Internationally acclaimed artist John A. Schweitzer is honouring his ties to Western with a $4-million gift of his art.
The donation contains 60 works spanning Schweitzer’s career as an artist, collector, critic and curator. Among them are 38 of his original works, including his only intact series The Erehwön Cycle – a six-panel “narration” inspired by Victorian author Samuel Butler’s satirical utopian novel of the same name.
“It’s a tremendous honour to receive such a personal gift from one of Canada’s foremost artists,” said President Alan Shepard. “John is one of Western’s most distinguished alumni whose prodigious creative talent is matched by his generous spirit. We are fortunate John holds such a deep affection for his alma mater, and we are delighted he is celebrating his lifelong connection to Western through his art. It’s a gift that will inspire our campus community for generations to come.”
Schweitzer, BA’74, LLD’11, calls the donation his chapeau to the university for endorsing his work throughout his 45-year career as a professional artist. He is dedicating the gift to Arlene Kennedy, former director of Western’s McIntosh Gallery (1989-2008).
“I wish to salute Arlene’s pivotal role as the first curator of a Canadian art institution to acquire and enter the first Schweitzer into a public collection, as well as her adamant interest in accessioning one work from each of my 15 subsequent series,” the Montreal-based artist said.
As a result of this gift, and past donations, Western now holds the largest collection of Schweitzer’s work, and becomes the preeminent study centre of the artist’s life.
Growing up in Ontario’s tobacco belt, Schweitzer didn’t work the fields, but instead wandered woodlands, crafting stories in his head.
“I enjoyed the solitude,” said the Simcoe native. “I created my own Arcadia through art-making ─ drawing, painting and fabricating little theatres out of cardboard boxes, lost away in a world of books.”
While his love of language brought Schweitzer to Western to study literature, a summer art course marked a turning point toward his becoming an award-winning collagist.
Western “opened doors to a bigger world” for the artist, who studied under legendary Canadian painter Paterson Ewen, as well as Roly Fenwick, Duncan de Kergommeaux and art historian William S. Dale.
“I was a small-town boy in the company of significant Canadian artists,” Schweitzer said. “The city was flourishing with the ‘London School’ of artists, including Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers and John Boyle.”
Schweitzer graduated with distinction as class valedictorian and recipient of the Gold Medal in Visual Arts. He then earned his MFA at York University before working as an artist and art dealer in New York.
In 1984 he founded the Galerie John A. Schweitzer, exhibiting both international and Canadian art as well as introducing young talents such as Liliana Berezowsky and Holly King. He achieved an international profile among gallerists with museum-quality exhibitions and catalogues of The Bauhaus and The New York School, and by hosting the first Canadian solo show of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
With an interest in the causes of literacy and architectural conservation, and also renowned for his social activism, Schweitzer organized the first AIDS benefit auction in Canada in 1986 and later created The John A. Schweitzer Foundation to support artists living with AIDS.
In 1989, Schweitzer met his “spiritual father,” abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell, who inspired him to close his gallery in 1994, and return to creating art full time.
Throughout his pluralist career Schweitzer has explored painting, sculpture, photography and film, but he is best known for his large-scale thematic collages. His works incorporate text from authors such as Virgil and Joyce with found objects — from coloured paper, torn posters and newspaper clippings to cardboard boxes, shopping bags and shards of metal.
His works hang in more than 200 private, corporate and public collections around the world, including several library and hospital commissions, and have been exhibited in museums from Vancouver to St. John’s, and from New York to Los Angeles.
In response to the U.S. terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Schweitzer created Fresh Kills: XXIV Elegies, a series of collages on display at the World Trade Center’s 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York.
As a long-time supporter of Western, Schweitzer is a Purple & White Award recipient and a trustee of Western’s Pride Library. His past gifts of material culture are housed in the D.B. Weldon Library, the Archives and Research Collections Centre and the McIntosh Gallery. Since 2004, the John A. Schweitzer Gallery has been home to a number of historical exhibitions on campus. In 2011, Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws upon Schweitzer in recognition of his generosity as a patron of the arts. His overall contributions and gifts of Canadian and international art to Western total more than $5 million.
Schweitzer hopes his support will inspire others to give.
“Through this gift I hope to encourage other alumni, artists and collectors to support Western, especially in a post-COVID world. Supporting the arts and our educational institutions will become more important than ever.”