In a world where controversy is an easy road to finding popularity— renowned London artist Jeff Willmore has taken a different path in doing his painting. Instead, for the last 40 years, Willmore has been unrelenting in continuously creating art that is both visually pleasing and uniquely personal.
Jeff Willmore was raised in Sarnia, Ontario and moved to London, Ontario in 1970, to pursue his career at Fanshawe College. Having initially enrolled in the Graphic Design program, he switched fields and completed a diploma in Fine Arts from Fanshawe in 1980. The shift from Graphic Design to Fine Arts was a decision really made by his teachers who taught the arts courses for Graphic Design due to his obvious talent in the Fine Arts.
London, in the 70s, was a city that had become highly influential in the rise of the Canadian art culture. Regionalism and the Regionalists artists were becoming noticed, Fanshawe College and the University of Western Ontario (now Western University) were beginning to establish their respective visual arts programs, and local artists Paterson Ewen and Walter Redinger had represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. Having the opportunity to befriend artists and connect with the vibrant arts community at that time not only influenced Willmore, but also gave him valuable insight into both the local and global realm of the visual arts.
When Willmore attended Fanshawe College he was part of the vibrant, and somewhat controversy, visual arts program initiated under the direction of Eric Atkinson. * It was a program that boldly moved away from the traditional and encouraged a freer and more experimental approach to the visual art work. Willmore notes that Michael Durham was particularly influential in effecting the direction of his painting. Durham, who had moved to London from Leeds, England was significant contributor to the rise of the Visual Arts program at Fanshawe College. Durham’s recognizable graph art style, which incorporated large areas of flat space and vivid colours, coincides with Willmore’s own approach to space and colour.
Willmore has been lauded for his immaculate ability to combine story-telling and visual art, and a lot of his earlier work was inspired by his childhood memories of living in small towns in northern Ontario. The northern Ontario landscape is naturally appealing with its abundance of lakes and streams, its colourful rock formations, and its dense and varied forest growth. It is this terrain that inspired the work of the Group of Seven, whose approach to landscape painting has served to inspire countless other artists to follow their style. But Willmore, from his Fanshawe College experience, presented a more open and dynamic way of painting the Canadian landscape. His transparent application of paint and colour, along with his fluidity of shape and form, stands in contrast to the thick paint and dense shapes of the Group of Seven.
In recent times Willmore has shifted his focus towards highlighting the appeal of southern Ontario; particularly Southwestern Ontario, around the areas of London, Kitchener, Waterloo, and Windsor—with also a strong interest in the urban landscape of Detroit. For Willmore, southwestern Ontario was an entirely different artistic opportunity. With its large agricultural acreage and low rolling hills, southern Ontario lacked representation when it comes to visual art. Willmore, in a personal interview, claimed that he made it a “personal project” of his to explore the landscape of southwestern Ontario as it was often overlooked by Canadian artists.
Willmore has stayed away from conventional landscape painting—which he says represents the scene rather than focusing on the story—and has ventured into the realm of more descriptive and visually intriguing artwork—which, like storytelling, is intended to keep the audience engaged. This coupled with his unique use of graphic imagery has contributed to Willmore becoming a leading Canadian landscape painter. Orange Erie Trawler, one of Willmore’s award-winning paintings, is a strong example of how he effectively brings together his graphic design skill and his personal connection to the southwestern Ontario landscape. We see the same skillful technique in the masterfully rendered plein-air painting, After the Rain.
Willmore started to expand his focus on the regional landscape to cover the city of Detroit in some of his work In doing this he has given challenge to the notion of “Regionalism.” But his intention, he says, is to try to find similarities between Detroit and the cities of Southwestern Ontario and present these similarities through his artwork.
Over the expanse of his artist career, Willmore has produced over 800 painting, all connected to his personal life and the surrounding landscape. He describes his art as collectively being “a history of pictures”—which does indeed summarize his work. He has had over 20 solo exhibitions in various public and commercial galleries around Southwestern Ontario, including the Nancy Poole Gallery, McIntosh Gallery, Chatham Art Gallery, and Thielsen Gallery. His work is included in several public gallery collections, such as Western University, Museum London, and the Canada Council Art Bank. He has also been asked to speak locally on his art on several occasions.
Through his persistent dedication and commitment to painting and his focus on the Ontario landscape, Willmore has become an outstanding landscape artist, whose contributions to the local art scene cannot be overlooked.
Written by: Shayan Alvi Shayan Alvi completed his General Arts and Science Certificate from Fanshawe College, and is currently enrolled in the BMOS program at King’s College—at The University of Western Ontario, and lives in Islamabad, Pakistan.
*Centred interview with Eric Atkinson.
Images courtesy of Gallery Gevik and Mr. Jeff Willmore.
Jeff Willmore is currently represented by Excavo Fine Arts in London, Ontario and by Gallery Gevik, Toronto.
This article is part of the “Young and Emerging Visual Arts Writers Project,” which is gratefully supported by the London Arts Council.