Saturday, 24 June 2017


A skater glides across the ice, her muscled leg outstretched parallel to the ice, her hands tucked behind her back.  Her other skate is planted firmly on the ice which already has many lines carved into its surface.  In the background appears to be a cliff with a small, frozen waterfall.

"All is grace, serenity and composure," says Helen Dow, who wrote the book The Magic Realism of Alex Colville.  She adds:  "This is a picture of a human being who has come to grips with reality." Yet, the skater is skating away from the viewer, not towards the viewer.

Completed in 1964, Colville's painting depicts a typical Canadian pastime, ice skating.  The painter's wife, who served often as his subject, was an avid cyclist, swimmer and skater.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Dog and Groom

"Our life has consisted a procession of pets.  He had an especially close relationship with his dogs.  Walking and grooming his dog were parts of Colville's daily routine."

Alex Colville kneels in front of the fireplace as he painstakingly grooms his dog, perhaps removing a flea from his fur.  The painter and his pug appear to have known each other forever.  As the dog waits patiently, he looks away from his owner with innocent eyes. Colville had "a peculiar idea of dogs.   They are sentient but incapable of evil." (Andrew Hunter, Ontario Art Gallery Curator)  That innocence must have been refreshing to Colville who witnessed (and sketched as a war artist) the horror of Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp.  As Colville's only daughter Anne Kitz said:  "He was a pragmatist and not inclined to think that people were inherently good.  He believed evil existed."

Thursday, 22 June 2017


When I googled "heron" it said that the species most prevalent in Canada is the Great Blue Heron, which can be found from Nova Scotia to Alberta, with a large concentration in Prince Edward Island, the great blue heron capital of North America.  It stands anywhere from 3.2 to 4.5 feet tall and its wings span spreads anywhere from 5.5 to 6.6 feet.  The great blue heron, a colonial nester, builds stick nests, 1 metre in diameter, in the treetops.  The largest known colony of nests in P.E.I. was recorded at 507 in 1997.  The large bird arrives in Canada in the late March and departs in the late fall.  Great blue herons are expert fishers, swallowing their prey whole.  They live on average 15 years.

Alex Colville's Heron circa 1977 courtesy

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Moon and Cow

Hey diddle, diddle
The cat and fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed 
To see such sport.
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
(The Cow Jumped over the Moon)

Moon and Cow — painting by Alex Colville

Moon and Cow, with the moonlit night and the resting cow, evokes a feeling of peacefulness.  I think of the nursery rhyme, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon.  I think of the steady rhythm of the poem and the innocence of a young child.

On the other hand, in 1963, when Alex Colville completed the painting, the world was in the throes of the Cold War.  Children hovered under their desks during atomic bomb drills.  The hands of the superpower leaders hovered over the nuclear "button".  Mercifully, President John F. Kennedy had recently averted disaster with the diplomacy he displayed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Only two years before however, President Kennedy had promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  And while the world sat on the precipice of World War III, which would have put us back into the stone age, the two superpowers were working feverishly behind the scenes to forge ahead and put a man on the moon.  The Space Race refocussed their attention.  It would be only six years later that 600 million spectators would watch in hushed silence as Neil Armstrong placed his boot on the moon's dusty surface and declared:  "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Three Horses

Unlike Alex Colville's Horse and Train (1954) or Church and Horse (1964), which evoke a sense of urgency and unease, Three Horses (1946), evokes a feeling of peace and tranquility.  Three horses, one brown, one rust-coloured and one grey, gather in a field of hay.  A barn sits in the background.  White clouds fill the sky.  It seems like all is well with the world.

Three Horses comes on the tail end of the Second World War.  Perhaps Alex Colville, after coming off the battlefield where he sketched scenes of horror and devastation, is content to just sit in a farmer's field and sketch horses.  He surrounded himself with animals all of his life, a source of companionship.  "Colville viewed animals as essentially innocent -- incapable of malice unless conditioned so by humans." (

Monday, 19 June 2017

Ocean Limited

Alex Colville's Ocean Limited, circa 1962, features a train that runs between Montreal and Halifax through Sackville.  While Colville's famous 1953 painting includes a horse facing a train, this piece includes a man facing a train, only this time the two are not on a direct collision course.  The man, dressed in a trench coat and hat, appears to be deep in thought.

Colville's painting harkens back to a bygone era when trains were part of Canada's landscape.  Rather than driving, most people rode the train for long distance trips.  Before transport trucks, everything was shipped by rail.  Even hobos rode the rails during the Great Depression.  By the 1960's, passenger rail travel was in decline due to the increase in automobile and air traffic.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Stop for Cows

Alex Colville's Stop for Cows, circa 1967, features a young woman in shorts and a sleeveless top ushering a herd of jersey cows along the road.  Farmland stretches on either side.  In the background is a string of mountains, likely the Appalachians of Nova Scotia.  The cows are not in a hurry; it harkens back to a slower pace of life.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Leap Year in which Amy Adams character ushers a handful of cattle off the road in order that her and her chauffeur may continue on their journey to Dublin.  All seems well with the world until Amy looks down at her designer shoe and discovers it's covered in manure.

Artwork Stop for Cows by Alex Colville