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Joseph Plaskett | Reflections | Contextualizing the Legacy

My knowledge of Joseph Plaskett and his legacy stretches back more than twenty years when I took my first tentative foray into the rich history of the visual arts in British Columbia and long before our first meeting in 1994. Joe’s contemporaries and friends included the luminaries Jack Shadbolt, B.C. Binning, Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, Gordon Smith, Takao Tanabe, Toni Onley, John Koerner, J.W.G. MacDonald, A.Y. Jackson andmany others who formed the foundation and framework from which all that has come after was built. Their influences collectively and individually are still being felt today, but unlike most of his peers and in spite of a lengthy and illustrious career, Joe’s departure to Europe in the late 1950s removed him from the everyday context even though he returned to Canada almost annually and his work was often exhibited. 

Canadians can be brutally unforgiving of those who move away and develop their careers outside of these borders and this has resulted in an oversight as to the importance of Joe Plaskett’s work in the development of contemporary art in Canada. This exhibit looks to address this neglect and features artwork spanning a period of over seventy years. Within each frame one finds the DNA of the artist;  a window into his life and process. This is a celebration of a lifetime of dedication, to the honing of one’s craft and contained within the work are the threads which tie them all together. Whether it’s the consistency of his palette, his choice of subject matter or a reoccurring sense of space and design, the works are unmistakably Plaskett’s.

Joe Plaskett’s illustrious career mirrors the rise and development of Canadian art from the Group of Seven and Emily Carr through its maturity and the move towards modernism. He along with Takao Tanabe, Gordon Smith and John Koerner are among the last links to this fertile and important period of cultural development in British Columbia and all four artists continue to paint to this day. The history these artists represent is outstanding and their legacies are assured but for many the expanse of time often fogs the origins of their fame and obscures their place in the formative years in the development of what has become known as West Coast Modernism.

Joe Plaskett was there at the genesis of this movement and knew all of the major players and gained not only their respect and admiration, he was a star on the rise being selected by Lawren Harris as the inaugural recipient of the Emily Carr Scholarship in 1946. This award changed Joe’s life enabling him to study first at the California School of Fine Art in San Francisco and then with Hans Hofmann in New York and Provincetown. At the end of the year, recommended by both Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson, he accepted the post as Director of the Winnipeg School of Art, where he taught for several years after which the lure of Europe became irresistible.

Through it all Joe developed his own signature style and his artwork has been highly sought by collectors. Not unlike Toni Onley, his work has remained identifiable and with even a rudimentary knowledge of his work, one easily pick out a Plaskett from across the room.

Given that Lawren Harris was such a strong proponent of modernism and abstraction, I have often wondered what he saw in Plaskett’s early work that caused him to promote Joe’s talents. I was familiar with Plaskett’s work from the late 1950’s onwards and was unable to connect the dots and therefore wanted to know more about his early influences. I wanted to see the artist evolving anddiscover the vocabulary which would come to define and inform the majority of his creative output. Going into this exhibit I had no idea of what would come of it or how it would take shape, but as soon as I opened the doors of his archives in Vancouver I knew instantly what I wanted to exhibit. It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to significantly add to the understanding of our art history and I believe this exhibition will not only revisit the beginnings of his career, it will firmly place Joe Plaskett’s work into the context of Canadian and international art history clearly illustrating the transformation and development of the style which he had pretty much had figured out by the late 1950s.

If the assurance of Joe’s legacy in Canada has a single hurdle it would be the fact he spent the majority of his life living in Paris and England and not here in Canada where his presence would be ever constant. That being said his home in Paris was a bastion for Canadian artists travelling to Europe and his web of friends and allies comprised of the who’s who of Canada and Europe. Joe was the hub of a mighty wheel the likes we may never see again, he was the consummate gentlemen and an amazing host whose influence spans far beyond the canvas.

A number of years ago Joe sold his home in Paris and with the proceeds of that sale he established the Joseph Plaskett Foundation which recently partnered with the Royal Canadian Academy of Artists to administer the annual Joseph Plaskett Award. Established in 2004, the Joseph Plaskett Award provides $25,000 to help fund an emerging Canadian painter to live, create, travel or study in Europe for the better part of one year. This annual award is given to a Canadian student currently enrolled in or recently graduated from a master's program in Canada whose specialization is painting. It is one of the largest awards given each year to a Canadian artist.

In closing I would like to thank Joe and Mario for their trust and support of this project, along with Deborah Dyson for providing unfettered access to Joe’s incredible archives from which this exhibit has been drawn. Without your belief in my vision, this exhibition would not have been possible. I hope all those who see this exhibition will be as excited as I was when I first saw this body of work. I hope it will not only enhance your appreciation and knowledge of Joe Plaskett’s work but will also spark your interest in exploring at a greater depth the art and artists whose legacies have defined our cultural and visual history over the past century.


Earlier Event: September 14
Robin Edgar Haworth | Spirit in the Land
Later Event: September 14
Beyond Words, Not Beyond Reach