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John Snow, "Castro Verde," 1977, lithograph on paper.
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Artist John Snow, photographed on his 90th birthday, December 2001.
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John Snow, "Valencia," 1979, lithograph on paper.
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John Snow, "Prairie Fields," 1982, lithograph on paper.
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John Snow, "September," 1974, lithograph on paper.
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John Snow, "Castro Verde," 1977, lithograph on paper.
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John Snow, "Espinko," 1977, lithograph on paper, 17" x 23".
John Snow, Dazzling on Stone
By Brian Brennan
The popular press has made much of the fact that John Snow established himself as an artist in Western Canada while simultaneously pursuing a successful career in banking. "A banker who dabbles in printmaking," snorted the Calgary Herald in 1984. But Snow shrugged off the slight. "Everybody can do more than one thing well," he said. "People tend to be too one-sided today."
Given his achievements, one could hardly accuse Snow of being "one-sided." Renaissance man would be more like it. This questing artistic soul has made his mark not only in banking and art but also in music, film and theatre.
He discovered art-making at a young age. Two artistically talented aunts showed him how to paint in watercolours when he was a child in England during the First World War. He continued to paint after his family returned to Canada in 1919. He also studied cello and violin. In 1921, when John was 10, the family settled on a farm west of Innisfail, Alberta. Five years later he told his father he wanted "to be a painter or a banker."
The banking came first. In 1929, at age 17, Snow began what would be a 43-year career with the Royal Bank. "It's so very hard for an artist to make a living painting, especially at first," he said years later. "I didn't have to. I was making loans during the daytime and was delighted to come home at night and put some colour on a sheet of paper."
After service overseas as an air force navigator during the Second World War, Snow returned to Canada, to Calgary, and made a conscious decision to "do art seriously." He joined a life drawing group at Coste House, a community art centre, and studied drawing with Maxwell Bates at what is now the Alberta College of Art and Design. "Bates was a wonderful teacher," said Snow. "That's how I really got started."
Perhaps the most important journey of Snow's life as an artist occurred in 1953 when he visited Glen Alps, a noted Seattle print artist, who told Snow he should try lithography, a surface printing technique that depends on the fact that grease and water do not mix. "The medium would suit you," said Alps. Snow returned to Calgary, purchased for $15 two old lithography presses that Western Printing and Lithography had dumped in a back alley, moved the presses into his basement and, with the help of his friend and teacher Bates, taught himself how to make colour lithographs. Working with greasy paint or chalk on limestone slabs, he produced hundreds of limited-edition prints. His subjects included figures, still lifes and landscapes, variously described by critics as moody, rich-hued and venturesome.
In the 1960s, while still making lithographs, Snow started doing landscapes in oils, and decided that he could achieve richer colours with lithography. He also started making sculptures and broadened his range further by designing and building stage sets for a Calgary theatre company. Additionally, Snow was active with the Calgary Film Society, an organization he had helped found in 1946.
Snow retired from the Royal Bank in early 1972, at age 60, after having worked up to assistant manager with the bank's main branch in Calgary. From then on he worked full time on artistic projects, which now included hooking rugs and making short films. In 1982 Snow and his wife Kathleen founded New Works Calgary Society, an organization dedicated to commissioning and presenting works by Calgary composers. He continued to design stage sets and costumes for plays, and showed his prints in galleries around the world.
In 1984 Snow received both an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary, and the Alberta Achievement Award from the provincial government. Those distinctions, says Canmore art dealer Doug Maclean, showed that Snow was then being recognized as the finest in his field: "I call him, without any hesitation, Canada's best and most important lithographer."
In 1989 the Edmonton Art Gallery opened a retrospective exhibition of 100 works from Snow's four-decade career as an artist. One of the major sponsors, appropriately enough, was the Royal Bank. When the show arrived in Calgary the Herald critic, Nancy Tousley, declared, "Snow is most dazzling on stone." Snow commented that his career reflected a life-long desire to "do my own thing. It's important to be true to whatever you have inside you."
Snow remained active as an artist until 1992, when he completed a commissioned mural, Themes, that now adorns a pharmacy located at the corner of 17 Avenue and 14 Street SW in Calgary. "That was his finale," says his son, John Vance Snow. "The sheer effort involved in moving the stones, which are 40 to 50 pounds each, and then grinding them â€¦ he just decided that was enough."
Snow suffered a serious health setback in 1994 when a fall at his home put him in the hospital for three months. This reverse was followed in 1995 by the death from cancer of Kathleen, his wife of 31 years - "marvellous Kay," as he called her. She was a writer who wrote an acclaimed biography of Maxwell Bates, among other books,. Snow married her nine years after the 1954 death of his first wife, Bula Mae. "They were an ideal pair, John and Kay," says John Vance Snow. "They complemented one another so well."
In 1996 Snow became the first - and to date only - artist to receive the Alberta Order of Excellence. "Alberta is now regarded internationally as a printmaking centre, in large part due to the pioneering work of Dr. Snow," said the government citation. Snow received the honour with characteristic modesty. "It's a wonderful way to spend some quiet time," he said. "And it keeps me interested."
Snow spent three months in the hospital with pneumonia in 2000, after which he moved to a Calgary retirement home where he now lives at age 91. In 2001 the two-storey home in Lower Mount Royal where he had lived and worked for close to 50 years was purchased by Calgary author and publisher Jackie Flanagan to accommodate the writers who take part in the Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Writers Programme sponsored by Flanagan and her husband, Allan Markin. Visiting writers to date have included Timothy Findley and Robert Kroetsch.
One of Snow's two big lithograph presses was donated to the University of Calgary art department. The second was donated to the Alberta College of Art and Design. A third, smaller press remains in the house, where it is now being used by members of the Calgary art community.
A generous selection of Snow's work can be seen at Collector's Gallery in Calgary, which has mounted several exhibitions featuring his prints. Snow's artworks are also in the collections of the Alberta Government House Foundation, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the National Gallery of Canada, the Glenbow Museum, the Nickle Arts Museum, the Edmonton Art Gallery and the Medicine Hat Museum and Art Gallery. Royal Bank customers, meanwhile, can see one of Snow's landscapes at the bank's main branch in downtown Calgary, on a wall behind the cashiers.
Brian Brennan's newest book, Scoundrels and Scallywags: Characters from Alberta's Past, is published by Fifth House Ltd.