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"George Mihalcheon with "Victory Garden Series""
George Mihalcheon with a 1994 painting, "Victory Garden Series," 5' x 6', Alberta Foundation for the Arts collection.
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George Mihalcheon, "Field/5," 1998, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48".
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"City Park Series #24B"
George Mihalcheon, "City Park Series #24B," 1997, acrylic on canvas, 77" x 57".
GEORGE MIHALCHEON: Elegant expressions
By Brian Brennan
George Mihalcheon, modest to a fault, has always referred to himself as a Sunday painter. Others see his contribution as being considerably more noteworthy. After more than half a century of Sundays, this gentle soft-spoken 79-year-old has produced a small but well-regarded body of work described by art historian Nicholas Roukes as always elegant in concept and expression. Calgarians have an opportunity to see some of that work featured through May at Virginia Christopher Fine Art, along with work by Mihalcheon’s one-time teacher Luke Lindoe, as part of the gallery’s Alberta Icons series.
Gallery proprietor Virginia Christopher says she decided to combine the work of the two artists in the show because both had a long and significant association with what is now the Alberta College of Art & Design, and both had an important influence on the art scene in Western Canada. She is particularly impressed by Mihalcheon’s dedication to art making over the years “despite the lack of applause, audience or bucks for it.”
Mihalcheon studied painting with Lindoe at the ACA after he had served his country during the Second World War as an airborne trainee and prison camp guard. Born in Boian, Alberta, a Romanian farming settlement 80 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, Mihalcheon was exempted from military service until 1944 because the federal government considered agricultural labour important to the war effort, and he had barely finished his training when the war ended. He took advantage of post-secondary education funding for veterans to parlay a boyhood interest in sketching and painting into a four-year diploma course at the college.
His practical reason for studying art was that he wanted to become a commercial illustrator. However, because he studied with the likes of Lindoe, Illingworth (Buck) Kerr, Stanford Perrott, Stan Blodgett and other artistic icons of the period, it was perhaps inevitable that Mihalcheon would learn more than how to draw an advertisement for Maclin Motors or Alpha Evaporated Milk. Lindoe particularly influenced him: “I picked up some of his brush strokes.”
Mihalcheon graduated with his diploma in 1950, landed a job as a graphic artist with the Stewart Bowman McPherson advertising agency in Calgary, and spent the next 10 years working in that field as a commercial artist and art director. He also did a few paintings for his own artistic satisfaction, joining the Alberta Society of Artists and participating with former ACA classmates Roy Kiyooka, Ron Spickett and Greg Arnold in a four-man show at Toronto’s Hart House. But the demands of his job and other commitments left little time for painting for pleasure. “Doing commercial art was a tremendous lot of pressure – go, go, go with deadlines every day. Then I got married and had two kids during that period, and also built a house, doing a lot of that work myself.”
Aside from the no-time-to-paint factor, Mihalcheon also felt restricted in his artistic development by the fact that Calgary lacked a civic art gallery where emerging local artists might be exposed to international art. “It wasn’t until Time magazine started doing some articles that we could see what was going on in New York and other places. Beyond that, we were really shut in with very little exposure.”
His wife, the former Jean LaPointe, is a Saskatchewan-born ceramicist who moved to Calgary in the 1950s to study at the ACA. George was rooming at the time with Greg Arnold, a left-handed artist, and Jean – who is also left-handed – came to learn from Arnold how to do calligraphy. “That’s how we met,” George says. “She said afterwards that she never learned calligraphy.” They now have four children and six grandchildren, and work side by side in adjoining studios in the basement of their spacious Silver Springs bungalow.
In 1960, Mihalcheon left advertising to teach art at the ACA. He remained there for the next 27 years, eventually moving into management as operations supervisor and continuing education coordinator. During this period he began to do more painting – landscapes, still life and figurative work – but soon discovered that he couldn’t get into juried exhibitions as a realist. “Even Buck Kerr got rejected; you had to paint in the international style. So I made the jump into abstract expressionism even though I had very little exposure to it.”
He is still amused by a comment made by the New York critic Clement Greenberg, who came to Calgary in the early 1960s and evaluated the work of local artists. Greenberg said that two artists, Mihalcheon and Ken Sturdy, were painting like New Yorkers and that Mihalcheon’s action paintings were similar to those done by Arshile Gorky. “I had never even seen a Gorky painting,” Mihalcheon says. “It was a compliment in some ways, but in other ways it could have been damning because I didn’t know what the comparison was.”
Mihalcheon experimented with several different styles over the years, from action painting to hard-edge design, collage and a post-painterly, semi-abstract mode of expression that art historian Roukes has compared to advertising and poster art. Every stylistic shift was triggered, Mihalcheon says, by a desire not to stand still: “After a couple of years pursuing one direction, I felt as though I should change. I picked up about four or five different directions during the 35 or so years that I did art, always changing because I felt the need to depart from what I was doing. I eventually came back to a kind of realism, and did paintings based on Calgary.” More recently, he has been working in a semi-abstract mode with landscape forms, specifically the landscapes of fields and flowers.
Mihalcheon retired from the ACA in 1987, two years after the institution finally separated from the provincially run Southern Alberta Institute of Technology to become an autonomous art and design school. It had been a long slog, Mihalcheon recalls. For 25 years, the ACA had been a college in name only, just another department under the SAIT umbrella, and Mihalcheon was always front and centre in the movement pushing for autonomy. “Yes, we were agitators,” he says. “We were trying to get an independent school, to get the college out of the closet, but it was difficult. They kept telling us we weren’t there to do art, we were there to teach. So we were civil servants.”
In recent years, Mihalcheon has maintained an informal connection with the college as lecturer emeritus, and he continues to work at his art, making pencil sketches of the fields and prairie blossoms that exist in his imagination, and converting them into acrylics on canvas. Arthritis has slowed his movements and eye operations have temporarily kept him away from his brushes, but he is still working away, continually creating, improving and touching up. “That sky is a bit dull,” he notes as he inspects the landscape currently sitting on his easel. “I have to brighten it up.” The work may sometimes be done, but it is never really finished.
George Mihalcheon is represented in the collections of the Alberta College of Art & Design, the Calgary Civic Art Collection, the University of Alberta, Fathers of Confederation Gallery in Charlottetown, PEI, the New Brunswick Museum, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Art Gallery of Peterborough.
Brian Brennan is the author, most recently, of Boondoggles, Bonanzas, and Other Alberta Stories, published by Fifth House Ltd. His profiles of Western Canada’s distinguished senior artists appear regularly in Galleries West.