It was after Paterson Ewen arrived in London that he began creating his famous landscapes on routered plywood, indelibly changing the artistic landscape of Canada.
One of the country’s best-known artists, Ewen’s career intersected with two seminal moments in Canadian art – the Automatistes in Quebec and the London art scene of the 1960s and early 1970s, marked by works of Greg Curnoe and Jack Chambers.
Yet Ewen – whose struggles with mental illness affected both life and art – is still something of a mystery today. Copyright limitations and limited publications have kept one of Canada’s most celebrated artistic talents in the shadows for more than a decade since his death. But a revival is coming, according to Visual Arts Chair and professor John Hatch, who later this month will publish Paterson Ewen: Life & Work through the Art Canada Institute.
The biography traces the journey of Ewen and his work, marking both its high and low points, while emphasizing his important contribution to Canadian art as an artist and a teacher. Ewen, who taught at Western for more than a decade, remains one of the most highly regarded and innovative Canadian artists of his time.
“My area is European and American art, specifically. Canadian art, I really haven’t had any connection with, but one of my areas of interest is art and astronomy and art and science, generally, and that drew me to Ewen,” Hatch said, noting Ewen’s well-known paintings of celestial planes.
“He loved the moon and the moon was, in a sense, his image. The moon has been seen as affecting behavior and he was an incredibly well read individual and that wouldn’t have passed him.”
A number of years ago, Hatch presented a paper on Ewen and astronomy at a conference at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. When Ewen passed away in 2002, Hatch wanted to recognize him at Western. He contacted the president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, arranging to have an asteroid named after the artist. A commemorative plaque showing the asteroid’s location hangs outside of the chair’s office in the Visual Arts Centre.
When Hatch found out about the Art Canada Institute and its mandate to provide broader access to Canadian art, he pitched an idea for a book, which was eagerly accepted.
“This book will help revive the interest in Paterson because it did wane. His work has not been as accessible as that of others for a number of reasons and the last major text on him was done in 1996, which was an exhibition catalogue. There is renewed interest in local artists now, and this text is coming in at a good time,” Hatch noted.
Ewen was only the second studio faculty member to teach at Western. He was loved by some, but not by all. He poured his energy into students who showed commitment and dedication. He was not keen if he thought a student was just biding time. And it was during his time in London and at Western that Ewen’s career took an important turn.
“With the London artists, he expanded his work from being strictly abstract on canvas, to producing the large routered plywood pieces which became his trademark, what he is famous for today. Those were largely tied with experimentation with different materials, which is tied to what the local artists were doing,” explained Hatch.
“They really in a sense provided a type of incentive for Ewen to experiment, and in fact, do something that was radical in terms of its traditional move. He went from abstract art to going back to landscape painting, which was rather odd for the time because it seemed like a step backward. But he really revolutionized the type of landscape being produced in terms of this new media with working with routered plywood.”
The idea came to Ewen from 19th-Century Japanese woodcuts, specifically the work of artist Katsushika Hokusai, in whom Ewen found appeal, in part, because he contrasted the unpredictable, sometimes violent world with the peaceful setting of the monumental Mount Fuji.
His first large plywood piece was planned as a print; he carved it out, coloured it and thought it could stand on its own. Routered works marked the remainder of his career. The gouged, painted surface show an aggressive working of the plywood that spoke to the psychological challenges Ewen struggled with throughout his life, Hatch explained. They recall the thick brushwork of Vincent van Gogh, an artist Ewen admired and empathized with.
Ewen’s oeuvre was an inspiration for many Canadian artists who followed his example of experimentation and depictions of inner visions, making him a critical figure in the country’s cultural landscape.