RUMINATIONS – Art for All: Contemplating Arts Accessibility through the context of Canadian History

Written by Susan Nagy, Executive Director 

Last summer I made my way across our great country to visit the west coast for the very first time. To say that I was in awe is an understatement; the raw beauty and breathtaking majesty confirmed that Mother Nature is a true artist.

With every adventure I undertake, I always anticipate the hope that I will encounter something unexpected that will hit me with a resonating force and make a lasting impression. With this journey, it was a visit on Salt Spring Island to the Pegasus Gallery, where an unknown (to me) part of Canadian art history was revealed.

I have taken art history in high school and design school and never heard once of this massive public art initiative.

When World War II broke out, A. J. Casson was working with Sampson-Matthews, a leading graphic reproduction company. As a First World War veteran, his experience of being away from home on foreign soil prompted the idea to find Canadian landscape artists who had represented each corner across the country and reproduce them.

Artwork was painstakingly recreated, sometimes using 15 – 20 different screens to mimic the original work of art; the process was executed under the technical skill of the Sampson- Matthews team and supervised by A. J. Casson, validated by his signature and in some cases, the artists’ initials.

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Guided by the National Gallery, these reproduction pieces of many current prominent painters of the time were shipped overseas to be displayed in armed forces bases; to emulate a sense of home, identity and create patriotic pride, and at the home-front they targeted libraries, government offices, schools, banks and hospitals. In 1943, Eaton’s displayed them in their storefront windows from coast to coast.

The artists who participated formed the who’s who of Canadian painting royalty at that time: Lawren Harris, Emily Carr, Tom Thompson, Thoreau McDonald, to name a few.

After the war and until 1963 the work went into overdrive to provide quality prints at the lowest price possible; making iconic Canadian work accessible and creating a visual lexicon for generations to come. This was the largest publicly sponsored art project in Canadian history; 22 years, 39 artists and at its height, it employed many of the country’s best commercial painters, designers and artists, working full-time to create masterpieces of serigraphy.

Although, this particular project could not be replicated due to the cost and the complexity of the technique without costing tens of thousands of dollars, public art projects still play a key role within our society. Just look at the numbers of participants that attend Luminato and Nuit Blanche in Toronto or the ownership that is garnered around mural work in communities. Interacting with innovative programming that builds community and sparks a common bond has a long lasting impact on the audience and the community that champions the event.

Like the goals of the Sampson-Matthews silkscreen project, community arts’ mantra is to make art accessible providing an authentic experience guided by professional arts facilitators. Despite the fact that artists and arts organizations are still trying to validate their importance in today’s economic climate, we have recorded precedents that champion the need in our society to integrate creativity, wonder and beauty in our daily lives. Art in all its shapes and sizes (music, dance, drama, creative writing, visual, media etc.) help to shape our cultural identity and is a necessary pillar of a healthy society.