Robert Cameron (Bob) Steele was born in Mervin, SK on January 27, 1925. He served in the RCAF, received Education and Arts degrees at the University of Saskatchewan, and taught music, art and English in Princeton, Chilliwack and the Vancouver School of Art. The majority of his working life was spent working at the University of British Columbia in the Faculty of Education working alongside such noted artists as B.C. Binning, Gordon Smith, J.A.S. MacDonald, Roy Kiyooka and Richard Reid amongst others. Bob remained with the department for 28 years specializing in graphic arts and art education before retiring as Professor Emeritus.
Bob Steele sees drawing as a language that’s potentially as important as talking or writing and he has consequently made the study of “aesthetic energy” in children’s art into his life’s work. About twenty years ago he started the Drawing Network bringing together a small informal group of parents, teachers, academics and reform minded citizens who recognize that spontaneous drawing is the young child's most important language for articulating, expressing and communicating his or her deepest and most complex perceptions, thoughts and feelings. This is above all a literacy project as spontaneous drawing is not only a language in its own right but an important aid to literacy. Over the past two decades he has also put his thoughts and theories down on paper self-publishing a number of books under the Drawing Network banner.
In his book, Draw Me a Story, Bob used examples of child art to explore the connections between drawing and language. He contends that in their drawings children can capture degrees of sophistication in perception, understanding and emotion that are far beyond their literacy level. "Draw Me A Story was motivated," he says, "by the strange reluctance on the part of educators to accept the spontaneous drawing of children as a language phenomenon. This has considerable significance for intellectual development and emotional well-being of children."
His interest in writing also extends to Canadian history having spent much of his early life in Saskatchewan towns near many of the important sites for the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, such as Loon Lake, scene of Big Bear's flight through muskeg country. Bob Steele self-published Stories from the Rebellion (Drawing Network, 2011, $24), is an historical work that includes observations from a fictional journalist named Thomas Cruikshanks. It is illustrated by Steele's own portraits of central characters such as Police Commissioner A.G. Irvine, Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel, Chief Fine Day, Big Bear and Chief Poundmaker. Steele writes, "It is written as history and fiction, thoroughly researched but fictionally imagined through the eyes of a young reporter from Ontario. The format is alternate sections of straightforward historical narrative and the fictional sections. In this way it departs from the typical historical novel. The rationale is to attract young adult readers and demonstrate that Canadian history is far from dull. A secondary motif is to encourage young readers to become young writers of history."
Bob Steele Artist Statement
This exhibition of recent work represents the preoccupation of one who increasingly thinks of himself as an amateur. I’m not sure if this is the right word, but I intend it to suggest someone who continues to explore image-making long after thoughts of exhibitions have evaporated, and, truly, 'art for art’s sake' has become the ruling mantra. But then along came Paul Crawford, the Penticton Art Gallery and my friend and neighbour, Les McKinnon, offering an opportunity to have this public exhibition. The basic motivation of all artists to ‘show and tell’ could not be denied and here I am. I wish to express my gratitude to all three.
Here are brief notes on three separate themes that have preoccupied me in the recent past:
THE HOMESTEADING IN SASKATCHEWAN SERIES: I have been writing family history, a typical late-in-life activity that I enjoy. It was natural perhaps that writing would segue into studio practice. Old family photographs have always fascinated me, especially the kind that record the lives of past generations. Mine settled in rural Saskatchewan in the early 1900s and someone had a fairly good camera and took imaginative pictures of life in the homesteading community of Bankend. I enlarged them and thought about how I might use them. I knew these images would be rough and ‘impure’ but I rationalized that this would increase the ‘times past’ aura that I wanted to invoke.
THE RUINED SCULPTURE SERIES: Anyone who has been to Greece and its National Gallery will have carried away an impression of sculptural perfection, even those who, like me, consider themselves modernists. They may also share my puzzlement that these same treasures from the distant past easily pass the test of ‘sculptural beauty’ even when limbs, or even heads, are missing nor do we regret that the original naturalistic paint job has disappeared with age. We like them as they are, ruined.
GRAPHIC EPHEMERA: I was a street photographer some years back; now I am unable to go hunting for images but I am still interested in photographs. The chosen photograph was cut in two and separated with a structural element that, one moment, attracts attention in its own right and the next, seeks to reunite the split image. Instead of a ‘steady state’ flow of ‘aesthetic energy’, the print offers a shifting menu of possibilities.
Bob Steele, Vancouver, BC, July 2013