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Tony Tascona, "The Catch," 2003, ink on paper, 29" x 21.5".
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Tony Tascona. Photo byThomas Bres.
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Tony Tascona, "The Catch," 2003, ink on paper, 29" x 21.5".
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Tony Tascona, "Sunspots," 2004, ink on paper, 21.5" x 17".
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Tony Tascona, "Intermezzo," 2004, ink on paper, 26" x 17.5".
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Tony Tascona, "Fall Out," 2002, ink on paper, 26.5" x 21".
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Tony Tascona, "The Dive," 2005, ink on paper, 22" x 29".
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Tony Tascona, "Genesis," 2003, ink on paper, 13.5" x 21.5".
At the age of 80, still finding new ways of doing things.
By Brian Brennan
When you look at the list of awards received by 80-year-old Winnipeg artist Tony Tascona over his lifetime, you see the kinds of honours you would expect to find on the résumé of a distinguished senior artist: member of the Order of Canada; honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg; honorary fellowship from St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba, and so on. But one jumps out as a surprise: his 2002 induction into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame. This unexpected recognition acknowledges the achievement of a young athlete who first made his mark as a fielder, hitter and bunter — and also as a junior hockey player — before leaving the wide world of sports for the rarefied world of art.
Tascona, who was born in St-Boniface, Manitoba, in March 1926, launched his semi-professional baseball career in the north end of Winnipeg during the Second World War era. He chose to play there, he said, because as the son of an immigrant from Sicily he was viewed with suspicion by his French-speaking St-Boniface neighbours. After a few seasons with Winnipeg’s Elmwood Giants, he moved to Brandon and played with the Brandon Greys when they won the Manitoba Senior Baseball title in 1948. The Greys included five black American players excluded from the white-only major leagues, and Tascona used to refer to himself jokingly as the sixth black player because of his dark complexion.
Tascona returned to Winnipeg in 1949 to resume his studies at the Winnipeg School of Art, which he had started attending in 1947 with an education grant received from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for his one year of wartime army service. He supported himself by working as a lounge waiter at a St-Boniface hotel and by playing semi-professional baseball with the Winnipeg Reos.
The Winnipeg School of Art became part of the University of Manitoba in 1950, and Tascona stayed on for two years after earning his diploma to study painting, printmaking and life drawing with such American professors as William McCloy and Richard Bowman. He said he found them to be a great source of inspiration in what he saw as a Canadian visual arts scene “in desperate need of revitalization.”
After completing his studies, Tascona worked first as a metal-plating technician with Canadian Aviation and Electronics in Winnipeg and later as an electroplater with Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada), where the experience of working with different types of industrial metals, paints and aircraft designs were to have a strong influence on his art. “In fact, that’s where the sculptural quality came into my work.”
Tascona had his first solo show at the University of Manitoba in 1958 and, within a short time, the critics were hailing him as an assured abstract artist with a gift for evocative imagery and a well-developed sense of colour. After spending two years in Montreal, where he associated with a group of artists, Les Plasticiens, who emphasized the formal aspects of abstract expressionism rather than the expression of the unconscious, Tascona returned in 1964 to Winnipeg, where his approach to abstraction became more formal and geometric as he largely eliminated representational subject matter from his painting.
In 1967, Tascona was commissioned to produce two huge murals for Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall. Further commissions followed and, by 1970, he was able to quit his Air Canada job and dedicate himself more fully to his art. The lacquer-on-aluminum method that he had perfected in the two Centennial Concert Hall murals would become a favourite medium for much of the next 20 years.
Tascona has said that he is driven to make art without regard for any physical limitations that might hinder him. He notes that when Matisse was no longer able to paint following cancer surgery he continued to create by making cutouts, and Tascona has tried to remain active in art by making similar adjustments. At one point when he was hospitalized for spinal surgery and unable to paint, Tascona turned to drawing, a medium he could manage in bed. He continued to draw after leaving the hospital, producing the drawings as finished works, not as preparatory works for other compositions.
Some imaginative critics and viewers have offered rather specific and programmatic interpretations of Tascona’s work, occasionally referring to his relief constructions as “absolute” rather than “abstract.” However, Tascona prefers to look at his work in a more matter-of-fact way. As he said to Winnipeg art reviewer Patrick Flynn, his paintings are the product of simply taking a thought and turning it into a physical reality: “If you want to add the metaphysical, that’s your business. But I really feel this type of art doesn’t have to be explained. It just has to be looked at and discovered.”
In 1978, Tascona achieved the rare distinction for a living artist of seeing a permanent exhibition of his work at the University of Manitoba certified by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board as being of such importance “that its export would be a national loss.” Other honours received since then have included a gold medal from the Academia Italia Del Arti e Del Lavoro in Parma, Italy, and the Primio D’Eccellenza Award from the Italian-Canadian League of Manitoba.
More recently, Tascona has celebrated his 80th birthday with an exhibition of his latest drawings at Winnipeg’s Centre culturel franco-manitobain. Critic Lorne Roberts wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press that Tascona seemed to have replaced the geometric abstractions that defined much of his career with work that has organic and natural forms as its basis. “The end result is a show with a very earthy, peaceful quality to it and, if the art is any indication, Tascona seems pretty content to be 80.”
The artist agrees. “I’m still going strong, still finding new ways of doing things,” he says in an interview from his St-Boniface studio, where he paints on canvas as well as drawing with acrylic inks. “There are always new things to say.”