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Kenneth Lockhead, untitled.
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Kenneth Lockhead, "Blue Extension," 1963, acrylic on canvas, 81" x 100".
KENNETH LOCKHEAD: Homage
One of the Regina Five and co-founder of the visiting artist workshops at Emma Lake, Kenneth Lochhead connected Regina with the wider art world.
By Brian Brennan
Kenneth Lochhead was born in Ottawa in 1926, and has been back living there for the past 30 years. But notwithstanding his obvious link with the national capital, he will always be known as one of the so-called Regina Five, a group of talented Canadian abstract painters who achieved renown in 1961 for a landmark exhibition presented at the National Gallery of Canada and subsequently toured across the country.
Lochhead had been living in Regina for 11 years when the breakthrough National Gallery show brought him national exposure and a central place in what Regina writer Will Chabun has called “the five important things that have taken their name from this city.” (The other four are the Regina Cyclone of 1912, the Regina Riot of 1935, HMCS Regina and the Regina Rifles.) The son of a scientist father and musician mother who encouraged Kenneth and his poet brother Douglas to follow careers in the arts, Lochhead studied commercial art at Ottawa’s High School of Commerce, painted prize-winning watercolours while studying art at Queen’s University, and then won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, where in his fourth year he specialized in the type of flat-plane and egg tempura mural paintings pioneered by Piero della Francesca.
While in Pennsylvania, Lochhead took a two-year course at the Barnes Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1922 to promote advancement of education and appreciation of the fine arts. There he learned about Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and about the visual elements and esthetic traditions evident in other art forms across periods and cultures. “I came out of school thinking that Matisse was the greatest painter of the century,” he said 30 years later. “And I still think so.”
The Barnes Foundation had such a profound influence on Lochhead that when in 1950 at age 24 he was appointed director of the art school at Regina College, then a junior college of the University of Saskatchewan, he made a point of regularly taking his students to Philadelphia to get a first-hand look at the works they were studying. “The kids were all studying art through slides,” he explained later. “They needed to see original works of art.”
Because he had very few students in the beginning, Lochhead had lots of time to paint, and the 1950s were immensely creative years for him. Curator Helen Marzolf wrote in the catalogue for a 1968 Regina exhibition of Lochhead’s abstract paintings that some of his critically acclaimed works during this period were “denatured landscapes populated by geometrically simplified figures of unmistakably Surrealist genealogy.”
In 1955, Lochhead and his Regina College faculty colleague Arthur McKay organized a two-week professional artists’ workshop to augment the annual summer classes for Saskatchewan artists, students and high school art teachers that the university had been holding since the mid-1930s at remote Emma Lake, in the woods north of Prince Albert. The idea was to connect Prairie artists with the wider art world by bringing in top modernist artists to lead intensive studio courses. The first invited guest was Jack Shadbolt from Vancouver, and he was followed by such prominent American abstract expressionists as Will Barnet, John Ferren and Barnett Newman, and the influential New York critic Clement Greenberg. Lochhead served as administrator of the workshops for nine years, during which time they served as the primary mechanism for the dissemination of the modernist esthetic in Western Canada.
In 1961, what started out as a local show featuring Lochhead, McKay, and three of their painter friends—Ron Bloore, Ted Godwin and Doug Morton—moved from Regina to the National Gallery in Ottawa, where it was an instant success. “One of the most significant shows of contemporary Canadian art,” said the headline on one review. “A remarkable phenomenon of the Canadian Prairies,” said another. The media dubbed the group the Regina Five and, in Bloore’s words, “it was very good for all of us. We hit the jackpot with just one show.”
Critic Greenberg visited Emma Lake in 1962 and was so taken by Lochhead’s work that he mentioned him in a 1963 survey essay for Canadian Art magazine, and included one of Lochhead’s paintings in his 1964 Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition in Los Angeles. This appearance, in a show featuring the likes of Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, propelled Lochhead into the front ranks of Canadian painters. “From then on,” wrote Toronto Star critic Sol Littman, “Lochhead led and others followed.”
Frustrated by his inability to establish a BFA program at Regina College, Lochhead left Regina in 1964 to become professor of painting at the University of Manitoba. Two of the other Regina Five members—Bloore and Morton—also left Regina during the same period. Lochhead then moved on to York University and finally, in 1975, back to his hometown and the University of Ottawa. There, after spending 20 years engaged almost exclusively in producing abstract art, he shocked some people by returning to his traditionalist roots, painting landscapes, wildlife, clouds and birds. “The pressure to be with it is gone,” he explained to critic Littman. “I don’t need to feel chic, to prove I’m in the mainstream.”
Lochhead continued to earn critical acclaim while changing his artistic priorities. A 1980 exhibition of Alberta landscapes at Calgary’s Mira Godard Gallery was described by Calgary Herald critic Nancy Tousley as “good painting by a painter who clearly loves his vocation.” In 1991, Ottawa Citizen critic Nancy Baele wrote that she could feel the sensuality and the romantic atmosphere in an exhibition of Venice-inspired Lochhead oil paintings, Gardens in Time. “Their attraction lies in their fluidity and their emphasis on chromatic harmony. There’s a feeling of balance.”
He also earned recognition beyond the boundaries of the art world. In 1971, Lochhead was awarded the Order of Canada “for his contribution to the development of painting, especially in Western Canada, as an artist and teacher.”
Since retiring from teaching in 1989 at age 63, Lochhead has been painting full-time in his Gatineau, Quebec, studio, a half-hour’s drive from his Ottawa home. His studio is located in a hemlock spruce forest, and he has been focussing recently on his Interior Forest series of paintings. In Western Canada, his works can be found in the permanent collections of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Edmonton Art Gallery, the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. During the 1990s, he exhibited works in Toronto, Winnipeg and Ottawa, and he continues to appear regularly in solo and group shows across the country. In October 2004, his quirky depictions of Canadian political and historical figures, painted during the previous 14 years, were featured in a show, On and Off the Hill, at the Ottawa Art Gallery. A major retrospective covering 54 years of his creative output, Kenneth Lochhead: Garden of Light 1948–2002, is on view at Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery January 29 to May 8. “I’m a painter like the next guy is a carpenter,” Lochhead has said. “The more I paint, the more I’m liking it.”
Kenneth Lochhead is represented by Wallace Galleries, Calgary, and Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto.
Brian Brennan’s latest book, Romancing the Rockies: Mountaineers, Missionaries, Marilyn and More, is published this spring by Fifth House Ltd. His profiles of Western Canada’s distinguished senior artists appear regularly in Galleries West.