"Tree of Life"
Jack Shadbolt, "Tree of Life," 1987, acrylic on wood, 28.5’ x 17.5’.
Jack Shadbolt (1909 – 1998)
By Portia Priegert
Tree of Life is nothing if not exuberant, with its multiple facets of energetic colour cobbled together like a jigsaw puzzle on acid. It’s huge and abstract, spanning some two storeys with a theatrical flair that’s particularly apt for a piece originally commissioned for the Cineplex Odeon art collection.
Viewers at its new home in the Reichwald Health Sciences Centre on the Kelowna campus of the University of British Columbia can appreciate the link between its surreal jungle of organic forms and the titular allusion to foundational stories of myth and religion. Indeed, Jack Shadbolt once said the piece represented the “irrepressible force of natural growth.”
The mural was painted on wood and built in a series of layers, some up to four inches thick, says Susan Belton, the curator of the campus art collection. Unveiled in 1987 by Toronto entertainment producer Garth Drabinsky, it was an impressive accomplishment for Shadbolt, then 78. “It is just so massive,” says Belton. “Your response is demanded. But it is also so lively and colourful, one must fall in love. Art often draws opinions and criticism, but this work seems to touch everyone who sees it.”
The story behind the move is interesting. Stew Turcotte, the owner of Hambleton Galleries in Kelowna, heard from a Vancouver art dealer that the Granville Street cinema building where Tree of Life had been displayed for more than two decades, might be sold or even demolished. Eventually, a wall at the Okanagan campus large enough to accommodate the piece was found, along with a benefactor – Luigi Rossi, a doctor from Smithers, B.C., who graduated from UBC in 1981. “If this had gone into storage for 10 or 15 years, it would have been ruined,” says Turcotte. “It just wouldn’t have been looked after. So this way, we saved it.”
Shadbolt himself needs little introduction. One of British Columbia’s leading artists, he had some 70 solo exhibitions, including retrospectives at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and the National Gallery in Ottawa. He represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1956, and his many subsequent honours included the Order of Canada in 1972.