GATHIE FALK: More Yet to Come
By Brian Brennan
The story goes that Gathie Falk once walked into a Vancouver grocery store, looked at a pile of apples neatly arranged in pyramid style, and said to herself, “If I made them, they would be better.” She did and they were. Falk’s arrangements of ceramic apples became one of her artistic trademarks. She told a reporter that these and her other artistic evocations of everyday life – ceramic and papier mâché eggs, shirts, sinks and flowers – were “the veneration of the ordinary.” An editor latched onto the phrase, put it in a headline, and critics and curators have been using it ever since. Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, polishing the everyday and making it gleam, has become Falk’s way of helping people see the world through clearer eyes.
She was a relatively late starter. She didn’t become a full-time artist until age 37 after she had taught elementary school in Vancouver for a dozen years. When she won a Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award in March 2003, at age 75, she joked that she planned to open her acceptance speech by saying, “I always wanted to be a child prodigy, but I missed the boat.”
She didn’t miss the boat; it just took her a while to catch it. Born Agatha Falk on January 31, 1928, in the tiny Mennonite community of Alexander, Manitoba, she legally changed her first name to Gathie (a family pet name) when she tired of hearing people wrongly pronounce Agatha with the accent on the first syllable. Her Russian immigrant father died when she was 10 months old, her mother moved the family several times through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario, and Gathie worked in factories from age 16 onward to help her mother pay off a longstanding debt to the Canadian Pacific Railway for covering the family’s passage from Russia to Canada.
Falk attended free art classes at age 13 in Winnipeg and also took some art training after she and her mother moved to Vancouver in 1947. But pursuing a career in art was not an option for her at that stage. She trained as a teacher at normal school, and taught at an elementary school to help support her mother.
In 1957, when she was 29, Falk began enrolling in summer school and night courses in design, drawing and painting. She wanted to leave her teaching job and pursue art full-time, but it would be another eight years before she was ready. In 1965 she cashed in her teacher’s pension, left her job, and had her first solo exhibition – of abstract and figurative expressionistic paintings – at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Vancouver critic David Watmough praised her figurative works, saying they possessed “vivid resources of colour and a primitive crudity with its own velocity.”
Falk temporarily left painting behind in 1966, and began making pottery and ceramic sculpture. She rented part of her house to friends, ran a small pottery business, and taught continuing education art courses until she was able to make a living from her sculpture. Her primary influences during this period were the Funk artists of California whose representations of everyday objects showed her that banality could be transformed into something visually glorious. In 1968, she mounted an installation work at Vancouver’s Douglas Gallery that brought her critical acclaim and a few sales. Turning the entire gallery into a mock living room filled with her sculpture, prints, paintings and mixed media works, she wittily abolished the distance between art and life. “Glorious fun,” said critic Joan Lowndes. “An artist of stature,” said critic Marguerite Pinney.
The next step in the creative development of Gathie Falk took her from installation artist to performance artist. Between 1968 and 1977 she toured Canada with a selection of performance pieces combining the mundane tasks of everyday life (sewing, shining shoes, doing laundry) with her artistic depictions of the everyday. At the same time, she continued to make sculpture. Her first public commission was Veneration of the White Collar Worker #1 and #2, two ceramic murals installed in 1973 in the cafeteria of the External Affairs building in Ottawa.
The 1970s brought Falk the satisfaction of seeing her work shown in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, New York and Paris, and critical praise for being “an inventive and important Canadian artist.” However, this period also brought grief and stress in her personal life. In 1972, her mother died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. In 1975, her brief marriage to Dwight Swanson, a convicted felon 20 years her junior, ended in separation and divorce. She had met him through a church visitation program while he was in prison, and agreed to marry him upon his release in 1974. However, the difficulties of marriage to someone who had spent most of his life in jail proved too much for her. “The stress of my marriage did not stop me from working,” she said. “But it has undoubtedly affected much of what I have done since.”
In 1985, the Vancouver Art Gallery presented a retrospective exhibition of Falk’s sculpture, paintings and prints, which it described as the largest ever organized for a single individual. Curator Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker compared Falk’s experience and artistic development with that of the much-celebrated Emily Carr: “Both Falk and Carr have suffered from inadequate national recognition of their work. An artist of Falk’s stature would have been accorded much greater recognition if she had not continued to live and work on the West Coast.”
The retrospective paved the way for further recognition. In 1990, Falk won the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation award of $25,000 for the “extraordinary range of her work and the substantial contribution she has made to each of the very diverse media she has worked in.” Seven years later, at age 69, she received the Order of Canada. “It’s a very great honour,” said Falk. “It’s almost like being knighted.”
The Vancouver Art Gallery presented a second retrospective of Falk’s work in 2000. Two years later, the artist was finally recognized in her own province when she received the Order of British Columbia. “I am not finished working,” said Falk. “There is a good deal yet to come.” As if to prove the point, she exhibited one selection of new work at Vancouver’s Equinox Gallery in March 2003, and now has another exhibition on view at the Equinox until February 28.
Doubtless, there is more to come. But, for the moment, the last word on Gathie Falk’s progress as an artist comes from the jury that awarded her the 2003 Governor General’s Award: “Her loving focus on the ordinary is suffused with a sense of loss, of irony and of impermanence, and also with a terrible beauty.”
Gathie Falk’s works of art are held in many public collections, including those of Musée d’art contemporain of Montreal, the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the McMichael Canadian Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
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.