My family had a cottage on Lake Simcoe only a stone’s throw away from the Rama Reserve in Orillia. I remember visiting the reserve for festivities that were lost on me but seemed powerful and full of meaning. As a child my impression of First Nations people was that they were all creative, all seeming to be artists in some way or another.
Arthur Shilling was a legend in the community and I visited his studio several times. Shilling’s work has always made me think of my charmed childhood. The exhibition at the Art Gallery of Peterborough (AGP), Arthur Shilling: The Final Works, was a reawakening.
The exhibition at the AGP has work that Shilling made in the final years of his life; knowingly rushed to completion before his death from chronic heart trouble. William Kingfisher‘s work as curator is clear and focused, and my experience of the work is deeply poignant.
I can look into the eyes of one of his self-portraits and see the great compassion and love of a man who devoted his life to his work and his people—rendered with the kind of colour and energy one would reserve for comets and other natural phenomena. The main room of the gallery pulses like a circulatory system; red, ochre, burnt sienna, blue, and many orange hues throbs in every painting.
This is first and foremost a painting exhibition. Shilling had a smart understanding of European painting history and adapted its more expressive forms in extraordinary ways to evoke his Ojibway heritage. His command of the medium comes through loud and clear; here is an artist who should be taken a lot more seriously in the annals of Canadian art.
Most of the work in the exhibition was made in the late 70s and early 80s—a period of struggle for painting. Shilling’s ease with which he draws, outlines, adds small Native symbols, and leaves the bottom of many works unfinished displays a shrewd understanding of the past/present/future of painting. The work seems fresh and yet it’s over thirty years old. His use of colour is a consistent marker; he painted at sunset and sunrise. Having spent a lot of time on Lake Simcoe I can attest to that orange you only see on big water.
The exhibition is in many ways a family affair; his wife, sons and extended members appear in many of the works, and the curator a nephew. It’s what makes the emotional content so strong. There is also a nuance of activism here too as the people in his paintings are majestic, empowered, and confrontational. Both these things, that his work documents the people he is familiar with and that they are painted with regal countenance, makes him completely unique.
Even in such a large gallery setting, Shilling’s focus is clear. In his own words, “For a bright illuminated instant the shackles of everyday eyes are shattered, and the gracefulness of life is laid bare.” The approach is profoundly simple, and especially with his female subjects, the lack of trickery and pretension allows the viewer to feel the strength and dignity he has given to them.
Ultimately, Shilling loved paint. His work is layered thickly with gorgeous complementary colours evocative of someone who had a studious but also a natural knack for making things beautiful. He also painted feverishly; the energy is barely contained within the canvases. Many of the final works were made to help financially assist his family after his death. Painters have a long history of blending practicality and creative fevers.
It is an art form integrated with mortal awareness; its very act is an intention to extend one’s physical reality, to transcend the boundaries of the material and push into eternity. Shilling’s final paintings are proof that paint is its own guide toward a kind of transfiguration; that we can become the glory we wish to be. Such exhibitions are soulful accounts of the flesh made spirit, a rare and treasured experience for which the AGP should be commended.
The Final Works created in me a feeling of full circle. The wonder I felt as a child has not abated and in fact is now imbued with the full meaning of a life spent as a professional artist. Arthur Shilling was like a superhero from my childhood; not exactly real but of mythical importance. I am able to separate these things now and enjoy the art work made by an empowered artist whose strong vision may be embedded in a certain culture but whose work is compellingly universal.
Arthur Shilling: The Final Works runs until Sunday, May 22 at the Art Gallery of Peterborough (more info).
There will be a panel discussion at the Art Gallery of Peterborough with William Kingfisher, Robert Houle, and Wanda Nanibush on Sunday May 22 at 2pm.
Arthur Shilling works photographed by Michael Cullen, TGP Digital Arts, Toronto, courtesy Art Gallery of Peterborough. Exhibition photo by Matt + Steph.