his politics strengthened his reputation in indigenous circles.
Alex Janvier is a special artist whose early years were filled with struggles and challenges unlike any other. Janvier’s first influence was a teacher who saw in Alex a burning desire to be creative with pencils and paper. Ironically some of the teachers at the residential school recognized this and Alex was allowed school time to take important lessons from a Mr. Karl Altenberg, a German émigré who studied in the Bauhaus tradition. The formative years were about life drawings and Alex spent two years honing his skills with weekly visits to an artist studio. The afternoons were his saving grace. “Every Friday afternoon from one to four was the only time I could express myself”. Alex in 2017.
Alex Janvier’s first commissioned paintings came from Altenberg who asked Alex to produce three paintings for the chapel. One of the paintings called Our Lady of the Teepee immediately caused controversy for its Indigenous Virgin and a child which curator Dana Claxton pointed out was Alex’s “indigenizing contemporary art”. That was 1950 and Alex was fifteen years old. The painting made it to Rome that next year and he won honourable mention at that year’s International Vatican Exhibition.
Alex Janvier is considered the first abstract painter active as an indigenous artist in Canada. He is clearly at the forefront of the momentum in indigenous art today and is the only living member of the so-called Indian Group of Seven who broke ground in the 1970s to become the first indigenous people to be exhibited in Canadian and European galleries.
The Indian Group of Seven held a group show in Winnipeg in 1973. Gary Scherbain writing for the Winnipeg Free Press is credited for coining the term although he denies ever writing the term passing it off to one of the copy editors at the Free Press. I reached Gary at his gallery turned studio and apartment in the city of Winnipeg recently. He couldn’t recall the details of his coverage but spoke in detail of his life long friendship with the late Daphe Odjig, a member of the group of seven.
“You have to remember that at the time no one cared about the art of the First people. Contemporary displays of your art were unheard of, the job of museums. But here they were, a group of brash professionals. In fact, that was their name, The Professional Indian Arts Incorporated.” 1973 was three years after Harold Cardinal crafted a manifesto against a government policy known as the White Paper. It was a time of awakening, intellectuals from the indigenous community organizing forces for change.
These achievements were considered extraordinary because up to the 1970s Indigenous people’s creative expression had been considered from an anthropological perspective. Art created by Indigenous people was considered traditional crafts and exhibited solely in Museums. Art galleries rarely considered the vast community of indigenous creators as their peers, even at a time when artists from Europe thought otherwise. The group of seven inspired others as artist lead cooperatives became the mode of organizing.
Art history has been written and ruled by the upper class. The mostly European attitudes that permeated art circles, and still rule in many levels today, was such that art was for a higher calling, from the higher classes. Indigenous creative activity was not even considered a possibility. Yet, throughout North America, the most interesting, original and provocative works were coming out of indigenous communities. Into this maelstrom of hypocritical views of art came the likes of Alex Janvier, a survivor of the Indian residential schools. Alex had climbed a wall, pulled back an iron curtain on what is now called the Indian reserve.
The Canadian narrative was and continues to be in the purview of the colonial rulers. That was about to change and Alex would be among the new voices. That voice grew louder.
Janvier toiled through four years, 1956-1960, at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and Art (Alberta College of Art) meeting all school academic and art requirements. He graduated near the top of his class in 1960. As a student Alex even caught one of the teachers copying his style of art for by this time in a fledgling career he began to show signs of an original, creative thinker, one who questioned authority. He entertained notions of discontent and distanced himself from the pack.
These were vital years in which Alex found his future style. The first two years were the most difficult where he battled loneliness and the fact he was the only indigenous person studying art. This is when Marion Nicoll introduced an ambitious Alex about automatic painting, the basis for modern abstract art. Another teacher, Illingsworth Kerr introduced Alex to the works of modern abstractionists, Wasily Kadinsky (Russian), Paul Klee (Swiss), and John Miro(Spanish). This was a critical juncture, a paradigm shift, for Alex took flight into the realm of the subconscious, the when he launched his creative journey.
After completion at the school, he taught art and painting for a while, eventually taking on a government job to support himself. He taught part-time and in 1961-62 gave workshops in Alberta. He mostly painted at night and helped his brother John at the farm during the days. This combination of the physical and the intellectual, says Lee-Ann Martin, indigenous curator, caused a prolific output of art. Alex explained himself to Lee-Ann.
“I have to be able to ride in the woods, to see different changing colours of each season and watch the various patterns of frost or snow. I like to hear the call of the crow”.
When Norval Morrisseau sold out at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto in 1962, it sent a shockwave to Alberta and Alex was moved to the core to dig in. Lee-Ann Martin observed that “In brush and Ink, pastels and primarily watercolour, the work from the early sixties explore the spectrum between abstraction and representation”. The era was a pivotal moment for indigenous art. “The imagery from works by Native artists remained distinctly Indian and representational. Janvier’s abstractions received mixed reactions: puzzlement, delight and acceptance.
Alex Janvier’s first solo exhibition was held at the Jacox Gallery in Edmonton Alberta in June 1964. His first exhibit was important and he would experience support, as well as the ugly face of racism. But the exhibit was significant for it would be the first time art critics embraced Alex’s obvious talent and genius.
Dorothy Barnhouse wrote: “The cleanly painted watercolours do not lean on the cliche symbolism of most native art. Rather they achieve a kind of nature mysticism through simplification and near abstraction of organic forms.“
Alex knew that his audience would always be mixed in their reactions. Yet he was indifferent to the critical masses while embracing the supportive ones. In 1965 while on a road trip to New York, Alex stopped by In Ottawa where he was offered a job as an arts and craft consultant. He saw an opportunity to infiltrate the Department of Indian Affairs he so despised, to see if he could change the colonial mindset that closeted indigenous art as “craft”, stored in cabinets of curiosity. During the first year of the job, he travelled across Canada and developed relationships with like-minded artists who wanted to change the status quo.
Alex’s experience with government bureaucracy is another bad memory. He recalls that most management personnel were retired military officers. They were regimented and many were unfamiliar with their “clientele”. Alex was a free thinker, an artist and being a bureaucrat was not his intention when he decided to work with the department. That soon proved to be a turning point.
In 1966 the Department of Indian Affairs asked him to produce 80 paintings. They pressured him to work fast. He produced most of these works within six months and a show was held in Ottawa. 38 of the paintings were sold at the exhibition and the Department appropriated the remaining 42 paintings. This act of thievery was a classic operative of the Department of Indian Affairs and their disrespect of Alex was the norm, a paternalistic and oppressive government department that looked down at the Indians they were obliged to represent. Nearly all of the 80 paintings did not have Alex’s signature, but a number, his treaty identification number 287.
“Most of those remaining paintings were often given away to retiring civil servants”, Alex said qualifying it as very long ago. I called Alex to ask whether he ever tried charging them with theft. He wasn’t sure but his wife Jacqueline clarified that the Department of Indian Affairs had claimed ownership due to their position that Alex was a salaried employee. I suggested that might be challenged as by today’s fair market dealings such art could be evaluated at $1 million or more. “I moved on, you know, to create my station in life, to paint as a free man.”
In late 1966 Alex was instrumental in bringing together a group of artists who would form an advisory group for the Indians of Canada pavilion at the World Expo of Montreal held in 1967. A page was torn from the colonial book of rules and the Department worked behind the scenes to do other than what the group would advise. Government bureaucrats had a plan to put a monorail that would pass through a stylized teepee in what Alex calls “a road right through the reservation.” That plan was trashed and Alex was labelled a rebel for his objections to the racist plan. But the government strategy was to quell any independent indigenous voice, to reject critical observations and to label “Indian art as pleasing and non-confrontational”.
Alex retreated to Alberta and to his art. He concealed his hurt and pain but he continued to produce more abstract works about land and the environment. He found a certain peace living close to his lake, but he was a lonely man with deep romantic notions. A vivacious, intelligent and witty woman would catch his eye, a teacher at Le Goff Day school in Cold lake.
“One day there was a knock at the door. When I opened the door, here stood a skinny man in rain boots with mud up to his knees. At first, he said nothing. Then he asked if a Mr. So and So was still here. I said no. He said OK and just stood there, eventually, he walked away. I thought about him that week. The next week, he showed up this time with cleaner shoes. He asked me if I had any milk. I invited him in and sat at my table watching and talking as I cleaned my kitchen. I said I didn’t have much to eat as I thought he looked hungry. He said he wasn’t hungry. I cooked for him anyway and he ate everything on his plate.” By April 1968 Jacqueline Wolowski became Jacqueline Janvier.
Alex and Jacqueline Janvier formed a powerhouse union. She began to look after the things Alex took for granted allowing him time to devote to his art. He would teach and he would paint. He would work on the land, suffer setbacks and make courageous comebacks from the many challenges of ageing, parenting and art production. He gained strength from attending regularly to the cultural and spiritual customs of his ancestors, a deeply guarded aspect of his private life. Alex would only leave his home for art. He became prolific yet remained rooted.
Over the next five decades, Alex Janvier became one of the most important and eclectic painters in the world of modern art. Jacqueline became his business manager and the two became a formidable presence in Canadian art. He would continue to refine his use of curved lines and abstraction while maintaining his vigilance to the beaded patterns inspired by the works of his aunties in Cold Lake. In 1977 he cast aside any concerns with how the public viewed him. He was “no longer angry with the oppressor” and stopped signing his paintings with the treaty number 287.
By the time I reached out to Alex Janvier in 2016, he was in his sixth decade of art. There was plenty of written material about him and his life. There were many articles about his art. There was very little about his home life and his family. But as soon as we met we hit it off.
My wife, Marianne Jones, and I have worked together for the last twenty years. We are private and avoid the spotlight. We could relate to why Alex was reticent of the public. When we travelled to see him at his studio in Cold Lake it was an exciting opportunity to get close to the Master, to see if I could tap into his realm of the subconscious. First, I had to persuade him to be in our series.
Over the next few years, between 2016 and 2018 we would spend brief periods with Alex. We shot footage of two of his exhibits, the solo “retrospective’ at the National Gallery of Canada and an opening at the Beaverbrook Gallery in New Brunswick. Everywhere we went Alex was treated like a rock star. And he is a very humble man, quite pleased with his station in life. He is at peace with his world and is surrounded by love and family. In his studio, his assistant is his eldest daughter, Tricia Janvier. In his gallery, it is another daughter, Jill who took over all management from her mother Jacqueline. Most press have to speak to his son, Dean. Whenever there are major public engagements, his entourage is composed of a sister, a brother, his children and grandchildren, and Jacqueline making sure he looked good.
Throughout this piece, I have created hyperlinks to other pieces of information. His opening of the floor mosaic he created at Rogers Place in Edmonton is represented here with a sidebar from writer Doug Cuthand accompanied by a photographic essay from Ramsay Bourquin. And his speech from the opening of his shows in Ottawa and Fredericton in 2016 and 2017 respectively, are here to enjoy.
And that’s not all.
This year, the age of COVID 19, we had not expected to be in a geographical limbo of uncertainty. At Christmas 2019 I received a message from Tricia Janvier. “Alex wants to visit you.” During the third week of February, I received a message from Tricia again confirming their arrival for March 9, 2020. The world was beginning to realize the extremity of the novel coronavirus, but oblivious to this fact was the man who defied all expectations and obstacles. Nothing was going to stand between him and a visit to Haida Gwaii. He was keeping a promise to his old friend, the late Haida artist Bill Reid, that he would one day come to see Haida Gwaii.
I knew he would want to see the completed documentary. I usually approach screenings with the main character of my stories with some apprehension. After all, how does one capture the portrait of a man who has been an artist for nearly seven decades? The experience, prolific and masterful execution in the abstract genre is his specialty. Would I, could I, meet his expectations?
How can one not be intimidated in his presence?
Alex, Jacqueline, Tricia, her daughter Squinch, niece Wilma Jacknife and her son, my nephew, Hunter Jacknife, all sat in my living room to watch a brief story about this accomplished man.
After the 22 minutes went by there was applause with the audience of six, plus us. Then there was silence. He didn’t look at me as the family expressed their genuine satisfaction. Alex could say nothing for a few minutes. I’d left the storied man speechless. I had reached into his inner spirit. I allowed him to remember and to feel the story. Had I reached his inner realm, the special place where he reached the subconscious? I had taken the chance of emphasizing one important purpose in his life’s work. That is his unflinching homage to land. He wants you and me, to remember that we are the land, the land is us.
Later that day we watched the news together. The world was beginning to shut down. China was in lockdown. Flights were being cancelled across the globe as the corona COVID virus began its slow and steady onslaught, a silent enemy that became a threat to humanity. As we sat having dinner at the Blacktail restaurant in Haida Gwaii on March 14, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. There was growing concern that the Janvier’s would be stuck on Haida Gwaii.
On March 16 we gave our goodbye hugs to the family. It would be the last time we gave anyone, other than to each other, any hugs or signs of physical affection. We made new friends and extended our indigenous family. As they drove off to the airport the eagles followed them across the inlet. It was a fitting farewell and I realized that nothing could take down this man, this giant of indigenous art. He defied the system and he will defy the COVID virus, He was not a paradox but a certainty of success and normality. Truth is what motivates Alex, not the enigma of an abstract life, but the clarity that only happiness brings. He is the landlord. The new normal.