From Leeds to London: In Conversation with Eric Atkinson

Eric Atkinson (photograph: Gino Lorcini) from The Incomplete Circle, 2000

On December 6, 2019, I visited Eric (Ricky, to many) Atkinson and his wife, Muriel, at their home in London, Ontario. I was immediately and enthusiastically greeted at the door by Eric himself, almost as if he was waiting for me. He is tall, thin, still quite distinguished-looking, and exudes an energy in his early 90s that is distinct and intense and does not wane over the course of the next two hours.

“I am starting to slow down,” he began. Yet from that moment on he led the interview, which proceeded like an artfully thrown stone that skips across the surface of a life well-lived – a life with much impact and endless rippling effects. Our conversation was already underway as we made our way to the kitchen table to join Muriel who also chimed in from time to time. First off, Eric talked about what originally brought him to London to teach:

EA: I came to Fanshawe with my family from Yorkshire where I was Head of Fine Art at Leeds College of Art. That’s the College that Henry Moore went to, and Barbara Hepworth. Herbert Read went to University there, as well.

NHD: So, how was it that you were given the position as Head of Fanshawe College Art Department?

EA: Well, in 1967, two tutors from H. B. Beal, Herb Ariss and John O’Henley, came to England on an exploratory tour supported by a Canada Council grant. The British Arts Council provided them with a list of colleges to visit. One of the colleges was Leeds College of Art. After that visit I never thought that I would ever see either of them again.

Then in 1968, there was an exhibition of work by staff and students from Leeds at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, which I helped organize. Mackie Cryderman travelled down to see that exhibition and when she returned to London, she convinced the Board of Fanshawe that they should try to recruit me. I was then approached by Peter Williams, former Assistant Education Officer at Leeds, who was then Vice-President of Fanshawe, and asked if I would be interested in applying for the position.

Mackie Cryderman, carving in her studio. From The Incomplete Circle, 2000

NHD: What was it that Mrs. Cryderman was looking for when she recruited you?

EA: Well, she wanted something different. The University of Western Ontario had its Visual Arts Department and Beal had its Art Department. She wanted something new, a different approach to teaching art.

MA: She wanted something that looked to the future, I think, and not continually looked to the past – a different perspective, something from the outside.

EA: Leeds, at that time I was there, was a powder keg of what was going on in England. The Beatles were in. British fashion was in. David Hockney was in. And in the ’60s the Leeds College of Art had quite a reputation. Harry Thubron was Director then, and I took over after him. While I was there, I was able to bring in certain inspiring teachers, like Robin Page, Stass Paraskos and Patrick Hughes. The Leeds College of Art was considered the most influential art school in Europe since the Bauhaus. There is a book on it. At the end of the 60’s though, I was wanting a challenge. We had put Leeds on the map, so to speak. And by then I had given Leeds about 15 years of my time. I came to the point where I said, “The next person who offers me a position, I’m going to take it.”

Then, the offer came from Fanshawe College. It was an offer that suited me. I knew what a community college could be – not what it should be. I liked the idea of it. So, I came here, and I stayed. I felt I could do a good job. When I started, there were about 400 students at Fanshawe. When I left, there were over 20,000 students there.

NHD: Did you know much about Canadian art at the time?

Sculpture Studio, Leeds College of Art, 1964 (Metals plastics, resins, and vacuum forming). From The Incomplete Circle, 2000.

EA: Nothing. All I knew about Canadian art of that time was that my very good friend, Terry Frost, who died a few years ago, was great friends with the Canadian painter, Jack Bush. Jack Bush went to stay with Terry in St. Ives to work in his studio. I brought Terry Frost across here to teach at Fanshawe, and I also got Trevor Bell in. Trevor Bell was another one of my friends. He also died, about a year ago. I brought Trevor Bell over to help found the Fine Arts Department, but he couldn’t take the winters here. He stayed for a year. When he came here, he met Don Bonham who had connections with Tallahassee. So, he ended up at Florida State in Tallahassee. That is where Patrick Thibert had been, as well. So, you see, it was all in the same swim.

NHD: So, you started at Fanshawe as Head of the Fine Arts Department?

EA: Well, Jim Colvin was the first President of Fanshawe College, and we saw eye-to-eye. But he was let go not long after I came. And then Mrs. Cryderman who recommended me, she died a year after I arrived! Well, then I was thrown to the wolves. There was some local resistance to me having the position of Head of the Fanshawe Department at the time. When I first came here, the London art scene itself was beaming. There was Herb Ariss, and some wanted him to be Director of Fine Arts. But Mackie Cryderman really defended hiring me. Ross Woodman was also pushing for local people, like Curnoe and Chambers, to be at Fanshawe.

NHD: So, what were the first things you did at Fanshawe to establish it?

EA: One of the first things I did was to establish a machine shop so the students could work in wood, and plastics, and metal. So, you see, I turned things upside down. I didn’t start with painting and printmaking. I also ordered vacuum formers for the Fine Art Department and the Design School. The students started using plastic in interesting ways. In Leeds, we had Industrial Design, so we had a Department where we designed aircraft, etc. We had doctors who wanted tools made for surgery, and we made tools for heart operations. In the ’60s, Industrial Design was the thing and England was winning design awards, and becoming well-known for it around the world. That is why I started Industrial Design at Fanshawe. I knew it was a growing trend for designing practical products that also looked good.

When I was in Leeds, I was involved in filmmaking. Tony Scott – an accomplished filmmaker and brother of Ridley Scott, who made Thelma and Louise, and got the Oscar for Gladiator – did a post-graduate program at Leeds. At the same time, I had Yoko Ono as a visiting lecturer. So that was all in me – those people and their various talents. When I came here, I was very keen to start a music recording program, and I teamed with a chap called Tom Lodge whom I knew from England. Tom was already here, but before that he had been working as a DJ for Radio Caroline, the British pirate radio station. I was walking down the street in Stratford or Woodstock and ran into him. I said, “We’ve got to start a creative electronics program together.” So we started the Music Program at Fanshawe in 1970. It was the first of its kind in Canada, which is now the Music Industry Arts program. And then I got Jack Richardson – you know, the Juno Award winner – to come and join us about ten years later. And now that Music Industry Arts program accepts about a hundred students a year. And graduates from that program are working all over the world.

Tom Lodge with MOOG synthesizer and music. 1972. From the Incomplete Circle, 2000.

I started Fine Art, Filmmaking, and the MIA program. I also enriched the Design School. And the Food Program. When I started the Food Program at Fanshawe, they said, “The Business people don’t want anything to do with it.” The Business [Department] people didn’t think that the Food Program should be in the Art Department. You can’t start a Food Program unless you have food to work with and you need funds to buy the food. I also started the Landscape Design program. And now my grandson is at Fanshawe doing Landscape Design. These programs were all hands-on thinking.

NHD: What about the Visual Arts program?

EA: What made the Visual Arts program work in the beginning was I gave the students the materials. You can’t have art without money and fortunately, Fanshawe was in the position to fund me and give me the freedom to spend it. You can’t teach colour theory if you are going to be mean with the colours. So, I gave all the students paints.

MA: It was so much freer then. There wasn’t a bureaucracy in place. As soon as there is a bureaucracy in place – saying you can’t do this, you can’t do that – then creativity gets stifled. Ricky was very lucky to have had the freedom to do the things that he did.

NHD: How is it that you were able to get students to come to Fanshawe Fine Art?

EA: No one ever heard of Fanshawe College. So, I ran a summer course, and I invited people from Toronto to come. I invited Victor Pasmore, who was another friend of mine, to teach a summer art course. And it was through that course that I was able to put the Art Program on the map. Sometimes people from the local art scene would put pressure on me to hire the local artists. They wanted me to give them a position at Fanshawe, and I said no. I have come a long way, and I am going to do it my way. But I did invite Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, and other local artists to give lectures.

NHD: Were you aware of the political dynamics at that time?

MA: No, I don’t think we were before we came. Ricky offered to fly over and have a look at London. And we were told, “No, don’t do that. Fanshawe is still just a mud hole and there is nothing to see.”

EA: I had to orient myself to the politics here, and there were people, local people, artists and arts supporters, who wanted to be more a part of the College Arts programs. I was open to that, and I had a plan. I had come a long way, and I had that art education experience, and over time, I gradually recruited more Canadian artists, and now it is all running on its own steam. There was some resistance on how that was all done earlier on.

But putting the regional element aside, I wanted our programs to be open-ended so that the students could benefit from it, whereas the regionalists were all for status quo. I approached the program with an openness to what was being taught and a sense of inclusion of who the students were, and I tried to open up possibilities for them of what they could do. Art is both objective and subjective and here in London it was all objective. Now and again you have to be subjective, and then you open it up to all sorts of things. Otherwise, we would never have had the Music Industry Arts program at Fanshawe. Community College teaches you what is practical.

1st Year Students, Fine Art Drawing Studio, Fanshawe College. From The Incomplete Circle, 2000.

Bill Dale, who was with the National Gallery came one time. He asked me: “How are you going to teach Art History?” And I looked him right between the eyes and said, “Backwards.” We work from the floor up. I wanted to make sure the students knew what was going on now. So, I had to establish things to make it work better. Fanshawe is now well-known and well-respected. At the College we were not getting all the same kind of students and the students were not coming from all the same base, but rather we were getting different students who were coming from different bases; and they were all finding their own way. I saw my job was to help them to find themselves like I had to find myself. I had studied at the Royal Academy of Art in London, England, where Constable and Turner established a school. Also, the parents hadn’t a clue at that time what was needed. This is what we saw in England. The BBC didn’t want anything to do with the Beatles or those kind of avant garde artists. And it was the same here in London. But I knew that using art as a vehicle was a way to open things up.

MA: He was the first to encourage and take in Indigenous students in the program.

EA: Not following a set art program. Patricia Deadman, and a number of Indigenous students wanted to do photography so we did that. We designed a program around their needs. So, in a way, I was the catalyst for what a community college could do using art as a vehicle.

NHD: How did you connect with the rest of the community, thinking mainly of the London arts community?

EA: Maurice Stubbs, at the McIntosh Gallery, who also became a good friend of mine, would have Fanshawe students show at the McIntosh – a Year-End Show. Maurice was also on the Board of Governors at Fanshawe. But we also had our own art gallery in the community, through Stephen Joy, who ran the Trajectory Gallery on Talbot Street. I was keen to have Stephen work for us at Fanshawe as I thought the students should know where the art was coming from. We got money from the Student Union to support the gallery. It gave a space to a lot of local artists to make a start.

MA: Maurice Stubbs, Stephen Joy, and Ricky, they were all outsiders. They had a broader outlook, and not just working from a one-point perspective.

NHD: How did you decide who taught at Fanshawe?

Eric Atkinson, Mexican Landscape, gouche on paper, 16 x 12″, 1973

EA: Well, there were three criteria, mainly: They were working artists and also, I looked at where they had exhibited. I also looked at how well they understood visual language. They should know what was happening now in art. I also considered how passionate they were about art and the art they were doing.

NHD: You brought some of your own former students from Leeds with you, didn’t you?

EA: Yes, I brought Mick Durham and Robin Hobbs. Mick stayed on but not Hobbs.

NHD: What about your own art. Who were your early influences?

EA: The artist who influenced me the most was Kurt Schwitters who taught at the Bauhaus. I met him in 1947, just before I went into the British Army. He was interested in found objects and collage. He opened up what art could be to me. It was through Kurt Schwitters that I learned how to use materials, how to stick things and glue things together. In Leeds we were doing Rauschenberg before Rauschenberg. – found objects.

Eric Atkinson, Huron Beach, I Love You Series,  mixed media on canvas, 40 x 40″, 2014

NHD: You are mainly a painter?

EA: Mostly painting. I have done engraving.

MA: You are an amazing engraver.

EA: I have done all sorts. I also used the vacuum former. But I like painting the most. I like squeezing it, I like pushing it around. I like mixing it. I love the feel of it.

NHD: Do you do any painting now?

EA: No. I am slowing down. I have lost the touch. My fingers seem to need a rest.

NHD: How do you feel about your work at Fanshawe?

EA: It has been a wonderful journey. It wasn’t easy.

MA: Nothing worth doing is easy.

EA: My wife was my greatest support. She is a very good educationalist. And had a good sense about what is a good art education. We have been a good team. We have been married for 66 years.

The conversation fell into a reflective silence, and I then asked Eric if he would mind showing me around his art collection; a collection that fills all the walls of their home. The art is of a very personal nature, reflecting strong relationships with numerous artists he has known, supported, and admired over the years. The collection also reflects the long history of an artist and teacher who has been deeply passionate about art and the art-making process; all of which, in turn, drove his ongoing commitment to art education.

*******

Permission to use images from The Incomplete Circle was granted by Eric Atkinson.
Permission to use Mexican Landscape was granted by Eric Atkinson.
Permission to use Huron Beach, I Love You Series was granted by Thielsen Gallery.

 

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Al Stewart of the Westland Gallery who graciously gave of his time to facilitate this interview.

The Eric Atkinson Interview is the first publication of a series of articles and interviews from the Senior Artists Writing Project.
This Project is gratefully funded by the London Arts Council.

2 Comments

  • “Dear Centered – I very much enjoyed this interview with Eric Atkinson whose fresh ways of thinking about art and organizing a school were so liberating and empowering for the students at Fanshawe College. I couldn’t help seeing a parallel (in another area which Eric discusses) in the way that the pirate radio station called Radio Caroline threw over the deadening control of establishment programmers through the radically simple expedient of setting up an unlicensed station in an offshore ship and beaming their alternative signal into the UK; thus breaking the old stranglehold regarding what sort of music would and wouldn’t be allowed to reach potential listeners. In both instances, wonderful transformations took place because someone with an outsider’s perspective had the courage to try a fresh approach. Herman Goodden”

  • What a wonderful reflection on a life lived following a personal passion. As an outsider, I was given the opportunity to teach sculpture at Fanshawe College. It was Eric Atkinson’s (Ricky) openness that drove the fine art program. The faculty were left alone to design a program and were given the freedom to facilitate different approaches to art making that were at the time out of the norm. Patrick Thibert

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *