The age old premise that an artist’s work becomes more valuable once they pass is sadly no more than a fanciful notion for the majority of artists whose life’s work and legacy is relegated to basements, attics, closets, storage lockers, thrift stores and on far too many occasions, the landfill. What remains is the burden of responsibility for those to do right by their loved ones life’s work and legacy. I have seen this consume the remaining years of many a spouse who have fought to ensure their memory is not forgotten, and in some small way their work remains. What is amazing is the capacity that these works, along with all those that are left behind, have to illicit that same emotional response as they did the first person who laid eyes upon them.
Following on the heels of this past exhibition of work by the late Summerland artist John Schoonderwoert (1930 – 2012), our final exhibition of the year once again explores the legacy of two artists, Robin Costain and Gerald Roach, both of which whose work has remained in storage since their passing. Both these artists were unfamiliar to me prior to my arrival in Penticton in 2006, but as I began to explore the gallery’s permanent collection I soon found myself confronted with works by both these artists and I wanted to know more. Over the past year circumstances have provided us with this opportunity to once again open the vault and to explore their life’s work and to see how their work has not only aged, but to also see how it resonated today not only with those who knew the artists but those who for the first time now have the opportunity to discover their work with fresh eyes, open hearts and their own life’s experiences.
Robin Costain (1961-1994)
Reflecting on his brother’s childhood here in Penticton, Philip Costain recalls, “Robin enjoyed the company of many friends’. He loved to hang out with people. Anyone who knew him well, knew that he would show up and hang out…..and would usually have a bag lunch with him…..and a sketch pad… Sometimes I would join him on these outings. It was a chance to meet his friends and spend time talking and sharing our Big Ideas.”
Robin studied at Okanagan College in Kelowna receiving a diploma in fine arts before moving to Vancouver where he received a diploma in Art in Merchandising from Langara College and a diploma in Graphic Design from Capilano College. On an old copy of his resume he writes under related skills and volunteer work, “Apart from my training in design, I am also an accomplished visual artist with numerous shows to my credit, both locally and internationally. It enables me to interact with people of all ages, cultures, races, genders as equals. Art has a wonderful way of breaking down barriers and opening discussion. It is a reality in today’s world that numerous organizations and agencies would not function without volunteers. I volunteer for the most part when I have the time to give, working with such organizations as Children’s Hospital, Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Spartacus Books, Arts in Action Society and the Grunt Gallery.” It also notes that he worked for the Penticton Art Gallery in 1981 as the assistant curator, creating an exhibition that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Picasso’s birth.
Upon graduation Robin began taking on a number of small graphic design contracts for various companies, and all the while his real passion lay in the creation and exploration of his own works which explored themes of spiritually and the human struggle. Robin’s girlfriend at the time Janice Hall remembers, “Robin was the polar opposite and seemed determined to take the “starving artist” road in life. He treated any commercial work he obtained as something extremely distasteful that he must endure to support his art. We lived in completely different worlds and recognizing this, we parted fondly.” Janice also recalls attending his first solo exhibitions entitled Rebar at the East Van Cultural Centre, “I went with another classmate, Brian Aske. Together the three of us had been the 3 amigos back in our college days. I was impressed with the show and blown away by the volume of work heʼd amassed. Of course the showʼs theme was a statement on the effects of mass development. He saw our quaint, quirky Vancouverʼs rapid change in the name of the almighty dollar and felt compelled to put it all on canvas.”
In going through his papers I found an undated copy of one of Robin’s artist statements which may have been for the exhibition mentioned previously and in his own words he described his own motivation, process and interests as follows…
“I think this note is for those of you who don’t know me rather than those that do. I have lived in this city for almost 12 years now but I was originally raised in the Okanagan. I think the thing I’ve noticed most is the constant amount of change this city goes through, a city with such a short history. It’s this type of change that consistently keeps me creating the work which you are now viewing. There is another world altogether out there. It is abstract in its rhythm; it does not have the same rules as the rest of the city. It is a world that is of a past existence but a past existence here in your city, your time passed. Documented ruthlessly, no doubt, by some carefully guided archivist. I know these structures histories but I think the pleasure comes from freeing the mind from what is known to a higher liberation of thought. A bit of magic for the hurried world, so slow down, it won’t stop.
If I have noticed anything about the work that is evolving, it is that sense of rhythm, that abstract language of symbol and colour, a relationship which is translation becomes a code, an urban code. I used to think it strange that I grew up in a more natural environment yet I seemed to be fascinated with an urban world. My statements over time have become more reflective, spontaneous, triggering strong sensory reactions from the audiences to their colour and the language of their forms. I think the strongest of all being memory. Many people tell me of their personal accounts due to strong symbolic connections to my work. Most of you who live or work in the city pass through these spaces on a daily, if not sometimes regular basis. The next time you are walking through the city, take some time to notice the changes, the contrasts in style, look down an alleyway, see the graffiti, the marks which time inflicts, see the boarded up windows, the tar lines, the bricked-in doorways. That’s my world, that’s what turns me on whether it be dawn or the wee twilight hours you can bet to see me out there in it.”
Underlying it all Robin struggled with depression a roller-coaster ride careening from moment to moment between the amazing highs to those impossible lows it was a ghost that haunted him and lurks within the dark recesses of his paintings. Looking back on his struggles with depression Philip states, “His was a silent struggle. Even those closest to him will remember Robin as being the encourager, the one who would have the right words at the right time…The gentle soul giving big hugs. Much of his art reflects and reveals this struggle. I think that anyone who has battled with mental illness will be able to identify with these themes.”
Tragically Robin lost his battle with depression in April of 1994, taking his own life in his art studio, an old warehouse in East Vancouver. As with anyone confronted with a tragedy of this magnitude, hindsight illuminates the warning signs pointing to the fact that something was wrong, yet nothing could stop the train as it left the station and you helplessly watch those you love slip away out of reach, leaving behind those who loved them the most trying to pick up the pieces.
Bringing these works back into the light for the first time in over 20 years allows a new generation of individuals an insight into his world and for those who knew him perhaps the chance to revisit an old friend and in doing so find some closure. For Philip and his family “This show is our opportunity to honor him. The work you see around you tonight is but a fraction of what Robin created in his 32 years on this planet. You will find that as you look at these paintings….each of them tells a story…and the story changes each time you look at them, depending on the time of day…the amount of light…and your own focus. Many hours spent…layer upon layer… colour... texture… meaning… look long… look deeper…”
In closing Janice states, “if any good should come from the loss of such a wonderful human being, it’s that his work will go on to support such a prevalent cause as mental illness. I know Robin would have loved that.”
Gerald A Roach (1933 – 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