Born: Windsor, Nova Scotia, 1933
Died: Penticton, BC, 2009
Gerald Roach was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1933, he studied painting and drawing at the Nova Scotia College of Art and took further study in painting and mosaics at the University of British Columbia's extension courses. Upon graduation in the late 1950’s Gerald Roach set the Halifax art world on its ear with exuberant and colourful abstract expressionist paintings inspired by his passion for nature. Talking about these early years and the inspiration behind his work Gerald wrote, “From the earliest times I can remember, I've had a kind of religious experience in nature which is overpowering. I didn't understand it: it only happened when I was alone but somehow it was important for me to find a visual outlet that would convey this passion . . . to other people.'"
In a letter from Robert Setters to Charles C. Hill, the former Curator of Canadian Art, National Gallery of Canada, June 15, 2000 Robert writes, "Roach’s study in the 1950’s at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design under his mentor Neil Grant, a tough but admirable English expatriate, gave him the classical understanding of art principles and a strong foundation that later enabled him to express his broad spectrum of talents. With this training and his own inventiveness he was able to conquer the diverse styles necessary to interpret his changing environment, concepts and ideals. The large body of abstract work that he produced in Nova Scotia starting as early as the mid 1950’s was initially met with shock. His early rejection by a public unfamiliar with abstract art did not deter him and once the new style was accepted it became very popular and sold through art galleries such as: The Dresden, 1667, and Zwicker’s, a very impressive accomplishment for an artist so young. The synthesis of expressive and abstract styles proved the best way for him to interpret thelush yet rugged landscape of the Nova Scotia he so cherished.”
When figuration returned to his work, the development was greeted with dismay by his colleagues and critics. These works, which Roach describes as the products of his “scabrous” period, share some of the characteristics of other figurative artists working in Eastern Canada at that time… Philip Surrey, Goodridge Roberts, John Snow and John Little among others. What these artists shared in common was an interest in humanity and the city, typical of the Regionalism which prevailed in North American art during the 1930's and 1940's. At this time he also found work as a professional commercial photographer before signing on as part of the Design Department of CBC Television in Halifax working there from 1960-64.
His change of style to the representational, and to earthy ochres and siennas, thickly applied, set him on a course not as easily appreciated by critics, dealers and the public. For a period he did figure painting, choosing the archetypal rural figures of Cape Breton to express a personal vision of his people - earthy, close to the land and timeless. The artist acknowledges the influence of Carravaggio and Rembrandt on his work which shows up in the dramatic movement of his figures which are unified by shafts of light, his rich colour and as Philippa Barry notes in Arts Atlantic, "a superb structural arrangement making effective use of deep space. . . . Roach's drawing, which he considers vital to the structural underpinnings of a painting, is masterful. He continues to draw constantly, not just rough sketches but drawings that are worked on sometimes for years. Some remain as drawings, some lead to paintings. . . . Like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, Roach is not afraid to face hunger and neglect in his search for what Germain Bazin describes as 'the secret that is not to be found in the society of men”
Cartooning has been a constant facet in Roach’s artistic career. During the 1960's Roach ‘inked a living’ drawing cartoon films for the National Film Board of Canada. Between 1964 - 69 he worked on the restoration of the Louisbourg fortress on Cape Breton Island, painting murals, signage, and drawing cartoons and some animation. Roach feels that the art of cartooning is often dismissed because the subject matter is generally funny. However, for the artist a good cartoon requires applying the disciplines and skills learned in art college – the ability to draw well, the comprehension of volume in space, a good sense of design and composition. Further, it provides the artist with the opportunity for wild invention.
Roach moved to Montreal in 1968, to work for the National Film Board. His style changed again. Whatever influence nature had had on his work vanished in this urban environment. Now the great figurative tradition in European art history became his principle source of inspiration and led to a series of works on apparently religious subjects. A closer examination of these works reveals that it is the artistic tradition that is being quoted and the spirituality in the works belongs far more to a humanistic tradition than a religious one. The figures come from Cape Breton, harsh peasants familiar with pain and suffering to which they almost seem oblivious. During the period between1974-1980 Gerald was highly regarded Professor of Animation, Drawing and Painting, Dawson College, Montreal.
Wells known painter Robert Marchessault had Gerald as his first painting teacher at Dawson College in Montreal between 1974-76. Considering the influence Gerry had on his work Robert writes, “I was pretty new to serious art making then and Gerry was kind enough to take me under his wing. The struggle to learn the fundamentals was fraught with difficulty and frustration for me. Where other students seemed to have little trouble, I struggled. But Gerry kindly spent lots of extra time going over my efforts and correcting many bad habits. The best day of my studies at Dawson College occurred when he told me I was "becoming a top flight drawer and painter". His encouragement and patience made all the difference.
In an article on Roach for Arts Atlantic, Philippa Barry notes, "If anyone wears the mantle of a 19th century romantic painter working with a powerful 20th century vision, it is Gerald Roach. His intense, emotional involvement with his painting has led him from Windsor, Nova Scotia to the Nova Scotia College of Art, to Montreal and back to Nova Scotia and his Cape Breton mountain retreat. There he continues his quest to translate onto canvas and paper the excitement and awe he feels for his subjects, whether it is the wild and magnificent landscape of Cape North or some finely wrought detail within it. He has pitted himself against a harsh environment in order to pursue a personal vision of what art should be.” He responded to nature in much the same way that the Romantic painters had done more than a century before and regardless of the mediums and techniques that Roach uses, his dedication to his craft is apparent.
Gerald Roach moved to Penticton in 1990 suffering a stroke in 2002 that left him paralyzed in his left arm and leg. Gerry was one of the original residents of The Village by the Station moving there in 2004 remaining there until his passing in August of 2009. The proceeds from the sale of his works have been used to establish a scholarship in his name with the two most recipients being Shayla Ritchie in 2013 and Caroline Rahkola in 2014.