Aidan Urquhart recorded an interview with Murray Favro at Murray’s studio in London, Ontario on Oct 14, 2019. The following is abstracted from that interview.
AU: I think you knew me before I knew you. My mother and father were friends with you and Judy before I was born. As I remember it, my parents and you and Judy were among a group of young artists who knew each other from the early 1960s – Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers and the Nihilist Spasm Band members. Growing up I knew you through those relationships. What do you think brought that group of artists together?
MF: Well, it had already started before I knew them. Your dad had just moved here  when I met him. Jack [Chambers] had just come back from Spain, maybe half a year or so, when I met him. And Greg [Curnoe] had just come here from Toronto, maybe two years before. Greg had a studio in downtown London. I had thought that was interesting. I wanted to do my own artwork, so I wanted to know what a studio thing was like.
Herb Ariss, one of our teachers at Beal [then called H. B. Beal Technical and Commercial High School], really didn’t have a studio downtown. He had a studio space in his house. Your dad had his in his basement. At the time, he was just down the street from me on Hyman Street, when he was at the University [Western] as Artist-in-Residence. Sometimes the Nihilist Spasm Band played there – in his basement. James Reaney was already doing things then. He was already going with his magazine, Alphabet. See, there were all those connections. We all met at Greg’s. We didn’t want to take up too much of Jack’s time. He was sick even then. He didn’t have cancer when I first met him; he had something else wrong with him – with his lungs or something. The cancer came a couple of years later.
But we met him at Greg’s. And then other people started showing up. The Boyles and the Vincents started showing up. John Boyle did these oddball paintings. I was really impressed with his baggy-canvased paintings. Then when I got to know him, he told me he just didn’t know how to stretch a canvas.
It seemed that everyone who came was an individual. There was no definite exclusion as such. Sometimes we would meet other places. We met at your dad’s and other artists’ places. The only person we didn’t go to was Jack’s. The only person that visited him was Greg, and maybe your dad. But I would see him, and he would go to the pub with us. When Jack started CAR [now called CARFAC], he was very clear on how artists were to be paid. He was very clear on that stuff. But when he joined us in the pub and started talking art theory, I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. It was something about perceived reality. I think Greg pushed him into that. When Jack came back to London, we thought it was only temporary. But after a while, when he came back, he started looking at things differently. He started doing what he called “perceptual realism” paintings. It wasn’t photo realism. Photo realism was something quite different. It seemed beyond me, what he was talking about. But his paintings always had a certain atmosphere to them. Ron Benner did a watercolour painting of an avocado. Jack Chambers also did one. They were very similar. Benner put the two paintings in front of me and asked which one was Jack’s. I knew right away. In Benner’s there was a sharp corner in the room and Jack never did sharp edges. Everything was rounded. It was to do with atmosphere. It was like air. He was very good at that. He really understood that.
AU: How do you see that experience now? Where there some key influences from those early days that shaped your artistic life?
MF: I know you went to Beal. Some people don’t understand this, but at the time there were no places in Canada where you got a degree [in visual art]. Your Dad went to Buffalo in New York and Jack Chambers went to Spain. Most of us went to Beal, or the Ontario College of Art [OCAD], or we dropped out. There was no Fanshawe [College] and none of these University [visual art] courses. The University here used the fact that there was a community of artists here, which was your dad and the bunch of us. They used that fact to promote getting an art department. But they didn’t hire Canadians. Because they weren’t qualified. But they did get Paterson Ewen for a while and he was a great teacher. Did you know they had to fire him eventually because he didn’t have a degree? Ed Zelenak, too. He wasn’t kept on at Western. The London art scene came first, and the institutions cashed in on that. But that was what was happening across Canada. So, we started the first independent gallery – 20/20 Gallery. The first show was John Boyle. At the time, he was doing all of these drawings of penises which no one else would show. The University professors in English were supportive – Jeffrey Rans, James Reaney, and others. Jeff Rans came to the show and he called up his wife and he said, “Goldie, they are all the same price and I guess we should get one. I am going to pay for it, but you have to come down and pick out the one you want.”
Then there was the Forest City Gallery and I was a part of that too. That is where Jack Chambers would talk about his art and about artists’ fees and CARFAC.
AU: So, you were involved in 20/20 Gallery?
Yes, right from the start. Me, Jack Chambers, Greg, and your dad. Also the Forest City Gallery. It was at the Forest City Gallery that Jack would talk about his ideas of how artists should be paid. I think the Forest City Gallery was the first artist-run gallery in Canada. It started in 1973. It was where the Budweiser Centre is now, in that block, near Talbot and King.
MF: How was your time at Beal?
MF: Herb Ariss was a great teacher. He was open-minded and that atmosphere went right through the art department. He allowed people to find their own way. It was that attitude that really made the difference. But he got in an accident, and we didn’t see him for a year. He was the only person in Canada who was allowed to grow a beard. You couldn’t have a beard and teach then. But because he had a scar – that he was why he was allowed to grow a beard.
AU: So how did you manage as an artist in the beginning – after Beal?
MF: Well, after Beal I tried commercial art, but it was not for me. I worked for a very big company at the time – Lawson and Joseph. It was huge. It was right across from Victoria Hospital on Wellington. I did package design. I did that for six years. I did plates, and designs, and paste ups. I liked that job and my work seemed to be respected. I was the only one to have an air-conditioned room to myself. But that was how I paid for my own studio. It was a crappy place compared to my office at Lawson and Joseph. But I liked having my own studio. It was at Dundas and Talbot, a block away from 20/20 on the third floor – $60 a month.
AU: You said one time that you were ahead in your understanding that art would become variable in use of media. Others in London at the time were doing variable forms of art – Curnoe, Chambers, John Boyle. How was what you were doing particularly different from what those artists were doing?
MF: They were mostly doing flat work, and it wasn’t moving. I was doing something different than what they were doing. One time when Royden Rabinovitch and I were walking down the street and talking about art, and I can remember that was when I first got the idea – it just popped into my head. When you photograph something you are taking something that is three dimensional and you are flattening it. I was saying to him, “Well that means that if I were to photograph something, make a slide of it and project it on an object, then it should wrap itself around objects and become three-dimensional. For the first one I made a copy of the object in three-dimensions. But the effect was distorted because of the lens on the camera, which causes it to get bigger in places. It has its own perspective. So, I discovered that. That comes from trial and error. I liked Van Gogh’s room. There was a guy who really flattened it, the whole dimensionality of that room, and I wanted to make it real. I always liked that room and wanted to walk into it. It was that kind of feeling. What I wanted to do was to try to make it a real object. When you go in through the way of the projection you get the real experience. So that’s would I did with Van Gogh’s painting of his room. Now I could walk into it. There are two things happening there. The real object is just a white construction. But it is made to look like Van Gogh’s picture by projecting a slide of the painting on it. And for me, well, when you get in the way of things – well I start to say to myself, that is a lot like what we bring to stuff. Like, when I think about you from your name, it is because I am projecting something of my own perception of you on your name. And it fits on. So, I started to do that.
Then there was another thing that started to happen. When I did the Wave Machine. I had it in Carmen Lamana Gallery in Toronto. I was wanting to hear what people were saying about it. There was a woman who came up to me and said, “Can you turn up the soundtrack? I can’t hear the waves very well. They are too low.” I said, “There is no soundtrack.” What happens in your brain is you translate. That taught me something too. So, I realized something about economy in doing a drawing. Say, if I am going to draw that cat, I just need to draw all the hair on it to represent a cat, an idea of a cat. You just need so much stuff and then you stop because your brain does the rest. I learned a lot from doing that.
Think of the Hydro Pole (1995-96). We hardly ever look up at a hydro pole. Such a dynamic perspective there. So, I brought it down. I chopped the bottom off.
In Railway Tracks (1995-96) it is only about three feet long at one end and at the other end, the tracks are the width of an actual train track. There is added stuff that comes out of it but there is a lot that we bring to stuff.
AU: What is the connection between your music and your art?
MF: The music and the Nihilist Spasm Band is more like the community. Whereas with my art, I am doing that by myself, it is a one-person job. When you are visiting artists, that’s your community. But a band is a community that does something. That’s what I value. But there is another difference in the Nihilist Spasm Band that is really quite good. It is that we don’t all believe in the same thing. We don’t all listen to the same music at home. We are all really different kinds of people. Everyone is totally different. So, you can’t just pick one person and use their point of view. There is no leader and no direction. It is like a community thing where stuff happens. Maybe that is why it has survived so long.
We just came back from Switzerland. The trip was excellent. You went to some of the Nihilist Picnics we had at Poplar Hill? Well, we had a Nihilist Picnic in the Gallery there in Switzerland – a mock Nihilist Picnic. There was also some of Greg’s old films showing, like when the kazoo was first played. There was also a film made by a guy called Zev, which was at the Toronto Film Festival and shown all over the world. We still get together at the Forest City Gallery on Monday evenings.
Aidan Urquhart is a London artist and has exhibited regionally, nationally, and internationally, in both solo and group shows.
Murray Favro received the Gerhson Iskowitz Award in 1997 and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2007. He is also a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art and is represented by Christopher Cutts Gallery in Toronto.
Favro is widely regarded for his highly original exploration of invention, perception and cognition (cited from www.markfavro.com)
Photos used with permission from the McIntosh Gallery, Western University.
This is the fifth in a series of articles and interviews of Senior Regional Artists funded by the London Arts Council.