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"Bill Rodgers in his Calgary studio"
Bill Rodgers in his Calgary studio. Photo Credit: Bob Blakey.
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"Studies in Citizenship (detail)"
Bill Rodgers, "Studies in Citizenship (detail)," 2008-9, oil on canvas, 18 units, each 24 x 20 in. (60.9 x 50.8 cm), collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Edmonton.
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"Queen Anne’s Lament"
Bill Rodgers, "Queen Anne’s Lament," 2005, acrylic on canvas, 95” x 42”.
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Bill Rodgers, "Majolica," 2010, mixed media construction, 78” x 160”.
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Bill Rodgers, "Reliquary/True Pavement," 2008, wood, found objects, asphalt, 11" x 7" x 5". Collection of the artist.
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"Reliquary/ Newcomer’s Vest"
Bill Rodgers, "Reliquary/ Newcomer’s Vest," 2008, wood, found objects, fluorescent vest, 9" x 6" x 7". Collection of the artist.
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Bill Rodgers, "Noblesse Oblige," 2002-3, oil on canvas, 80" x 64". Collection of the artist.
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"Modern Composition # 421"
Bill Rodgers, "Modern Composition # 421," 2011, mixed-media collage on paper, 15" x 18". Collection of the artist.
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Bill Rodgers, "Kildare," 2011, oil on canvas, 72" x 60". Collection of the artist.
CREATION AND DESTRUCTION
Calgary artist Bill Rodgers explores the ancient art of the palimpsest
By Brian Brennan
Calgary artist Bill Rodgers did something unusual in 1992. He went back to works he had made between 1978 and 1989 and began to scrape down and paint over them. The Calgary Herald’s art critic, Nancy Tousley, wrote at the time he was “sick of the images and being bombarded with them.” In fact, Rodgers says he was finding a new direction – one he continues to follow today – based on the ancient art of the palimpsest: The erasure of one work to make room for another. With elements of the original still visible, his repainted images serve to revivify, not obscure, what he calls the “hosts” of his new creations.
Rodgers’ interest in palimpsests was prompted when he wondered if it was possible to make art without bringing new objects into existence. “I began with the idea that I would erase work I had already made and repaint it from memory,” he says. “Then I started thinking about the palimpsest. Looking at these old manuscripts in the British Library, the oldest existing examples of the gospels, but written over Euclid and other great Greek works, emboldened me to continue with this project. I erased just about all of my production from 11 years and made new works that were in sympathy with what had been there before. What I could remember of them, that is. These paintings are more about memory than anything else.”
Rodgers describes himself as a journeyman, for he takes a workmanlike approach to painting. “The muse doesn’t come flying through the window,” he says. “It’s a struggle.” He also calls himself an itinerant because “I’m always going from one thing to another.” The physical form of his work has taken many shapes, from painting to drawing to mixed-media collage. For instance, one side trip occurred five years ago when he decided to do a painting depicting the cover of an old book. That led to 17 more book paintings – collectively called Studies in Citizenship – each canvas reproduced with trompe l’oeil accuracy. Still Rodgers, whose solo exhibition, a 10-year survey, is on view until June 30 at the Kelowna Art Gallery, sees an underlying cohesion in his work. “I suspect that when you see it all one place, in one room, there’s a thread running through it that defines the authorship. It won’t seem like a group show.”
Born on Calgary’s western outskirts in 1952, Rodgers has been active in the city’s art scene, both as teacher and painter, since the late 1970s. Before earning a diploma in his early 20s at what is now the Alberta College of Art and Design, he enjoyed a childhood filled with artistic nourishment. “I spent a lot of time in the classroom looking out the window and daydreaming. It didn’t do much for my scholastic career, but became a real asset when I got to art school.” He was inspired as a child by after-school art lessons from noted Calgary artist Kay Angliss and was later encouraged at high school by art teacher Barry Marks.
Rodgers worked his way through art school playing guitar six nights a week with a five-piece country-rock bar band, Lazy Dynamite. His geologist father and teacher mother supported his art aspirations, especially when they thought he was headed for a career in commercial design. “Then, at the end of first year, I announced I was taking painting,” says Rodgers. “That got their attention. But they were fine with that too.”
After college, where his teachers included Harold Feist and John Coleman, Rodgers went to Mexico on scholarship to pursue a postgraduate degree that never materialized. “The studio courses there were only at the level of the first- and second-year courses I had taken in Calgary.” He returned to Canada, briefly ran a studio in Richmond, B.C., and then came home, where he found the art community less cliquish than in Vancouver. A Calgary friend, a master carpenter, took him on as an apprentice. Rodgers worked two days a week at carpentry and taught two days a week as a sessional instructor at the college. He shared studio space downtown with former college students, including Quentin Caron, Wayne Giles and Evan Penny. Rodgers kept working as a carpenter until his teaching job became full time.
In 1982, at age 29, Rodgers made his solo debut at Calgary’s Off Centre Centre. Tousley described him as “one of the most interesting young image painters to emerge in Calgary in the past few years.” At his best, she wrote, Rodgers “touches that place in the emotional lives of human beings where ordinary objects or events can take on extraordinary presence.” By that time, Rodgers had returned to figurative painting after a few years of producing non-objective work. “That was all part of the zeitgeist, the new spirit of painting,” he says. “As a member of the faculty of the art college, one had to keep current.”
Tousley tracked Rodgers over the next several years. In 1984, reviewing his second solo show, she characterized his work as allegorical self-portraits that “transform the disparate elements of his life through the unifying experience of art.” In 1986, she noted his work had become “characterized by its brooding melancholy” and, in 1990, “it’s good to see him continuing to dig into his experience of the West.”
Other reviewers made positive assessments. The Edmonton Journal’s Gilbert Bouchard wrote that Rodgers’ palimpsest-inspired paintings made for “a joyful series of work that’s both humorous and visually engaging.” Liz Wylie, who curated the Kelowna exhibition, wrote in Canadian Art magazine that Rodgers’ collages and mixed-media constructions reminded her of “an old, out-of-the-way museum, which can be full of unexpected and delightful surprises.”
Not all reviews were positive, however. In one, Tousley accused him of “melancholic sleepwalking” and having an “audacious romantic imagination.” Rodgers jokes about that characterization when he gives talks.
As Rodgers’ work evolved, some aspects remained constant, reflecting his ongoing interest in regional history, in idealistic societies such as those envisaged by Louis Riel and the authors of the Regina Manifesto, and, more recently, in Irish social history. This latter interest stems from four trips Rodgers made to Ireland during the past eight years, once when his partner, fellow artist Mireille Perron, was artist-in-residence at the Burren College of Art in Ballyvaughan, County Clare. “Dublin has now become our favourite city,” he says. “We used to go to Paris or London or New York. Not any more. Dublin, we just love it.”
Most of Rodger’s solo shows have been in Calgary. His work has also been exhibited in Edmonton and Toronto. Now retired from the college, Rodgers works in the combined home-and-studio space he shares with Perron. His latest projects include paintings inspired by the illuminations in Ireland’s Book of Kells, a manuscript of the Four Gospels created by Celtic monks around 800, as well as work based on photographs of evicted Irish tenant farmers in the late 1800s.
Bill Rodgers: Journeyman, A Ten-Year Survey of Work, is on view to June 30 at the Kelowna Art Gallery. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary, where it will be shown in early 2014.