The many synchronistic events experienced over the course of my career in the visual arts have never failed to astound me, their inexplicable resonance suggesting the possibility of a harmonizing principle or benevolent intelligence at work in the universe. Perhaps when visual art is the focus of one’s life, one’s sensibility is automatically attuned to seek out and find meaningful patterns at every turn, to uncover purpose and discover art in the unconscious unfoldings of human experience beneath the surface of daily life. Or perhaps meeting and working with many different visual artists over many years conditions one to perceive reality as inter-relational and sympathetic, and to be hyperaware of the far-reaching ripple effects of art and artists on the world, particularly their intertwining with the journey of one’s own life and work.
As a progeny of Eric “Ricky” Atkinson’s innovative fine arts program at Fanshawe College of Applied Arts and Technology — designed “around the premise that it was important to keep students in touch with the sources and processes of their own creativity, rather than teach them specific skills that stressed imitation,” — my education and development as an artist, educator, curator, and gallery director has been, and continues to be, an adventure of self-discovery, shaped by that phenomenal stimulus of creative energy that burned brightly in London, Ontario, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At that time, Barry Lord called London “one of Canada’s four major art scenes,” declaring the city to be “younger than Montreal, livelier than Toronto, vying with Vancouver in variety and sheer quantity of output . . . in many ways the most important of the four.”
In retrospect, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, fully ensconced in “the nowness of now,” as Ricky referred to it back then; although, as an eighteen-year-old art student, I didn’t realize that many of the values I was absorbing had actually derived from radical experiments in art education at Leeds College of Art in England, where Ricky had been head of the Department of Fine Art before emigrating with his wife, Muriel, and two children to Canada in 1969. Nor could I then have predicted that I would find myself, over thirty-five years after graduating from my alma mater, the director and CEO of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, or that my old teacher, Ricky Atkinson, would hold the key to the Gallery’s exemplary collection of British modern painting and shine a light on the transatlantic exchange of ideas, artists, and aesthetic influences that are integral to an understanding of the history of the visual arts and art education in Canada.
My hometown of Cambridge, or Galt, as it was called in my youth, is geographically equidistant from London to the west and Toronto to the east, via Ontario’s Highway 401. In my formative years, my internal compass determined that I was going to study art at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in Toronto after I graduated from high school, but my plans took a decidedly different turn when I happened upon a brochure that described the new fine arts program at Fanshawe College in London. I still have that brochure. It reads: "Fanshawe is an experiment. Never before has there been a visual education in Canada with such a diversity of disciplines under one umbrella. . . . Fanshawe believes that if students are taught to think creatively, they will find a way in which form and content can come together and then they will learn the necessary techniques. . . . Instructors at Fanshawe are resource people, but they generate an energy, and a person going through this maze of generated energy is bombarded by all sorts of things on which he must make decisions. In a way he doesn’t realize it, but he’s educating himself in the process."
Intrigued by the philosophical underpinnings and psychological orientation of Ricky’s program, “an approach based on the belief that the process of education is more important than the results, that most important of all is a creative attitude to the whole of life!” I decided to send an application for admission not only to OCA, but also to Fanshawe. Needless to say, I never made it to OCA. After a lively interview and portfolio review conducted by Ricky himself, who at that time was both chairman of the Fine Art Department and dean of the School of Applied Arts, and followed by his personal tour of the facility, which included the fine art machine shop and a demonstration of vacuum forming technology, he offered me a place in the intensive three-year fine arts program. Of course, I accepted his invitation without hesitation. Ricky had made choosing Fanshawe a very quick and easy decision to make; indeed, as it has turned out, one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
The truly amazing thing about the program Ricky founded was that it didn’t seem to have any borders, either physical or conceptual. It was an intense incubator for experimenting with new ideas, materials, and methods of making art that opened one to the prospect that art could infiltrate other disciplines and be made out of anything. It also involved full immersion in London’s dynamic art scene. All of the artist-instructors were encouraging and generous with their time. They used a team-teaching approach, got to know their students as individuals, and invited us to participate in a wide range of out-of-college activities that happened during both the day and night, which included studio events, gallery openings, and artist talks and demonstrations.
Beyond the daily stimulation provided by the experiential processes and conceptual enquiry associated with problem-finding and problem-solving which were inherent to the program’s studio activities, there were many compelling talks by visiting international artists, such as the American sculptor, painter, and performance artist Lucas Samaras, who gave an inside perspective on his multi-media assemblages and "Photo-Transformations." We were also provided with the opportunity to meet many of London’s professional practicing artists, to assist them in their studios, and to install exhibitions of their work at the old Trajectory Gallery, a large loft space on Talbot Street in the centre of the city that was owned and operated by Stephen Joy. A member of the fine arts faculty at Fanshawe, Stephen was an American who taught art history and organized a yearly field trip to visit galleries and museums in New York City, where he had worked in the 1950s as assistant director of the Martha Jackson Gallery, one of the leading galleries in the development of international modern art in the United States.
Other memorable non-Canadian faculty from my years at Fanshawe included Don Bonham, Michael “Mick” Durham (a Leeds graduate whom Ricky recruited, along with Robin Hobbs, to assist him), Benedict “Ben” Linssen, and Rudolf Bikkers, each of whom, along with Ricky, contributed to bringing a wider vision to the London art scene than the protectionist regionalism espoused by Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, and other members of the newly formed Canadian Artists’ Representation, who were insecure about outside influences on local art consciousness. In fact, the fledging organization made a point of excluding non-Canadian artists at the time. Indeed, there is another story about the development of the visual arts in London, Ontario, one that is inclusive of artists who do not focus on local experience as the content of their work, and that exposes the city’s inherent parochialism by acknowledging a greater diversity of artist identities, richness of creative activity, and sophistication of global perspectives than what has been typically reinforced by “The Heart of London” mythology in Canadian art history.
Ricky’s visionary initiative has been called “the most vital and innovative art department in the country.” In a society where, for the most part, educational systems ignore or undervalue creativity and reinforce conformity, compliance, and standardization, the fine arts program at Fanshawe provided an exciting and rewarding alternative that focused on the cultivation of independent and creative attitudes. It offered a unique and authentic hands-on experience, an organic artist-led and artist-centred pedagogy that put less emphasis on traditional processes and more on personal, innovative, and exploratory approaches. In my case, it forever linked the individualization of the creative process to all manner of learning about the world. Ricky’s encouraging letter of support after I graduated led me to further studies in Europe, the United States, and other parts of Canada. Reflecting back, I see that this remarkable program was a seed that germinated into abundant opportunities for me in the visual arts. But it was only after reconnecting with him after all these years, and learning about the roots of his pedagogical views, that I have come to fully appreciate how profoundly my experience at Fanshawe had impacted my own thinking and influenced the personal path I’ve taken.
The occasion of presenting a selection of Ricky’s paintings at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, along with his and Muriel’s modest collection of art, has made me acutely aware that I am the beneficiary of a butterfly effect in art education that extends back to 1956 when Ricky received a teaching appointment at Leeds College of Art. Leeds boasts many distinguished artists among its alumni, including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Under the leadership of Harry Thubron, whom Anton Ehrenzweig, educational psychologist and author of The Hidden Order of Art (1967), called “the most inventive teacher in Britain,” Leeds became the site of a revolutionary “educational experiment at once humanistic, anarchistic, and far-reaching in its ramifications.” Ricky refers to it as having been “a powerhouse of interesting ideas and people” ; painter and art critic Patrick Heron considered it “the most influential College of Art in Europe since the Bauhaus” ; and Laurie Burt, a student of Leeds, called it “a great adventure — a voyage of discovery into previously unconsidered uses of materials and daring new ways of painting and making, of shaping and constructing,” a description that could also most fittingly apply to my own experience at Fanshawe.
Ricky had recently graduated from the venerable Royal Academy Schools in London, the oldest art school in Britain, when he became an assistant to Thubron, who was appointed head of Fine Art at Leeds the year before. In the 1940s, he had taken Thubron’s classes in drawing and composition at West Hartlepool College of Art, which is where he met his wife Muriel. He began teaching at Leeds when Thubron was pioneering Basic Research, or the Basic Course, a program focused on the theory of artistic form and composition inspired by the German Bauhaus and the theoretical writings of Sir Herbert Read, one of the most prominent supporters of modern art in Britain at the time, and the author of Education through Art (1943). The influential art critic happened to live near the College and, as Ricky recounts, “had time to come and support what we were doing.”
Involving the integration of painters, sculptors, architects, and designers in the same studio and lecture classes, the Basic Course posed a challenge to accepted practices in art education and the government-led courses and guidelines in England at the time, particularly to the teaching methods embodied in the skills-based National Diploma in Design. Students were not taught specific skills but visual literacy in the use of colour, form, and space. Thubron stressed an intuitive approach to research and enquiry, and responded creatively to the activity that unfolded in front of him in the teaching studio, rather than relying on a preconceived structure and exercising obedient adherence to some imposed educational theory. He stated, “There are no answers other than those offered by the student.”
The primacy of the creative process and urge towards freedom and spontaneity in the aftermath of World War II was reinforced by the presence of many outstanding practicing artists, a key part of the success of “The Leeds Experiment.” Thubron established close links between the art college and the University of Leeds, which enabled him to recruit recipients of the Gregory Fellowship in Fine Art — Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Hubert Dalwood, Paul Gopal-Chowdhury, Ainslie Yule, Martin Froy, Kenneth Armitage, and Trevor Bell, all of whom were associated with vanguard art practice in Britain in the late 1950s. The head of Fine Arts at the University, Maurice de Sausmarez, derived the content of his 1964 book, Basic Design, from his long association with Thubron and his active participation in the Leeds program.
Influenced by Thubron’s open, responsive approach to both art making and education, Ricky’s own art practice experienced a dramatic transformation at Leeds, where “staff and students alike were affected by an atmosphere of excitement, energy, and imagination.” In The Incomplete Circle: Eric Atkinson, Art and Education, David Lewis writes that "[Ricky] learned from the Basic Course, side by side with his students. . . . [His] painting went through an enormous change in this period. He came in as a representative painter of landscapes and docklands. Within three years he emerged as an expressionist abstract painter. . . . There was no doubt that being with Alan Davie and Terry Frost on an almost daily basis had a lot to do with it."
Terry Frost notes, “It was a fantastic period. . . . We were all finding out how to get the best out of each other.” In Ricky’s words, “I got my adrenaline there.” Indeed, following World War II, contemporary artists in Britain began developing new languages of mark-making that engaged with international Modernism and emphasized a new awareness of the physical means of painting.
In The Hidden Order of Art, Ehrenzweig emphasizes how the accidental, or the fragment, that we chance upon is central to creativity. For Ricky, the use of sand in his paintings happened through pure accident and is testimony to how impediments can become advantages, or how a problem can become a creative solution. He states, “I remember being out on a beach and painting on a windy day when the canvas was blown into the sand, which stuck to the paint. I said, ‘Why am I trying to use oil paint to make a depiction of sand when I can use the sand itself?’” Ricky’s discovery of a new way of making paintings to suggest the presence of landscape without relying on representational illustration triggered an expansion of his visual vocabulary. This pivotal moment can actually be traced back to 1946 when he met the great Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, one of the major artists of European Modernism, who resided in England after he had been forced to flee Nazi Germany when his work was condemned as “degenerate.” Schwitters adopted collage as his preferred process at the end of World War I, making work from all different sorts of scrap material and found objects because, as he stated, “Everything had broken down . . . and new things had to be made out of the fragments.” Ricky remembers how he was initially mystified by the artist, whose Merzbau — begun in Hanover between 1919-1923, constructed until Schwitters fled Germany in 1937, and destroyed during an Allied bombing raid in 1943 — prefigured the postmodern multimedia installations of today. “He told me, ‘I am a painter, Mr. Atkinson, but occasionally I like to nail objects to my canvas.’” His study of Schwitters’s collages in Sir Herbert Read’s personal art collection can be directly linked to his use of a distressed table cloth in his painting Worldscape (1962). He states: “I believe that my meeting with Schwitters was a turning point in my career when for the first time I realized that painting could take many forms and not confine itself to those encountered during my academic training.”
There were two other important influences on Ricky that widened the possibilities for what landscape painting could be, and blurred the boundaries between representation and abstraction. One was the thick impasto paintings of Nicolas de Staël, which he saw at the Matthiesen Gallery in 1952, an experience he described as “the first time I had seen acrylic paint and gum used to build up a surface which was then cut and incised with the skill and precision of a master swordsman.” The other was the naïve seascapes of the old Cornish fisherman, Alfred Wallis, to whom he recently paid tribute in an exhibition at London’s Thielsen Gallery in 2013 with a series of small-scale paintings on tin and iron pans. Discovered by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928, Wallis painted with ordinary household or ship’s paint on whatever scrap of material or object was available to him. Although seemingly disparate artists, Ricky shares with both de Staël and Wallis a direct approach to image-making and an orchestration of space that is anti-illusionistic or without linear perspective — a way of working that was reinforced by Alan Davie, who told him to “look at the landscape from above so that you can exclude the horizon line and familiarise yourself with physical space,” and is encapsulated in his artist’s statement: "Through perspective and horizontal lines the traditional landscape in Western Art suggests a visual space. This is reflected by a spatial depth of approximately one to fifty miles from the surface of the canvas. This concept was believed to have originated with the noted Florentine architect Brunelleschi who made the pursuit of space the foundation of his art. With the advent of air and space travel “world space” is more appropriate today. It suggests the infinity of space. One has only to view the landscape from the window of an aircraft and see the curvature of the earth to realize that the horizon line does not exist in reality. World space distance is limited only by the human mind and the mind of the artists who endeavor to project themselves into this visual space."
Ricky’s paintings are created on the studio floor by working from all four sides of a canvas. He disrupts the picture plane, an amalgam of sand and glue, with incised calligraphic markings that suggest the natural rhythms of wind and water, of sculpted landforms created over the course of thousands of years from geological erosion — a layering of time and ancient memory. Appropriately referred to by the artist as “journeys through the landscape,” his paintings are not literal depictions but expressions of the interpenetration of inner and outer landscapes, of the integral relationship between the processes of art making and the forces of nature or, as Ricky states, “the forms echo the geological structure of the land and the calligraphy left by man and nature upon its surface.” As such, they can be read as part of, but also a dramatic shift from, the tradition of British landscape painting, which became prominent at the time of the Industrial Revolution but was transformed into a dynamic modern art form that merged outer landscape with inner self, a move from the objective to the subjective, first by Constable and Turner, and later by Sutherland, Nicholson, and many others.
When Ricky arrived in Canada, he came fully equipped with a well-honed contemporary visual language, rooted in England’s northern landscape and its Celtic and Viking heritage, which he adapted to the vastness and ruggedness of the Canadian environment — specifically to resonant places that facilitated engagement with his art-making process, such as Lake Huron and its islands around Manitoulin and the ancient granite rock formations of the Canadian Shield that had inspired the Group of Seven. He applied his artistic sensibilities to this wondrous new landscape in a manner that was not unlike how he applied his philosophy of art education to the brave new teaching environment at Fanshawe College. For him, both art and art education involve a reliance on internal sources of intuition, vitality of expression, and symbolic comprehension. According to his friend and colleague David Lewis, his paintings communicate to us because “we all have landscape within us, as well as around us. We carry within ourselves a perpetual striving for oneness, for equilibrium, with universal rhythms. The imagery of this striving is at the mythic basis of religions. It is what Jung called ‘archetypes of the creative unconscious.’”
Since his youth, Ricky has been drawn to the landscape, particularly to places where land and water meet, as the primary source for the development of his art. His first exhibitions in London featured his early landscape drawings and paintings, which were representational observations of the environment of his birthplace, the old seaport of Hartlepool with its cranes and industrial buildings. One particular painting, Early evening, Hartlepool Docks (1953), he had planned to enter in Lord Beaverbrook’s 1955 Daily Express Young Artists’ Exhibition, an initiative designed to showcase the work of artists between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. At the time, he was among the stable of artists at the Redfern Gallery, which included Bryan Kneale, a contemporary of his from the Royal Academy, and the German-born portrait and figure painter Lucian Freud. The Redfern Gallery offered to deliver the paintings of the three artists to the New Burlington Gallery where they were to be juried by a distinguished selection committee comprising Sir Herbert Read, Professor Anthony Blunt, Graham Sutherland, and Le Roux Smith Le Roux, the last of whom Lord Beaverbrook had commissioned to help him build his collection for his new art gallery in New Brunswick. As Ricky recounts, “It was both good and unfortunate for me that the director of the Leicestershire Educational Collection insisted that he wanted to buy my painting. I did attend the opening of the Daily Express Young Artists’ Exhibition and met Lord Beaverbrook, who was with Sir Herbert Read, but my painting never reached the selection committee because it had been sold.” Lord Beaverbrook ended up purchasing Kneale’s Pony in the Snow (1954), which had won first prize, and Lucian Freud’s Hotel Bedroom (1954), which had won second, along with several other works from the exhibition (paintings by Geoffrey Banks, Henry Inlander, Denis Williams, George P. Wilson, Christo Coetzee, Erik Forrest, Keith Grant, R.D. Lee, and Tim Phillips), all of which he gifted to the people of New Brunswick and are in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery’s permanent collection. Perhaps Ricky’s Hartlepool Docks (1953) would have been included with this transaction had it made it to the competition.
Like Thubron, Ricky’s development as both artist and art educator was a reciprocal relationship; his evolving studio practice, which took him from realism to abstraction, informed his thinking about education and vice versa. Unlike other forms of knowledge, artistic knowledge or “know-how” is experiential and context-specific. Artists who are also educators understand the importance of learning through doing and how knowledge is acquired through practice, a way of absorbing information that often resists systematic and explicit organization.
When Thubron left Leeds for other opportunities in 1964, Ricky took his place as head of the Department of Fine Art and continued to build on the national and international reputation of the program. Meryle Secrest described him as “an intense, introspective man . . . whose great gift has been to gather around him a group of equally talented [artists] and leave them alone.” Grounded in the original meaning of the word “education” as a process of “drawing out” that which already exists within the individual, he articulated his educational philosophy: “In the previous way of training, a person never had his identity. He studied under six tutors and learned to paint six different ways. What they were trying to do was to train the eyes and hand, when it’s the brain that allows you to see.” Understanding the deep connections between art and self-discovery, sensitivity to the creative process as fundamental to education, and belief in the important educational function of the artist in society, have been vital strengths in his hybrid role as artist and educator throughout his career.
Ricky has described Leeds College of Art as “one of the most exciting places to work . . . everything was new, experimental, and there were no rules!” However, concern arose amongst faculty and students when the college’s independence and autonomy were threatened by a move by government to merge it into a much larger bureaucratic institution called a polytechnic, and then into the university system where fine art was treated as an academic subject. The college’s uncertain future prompted many of the Basic Course innovators to leave — including Ricky, who feared the destruction of the creative dynamism of the program. In 1969, he was offered the opportunity to establish a new fine arts program at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, by its president, Dr. James Colvin, along with Peter Williams, chairman of the Faculty of Applied Arts, and Mackie Cryderman, who served on the Board of Governors. Fanshawe was one of nineteen community colleges that opened in Ontario in 1967 (Canada’s centennial year), an optimistic time when the country was rapidly changing and responding to the need to provide greater access to, and diversity of, educational opportunities beyond what universities could offer. Cryderman had been head of the art department at London’s H.B. Beal Technical School from 1927 to 1962, and was impressed both by the high calibre of work by the faculty and students of Leeds College of Art that she had encountered in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, and by the innovation and pedagogical structure of the Leeds program from which it emerged. Ricky accepted the new challenge and arrived at Fanshawe (which means “temple in the woods” in Old English) in April of 1969 to establish a program based on what he had learned at Leeds or, in his words, “to set up a learning rather than a teaching situation; to develop a place where students can think adventurously and erratically using their visual fantasy without looking over their shoulders for their instructors all the time.”
The manifestation of Ricky’s pedagogical vision of discovering “what education could be rather than what it should be in a more rigidly structured program” was perhaps best evidenced by the work produced by the fine art students at Fanshawe and presented in the annual graduate exhibitions, some of which were held at Trajectory Gallery from 1972 to 1976. In 1976, the year I graduated from the program, a review in the London Free Press called the exhibition of eighty works by seventeen graduate students “colourful and exuberant” with “a slight touch of madness,” a show “composed of artists who have successfully avoided the herd instinct possible in a student-class environment. . . . The outstanding feature of the exhibit is the balance of discipline and creativity. Often a student show is marred by the obtrusive evidence of teacher and textbook.” Not surprisingly, this statement parallels Patrick Heron’s comment on the student work that was produced under Ricky’s leadership at Leeds: “An exhilarating creative energy. . . . One could not find two students there doing roughly the same thing.”
Many of the outstanding guest lecturers in the visual arts who were invited to Fanshawe — Terry Frost, Victor Pasmore, Tom Hudson, William Tucker, Robin Page, David Lewis, Allen Jones, Roy Slade, Graham Peacock, and others — could be traced to Ricky’s international network and experience in England, a direct link to Leeds College of Art and the pedagogical antecedents of the Fanshawe program. One particular guest lecturer, György Kepes, the Hungarian-born designer, educator, and design theorist, who was the founder of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, had a direct connection to the design pedagogy of the German Bauhaus tradition on which the Basic Course at Leeds was based and which had migrated with Ricky to London, Ontario. Kepes had been part of the inner circle at the Bauhaus in the 1930s, and had taught with Maholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1940s. His book, Language of Vision (1944), which was influenced by the Berlin-based Gestalt psychologists, presented the theory of design as a “language” founded in abstraction and spoke to Ricky’s mission of addressing “visual illiteracy” by opening people’s eyes to the colour, form, and visual structure in the environment in which we all live. Kepes stated: “Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate. . . . [The visual arts, as] the optimum forms of the language of vision, are, therefore, an invaluable educational medium.”
Ricky also shared affinities with Kepes’s pioneering interdisciplinary approach to knowledge, which fused art with design, architecture, science, and technology. In his role as dean of Fanshawe’s School of Applied Arts, he responded to a changing environment of new media and expanded thinking in the field of art education by connecting and integrating a wide range of distinct disciplines, such as radio, television, film, graphic art, photography, theatre, and contemporary music recording, an experimental direction which has become one of the defining characteristics of much contemporary art practice today and is now referred to as "integrated," "cross-disciplinary," or "interdisciplinary arts." His colleague, Fred Steinmetz, former chair of Communication Arts at Fanshawe and creator of the first instructional campus radio station in Canada, notes: “Something we had not done previously was to address these activities in a new vocabulary, a vocabulary that brought with it a revised meaning and approach. . . . This change was an attempt to elevate activities that were often very technical in nature, beyond the technical, into the realm of art.”
Innovative programs and activities abounded, as students were encouraged to explore whatever technologies were required to manifest their ideas, and to recognize that problems can have more than one solution and that questions can have more than one answer. There were stimulating collaborations between fine art and television production training, and an unusual exhibition of “Edible Sculpture” that integrated the fine arts, radio and television arts, and culinary arts programs, and involved children from the Saturday morning art classes at the London Regional Art Gallery. Many disparate disciplines and students came together in a multifaceted class called Creative Electronics, which Ricky co-established with Tom Lodge, one of the first offshore “pirate” disc-jockeys with Radio Caroline in the UK. With a focus on kinetic sculpture, this highly experimental, cross-disciplinary program led by light and sound sculptor Michael Hayden and Eric McLuhan (son of media theorist Marshall McLuhan) provided opportunities for students to create art on a Moog synthesizer, which eventually evolved into Music Industry Arts, a training program for recording engineers and record producers. According to Dean Motter, a fine art and design student in 1974, “Here was a class made up of audio engineers, technicians, musicians, artists and even psychology students, with the basic tenet that we were supposed to ‘play in each other’s sandboxes’ as it were. . . . The Creative Electronics course explored several disciplines, from Buckminster Fuller’s geodesics to McLuhan’s theories to guerrilla video to neon sculpture.”
In the fall of 2013, I returned to Fanshawe College with Ricky and independent curator and former director of Museum London, Ted Fraser, for the first time since I graduated in 1976. I barely recognized the place because of how much it had physically grown over the years (Fanshawe is currently one of the largest colleges in Ontario). What immediately caught my attention as we approached in Ricky’s car was that Kosso Eloul’s monumental sculpture, a twenty-foot, bright yellow metal shaft, that had once protruded from a mound of earth on the east side of the college in a manner that seemed to defy gravity, was no longer there. Created in 1971 in collaboration with fine art students from the environmental art program led by Chris Wallis and Merton Chambers, it was London’s first environmental sculpture. Art Magazine referred to Fanshawe’s environmental art program as “one of the most interesting experiments in art education . . . probably the only course strongly oriented to training the student in the practice and reality to work with those agents creating and building our contemporary environments in Canada.”
Inside the college, as we walked the corridors, the only room familiar to me was B1052 (I’m not sure if it still has the same assigned number), a lecture theatre where I attended Stephen Joy’s art history classes and participated in a myriad of unusual but engaging activities, such as Don Bonham’s marathon presentation on the history of country and western music, and W.O. Mitchell’s reading of Who Has Seen the Wind (1947). I also remember that this was the room where I sat through the entirety of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), an eight-hour film of continuous slow motion footage of a single stationary view of the Empire State Building in New York City, which, according to the artist, was created to “see time fly by.” As a member of the Fanshawe College Film Society, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch many contemporary films in that space, like François Truffaut’s L' Enfant Sauvage (1970), which, at its heart, is about education, growing up, self-discovery, and learning to function creatively in society — in essence, the story of my experience as a feral youngster in Ricky’s fine arts program at Fanshawe College.
From Ricky’s program I discovered how expression of the self is central to the creation of art, and that the primary goal of education is self-actualization. Through purposeful form-making involving intensified observation and refinement of sensitivity, I found a potent means of communicating through visual language and of assessing my perceptions and values. The example of Ricky’s intuitive use of tactile surfaces in his paintings expanded my response to the aesthetic qualities of experience and opened possibilities for the development of my own way of working. It inspired me to embark on a series of errant, unpredictable experiments that involved a diverse range of unconventional materials, including mixing acrylic paint with plaster, concrete, sawdust, bird seed, and other assorted substances, and then applying this glutinous mixture to wooden panels or canvases using various homemade scrapers and tools rather than brushes. I also began cutting up old highly textured paintings into multiple fragments and reassembling them into new compositions based on the formal structure of a piano keyboard.
While working with Ricky on his exhibition for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, he surprised me with an image he still possesses of one of my early “pianoforte” works that he had used in his presentations about the fine arts program at Fanshawe. It was an important, self-actualizing work for me, one of two paintings that were purchased from the graduation exhibition at Trajectory Gallery in 1976, and which had prompted Judy Malone of the London Free Press to write, “Of particular interest are the works of Terry Graff. . . . His canvases, particularly the piano paintings, show a fine understanding of the medium in an intellectual exploration of the relationship between art and music.” I also recently discovered in my records the encouraging statement Ricky wrote about my work that same year: “Terry Graff has a natural instinct for the manipulation of paint and very sophisticated use of calligraphy. . . . He is the calibre of student I like to support.”
Time passes and things change, and as the title of Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical novel warns, “You can’t go home again.” The reason for visiting my old school was not to recapture the shelter or “golden age” of my lost youth but to see one of Ricky’s most unusual drawings, the iconic Fanshawe Scroll (1969-70), a large-scale artifact from those seminal days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, now permanently installed in the College. When Ricky first arrived at Fanshawe, there were no projectors and no 35mm slides readily available, which at that time were indispensable tools for the teaching of art history. As he explains, his solution was to improvise: “I placed a large roll of paper around the studio and in full view of all the students ‘drew out’ my lecture. That certainly caught their attention! . . . Perhaps the slide projector was really not so necessary after all, and the ‘drawing out’ also enabled me to present art history ‘backwards’ — to examine work being done now and then to go back and discover its origins.”
Although Ricky retired from teaching in 1994, his educational philosophy and methods of organizing art-education experiences remain relevant and are especially critical for today’s challenging market-driven environment, where short-sighted bureaucracies, narrow economic rationales, and obsession with balancing the bottom line, more often than not, overrule the intrinsic value of the arts and education to the quality of life. On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, there is much to learn from his extraordinary journey and legacy as both an artist and an art educator. Ricky’s many accomplishments speak to the value and necessity of the visual arts, to how they can infuse energy and spirit and excitement and creativity into our daily lives, and to the vital role they can play in our personal journey of self-discovery and awareness of the ever-changing world in which we live.