The Legacy of Roly Fenwick
I was born homesick. I never needed to travel: I’m already there.
Roly Fenwick is intensely connected to a specific place, to his childhood in Owen Sound, the village of Big Bay on the Bruce Peninsula, and the shores of Georgian Bay. He often reminisces about growing up in this place that haunts him, the village filled with his ancestors. The experiences of his youth continue to fascinate him, feeding his imagination. A good example is the sense of loss he communicates over one specific tree.
Trees have always defined my life. When I was a kid I climbed every tree I could find.
In front of their cabin in Big Bay there was a big old maple he especially loved. Probably his mother and her twin sister played around that tree, and he expected it would outlive him. Imagine the pain when the local authority took it down. All that was left was the lowest part of the trunk. Roly’s response is the eloquent double portrait, The Roots: The Tree and Me (2012). He stands tall and strong in front of what’s left of the huge trunk of that maple, claiming his birthright.
In this work we see Fenwick’s painterly approach to his subjects. Rich, thick textures activate the canvas, representing the snow of a cold winter scene and the dark, dominating tree trunk with its stripped branches. There is the suggestion of a nearby cabin with others in the distance and other trees nearby. Though we note these details, our focus is on the dismembered trunk and the artist himself standing in front of it. His clothing is dark as the trunk so that he almost disappears into it. His face is a bright spot, reflecting light and almost haloed by light glancing off the trunk around his head. His feet echo the tree’s roots, securely planted there. It is a powerful image, a statement of determination and fierce attachment to place, to nature, and to the act of painting.
Though he returns frequently to this region, where he was born in 1932, Roly Fenwick’s life has led him to other parts of the country. In the early 1950s he studied at Mount Alison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, where Alex Colville was one of his teachers. This is also where he met his wife, Ann. Together they moved to Toronto where Fenwick worked for ten years (1956-66) at Simpson-Sears as the Art Director for the Catalogue. Their final move was to London, Ontario in 1968, when he joined the faculty of the new Fine Art Department at the University of Western Ontario (now Visual Arts at Western University).
Reminiscing about London then, he describes coming to a small city he loved that had an exciting art scene. He was one of the jurors for the influential Heart of London exhibition (at the London Art Gallery on Queen Street) that captured the artistic ferment in the city and toured across the country, with a stop at the National Gallery. He speaks of artists on the scene then, such as Don Bonham, Greg Curnoe, Kerry Ferris, and Murray Favro, and how the group gradually expanded as more artists arrived in the city. Joining the University studio art faculty were print maker and paper maker Helmut Becker, painter Paterson Ewen, and Duncan de Kergommeaux, a colleague who became a painting companion in the landscape. The 20/20 Gallery and the Forest City Gallery supported local artists with exhibitions and well-attended openings. Directing the McIntosh Gallery on campus was another friend, artist Maurice Stubbs. Fenwick’s art friendships expanded with the development of the arts at Fanshawe College, where faculty included Erik Atkinson, Tony MacAulay, and Mick Durham.
Roly is somewhat rueful about the contemporary scene. It is filled with young interesting artists whose work is clever and well done, with a great sense of colour, but he finds it somehow lacking soul. He admits that things have really changed, and reflects that he’s now a senior old-timer. The reality is, though, that he has never stopped painting and drawing, and exhibiting his work which has evolved over time.
Roly describes his art making in Toronto, and when he first came to London, as his surrealist period (1965-75). I remember especially a self-portrait where he holds a smaller, childlike version of himself, both dressed in the same clothing. The child-Roly looks wistfully at us, over the artist’s shoulder. We see Roly’s back from the waist up, looking away from us at a skyscape: a circular blue sky filled with puffy white clouds. Along the bottom edge of the painting is a distant line-up of the tops of evergreen trees. Always this has moved me, sensing the artist protecting his history, his childhood experiences that are the foundation for all his work. After this ten-year period of mainly surreal watercolours, he spent some time making handmade paper, and then finally returned to landscapes, where he had started.
Another significant connection with the land around Georgian Bay is the powerful limestone escarpment that is so dominant. He describes the raw sensation of it that is in his blood. His paintings of the escarpment capture its different moods that depend on the weather, such as Dark Presence (Black Escarpment) (2014). This is a presence for Fenwick to which he returns as though to reiterate the power of the place that gave him artistic birth.
Looking back, he says, funny why you do things — you don’t think about it; it’s a directive from somewhere, the inside taking over the outside. His shift from fields and trees to swamps is a good example. They are like a laboratory, he muses, not many people around; darker places.
Perhaps it is like getting to the heart of the matter. A series of surprising paintings from 2007-08, Polar Rhythms captures the artist’s experience of the far North, near the Arctic Circle. He describes a camping trip to Kugluktuk in 1992 when he acquired caribou bone carvings fashioned into toys for children by an Inuit artist. It was later, after experiencing a terrible bout with cancer, that these evocative figures became a comfort to him, signs of a life and a land reduced to essentials.
It may be difficult to see the relationship between these frigid landscapes and others such as the ‘swamp’ paintings, but in each case the artist explores what lies beneath the surface: our roots, the fecund richness of thick, rotting soil and plants, and even of the icy tundra. He sees that it all supports life, including our own, and marvels. “I look at swamps as random gardens – not cultivated gardens. A lot going on down there underneath; sort of a laboratory. I like being around swamps, like a side door.” In Fenwick’s hands, the swamp becomes a secret way to examine and unlock the keys of nature.
Another surprise in Roly Fenwick’s work is the series Pow Wow Emanations based on his experiences interacting with his Saugeen First Nation friends. The watercolour paintings, exhibited in 2018 at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre in Southampton, Ontario, are vivid, gestural works evoking the power, movement and colours of the dancing figures and the Pow Wow gathering. These are intense images, active gestures that are almost abstractions evoking the connections of Indigenous people with the spirits of the earth. In her insightful essay on this exhibition, Patricia Deadman noted how the artist, with a spiritual reverence, expressed “a fleeting moment in time…..an interconnectedness and otherworldliness.”
Roly Fenwick seems to see and represent this movement and life in all his works, as though he cannot look at a scene without recognizing the pulsing energy within. Interesting that he rejects the notion of ‘inspiration’. Rather, he is provoked — by trees, by swamps — to get to work painting, drawing. Visiting his studio set behind the family home in London, Ontario, I find a place filled with signs of activity, a sense of urgency in the paint brushes, the big rectangle that is his palette covered with smears of paint, walls hung with completed paintings and drawings. Here I find portraits – many familiar faces, all alive and breathing, it seems: colleagues, family members, friends, and recent sketches of walkers in the current Covid pandemic times. Perhaps the most touching of all are the self-portraits, the artist reading in bed, sitting in a rocking chair meditating on retirement, or a close-up study that reminds me of a Rembrandt self-portrait. It is not a surprise that he was elected to the Royal Canadian Society in 1978.
Thank you to Roly and Ann Fenwick, who welcomed me in their kitchen, made me tea and regaled me with memories of their early days in London, Ontario. I can understand how it was that their first home, not far from the University, was filled with friends and laughter, and how old and new friends remain close. I think of all the students Roly taught who consider themselves fortunate. What a wonderful legacy!
Madeline Lennon Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University
Rory Fenwick is represented by Michael Gibson Gallery, London.