A road trip to Alex Janvier’s studio

Alex Janvier’s work is at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary for the summer (June 16 to September 9). It is a major retrospective featuring over 100 remarkable paintings and drawings.  Here is all about my Janvier road trip!


Alex Janvier, “Tribute to Beaver Hills,” Strathcona County Hall, Sherwood Park, Alberta, photo credit Corinne Dickson

When I asked Corinne “Would you like to come along with me on a road trip to visit Alex Janvier, one of my mentors?” I may have fudged the details a little. Perhaps I neglected to say that we’d have to drive six hours to get to his studio in Cold Lake… at the end of the highway… on the far north-east side of Alberta. And maybe I forgot to mention that Alex Janvier doesn’t actually know he’s my mentor. And I’m pretty sure he’d never heard of me. But nonetheless, Alex Janvier influences every stroke of my paintbrush.

Just look at his work: it flows with life! Somehow, the movements of colour take you into his visual world where a narrative takes place, and I’m both charmed and intrigued every time I see his work. But mostly I’m inspired to reach beyond my grasp toward that level of narrative in my own work. So yes, Alex Janvier is definitely my mentor – whether he knows it or not.

At his Gallery, nestled into the forest by the Lake, we had the chance to hang out with a large number of pieces and to flip through his new work. I’m impressed by how he remains, in his old age, a very strong and very prolific painter. His new work has lost none of the energy of his earlier compositions.

Janvier, born in 1935, is of Dene Suline and Saulteaux heritage. He was raised by his loving family until, at the age of eight, he was uprooted and sent to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. But because he had always been a highly imaginative child, the school gave him the tools he needed to create his first paintings and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to graduate with honours from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary where he developed a unique and recognizable style with influences from his mother’s and other relatives’ beadwork and bark basket-making. And his recent retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa  has made it clear to all Canadians that Janvier is among the leaders of a small group of masterful Indigenous contemporary painters who have built and maintained successful lifelong careers.

His career didn’t come without sacrifice, however. We spent about two hours with his wife Jaqueline and she told us that together they had raised six children and that some of those years were very lean. “So,” she said, “when money came in, I filled up the freezer with meat to make sure we could survive the next lean time.”


Me laying on ‘Tsa tsa ke k’e’, Rogers Place in Edmonton, photo credit Corinne Dickson

On our way home we stopped three times to admirer some of his public art. The most recent one is at Rogers Place in Edmonton. It’s a 14-metre diameter tile installation set into the floor of Ford Hall titled ‘Tsa tsa ke k’e’ or ‘Iron Foot Place’. I’m told it took 20 staff members six months to install the million byzantine glass tiles of the mosaic that depicts the natural beauty of the Edmonton landscape, and I’m confident that it will remain central to the soul of the city, its Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, its lands and its waters.

Six long hours home, filled with much conversation about our own careers as artists, inevitably led both Corinne and me to our own soul searching. How will we look back at our own careers in 50 years? Does Alex Janvier feel he has accomplished what he set out to do? Or is he surprised when he looks back at the work he’s compiled? Has he realized his narrative goals?
Being artists, we suspect that he knows how hard he worked and how focused and committed he has been to achieve such acclaim. And having seen his new work, we also suspect that his mind is on his next project; it never settles on past accomplishments. For creative junkies like Alex Janvier, there will never be enough time. And the next creative endeavor will always be more interesting than the ones already realized.
Corinne and I agreed. This is, indeed, a life worth living.

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