Fine Art Comics of Canada: Sixties to Seventies

Heart of London, Snore & More

by Robert Dayton

Part One: The Heart Of London

There was a time where artists were making vast ripples away from Toronto and other outsized hubs. London, Ontario was such a place, all eyes were on it in the late 60’s and not Toronto. The Heart Of London comic book from 1968 was actually an exhibition catalog, an overview of the art that was happening there at the time. Organised by The National Gallery of Canada, this exhibition traveled from London to Toronto, Kingston, Edmonton, Victoria, Charlottetown and, of course, The National Gallery H.Q. itself in Ottawa.

This catalog/comic book consisted of fumetti, comics done using photos for the images. Fumetti was most prominently used in the 60’s by Harvey Kurtzman in Help and Playboy, prolifically in numerous Mexican comic book melodramas, and in Italian comics featuring the masked master criminal Satanik. Heart Of London’s particular fumetti is further stylized by heavily contrasted processing causing colours so bright that they make everything heightened artifice, buzzing as if emanating from a higher plane of being.

Cover of the Heart Of London catalogue

The Heart of London logo in Pepto-Bismol pink is rendered somewhere between Archie and underground comix titles. Above it, The Comics Code of Authority symbol -a comic book mainstay of the day implying that the work is of safe moral quality- has been altered to “National Gallery of Canada”, the institution that made this comic book and exhibition happen. The cover features what appears to be London public workers, perhaps? These men in yellow hard hats casually stand in front of a store with a Coca-Cola logo also coloured Pepto-Bismol pink, Pop Art style, at the city’s main intersection in what very well may be the heart of London.

The comic opens with a quote placed above a looming Brutalist parking lot, huddling various small businesses below it. This quote contains the phrase “heart of London” but it is rather self-deprecatingly not about London, Ontario but London, England in World War One. Sharing a name with London, England has often made this Ontario city the butt of many a joke, ie. “I live in London… (long pause) Ontario” with its population being just over 200,000 in 1968. Named in 1793 by Lord Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first Lieutenant-Governor known for starting the abolition of slavery, he was also fervently British, his vision for Canada was for it to be like England which he looooved, desperately (but stiffly) wanting this particular London to become Ontario’s capital. Alas, Toronto was chosen instead. Related, always related to everything: the term “cosmic consciousness”, the higher state of consciousness, was coined in London in 1872 by Richard Bucke, a psychiatrist and head of The Asylum For The Insane, after he received a blinding vision, illuminating him. Besides being active in asylum reform, Bucke was heavily involved in the arts -the vision occurred after an evening spent reading Romantic poetry as well as poems by Walt Whitman, who he later befriended. Yes, London, Ontario is an eccentric place.

The artists involved in the Heart Of London show were part of what was known as “London Regionalism”, a loose-knit movement of artists who were adamant about residing in London, away from Toronto or New York. Artist Greg Curnoe helped establish some of the very first artist-run centres there. He was an early member and huge proponent of CARFAC, a Canadian organisation that fights for artists to get paid and paid fairly for their work. CARFAC was founded in London by Heart Of London artists Jack Chambers and Tony Urquhart -along with Kim Ondaatje.  

Besides Curnoe, Chambers, and Urquhart, the eleven artists in Heart Of London included John Boyle, Bev Kelly, Murray Favro, Ron Martin, David Rabinowitch, Royden Rabinowitch, Walter Redinger, and Ed Zelenak. They are all profiled in fumetti form talking about their practice through speech balloons and captions, along with quick biographical details. Many of these artists were known for their inventiveness, they were influenced by a variety of subject matter -including comic art- without falsely delineating these influences into false boxes of high or low art. They didn’t just make work in the visual art field either. Along with a Hart Of London work-on-paper, Chambers made an experimental film with the same name in 1970. This film intensely shows brutal shots of an abattoir in Spain interspersed with London scenes; it has been described by Stan Brakhage as “one of the greatest films ever made.”  Both Curnoe’s Heart Of London painting from 1967 and Jack Chambers’ 1968 work-on-paper Hart Of London are in the show.

Noted curator and historian Judith Rodger told me that Curnoe’s Heart Of London piece depicts The Forks Of the Thames downtown, “arguably the heart of London” near many of the artists’ studios with Greg’s studio as the main hub or heart of it all. As for the idea of a comic book catalog, it was a mystery until Rodger guided me to Katie Cholette’s PhD thesis Memory and Mythmaking: the role of autobiography in the works of Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe which states that it was the idea of William Bragg, assistant to the director of The National Gallery’s extension services. Cholette’s paper quotes Bragg from the Sept 29, 1968 New York Times’ Arts Notes column, “…The idea was to make a kind of scrapbook, to talk as a group, not individuals. Their work is kind of echoed by the comics—it’s really their bag […] Everyone likes to read comics once in a while, anyway.” Due to its uniqueness, the catalog garnered a lot of press for the show. Beverley Lambert (Bev Kelly in the show) says, “I think we all thought it was pretty neat and it was funny. It got people’s attention.”

When I talked to artist John Boyle about this comic book catalog, he said right away, “It’s too bad that Greg Curnoe isn’t with us anymore, because he was really interested in comic books. And he always did comic book or comic-like drawings from the time he was a little kid.” In the book Greg Curnoe Life And Work, author Judith Rodger’s description of his 1963 painting Myself Walking North In the Tweed Coat could be ascribed to many of his works. “The flat, vivid colours; schematic outlines; and text all come from his love of the comic book.” As well as the inclusion of the name of the newspaper strip Mary Worth in the piece. Another colourful painting casually inserts Dick Tracy into the frame as a representative of one of his interests. Curnoe’s series of cut-out collages were often shaped into cartoony and anthropomorphic forms.

Curated by Pierre Théberge at The National Gallery, Boyle readily notes, “Both Curnoe and Chambers talked up all the other artists who were around in London, and ended up persuading Théberge to have a group show to get a sense of the whole London art scene.”

       The comic book itself doesn’t give William Bragg’s name at all, nada. The designer is credited: Roger Duhamel, FRSC, Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, a federal government official, as well as the design firm: Eccleston + Glossop International. All of the photos, however, were done by the late Don Vincent, of whom Boyle says, “He was a friend of ours, of all of us. And a really terrific photographer. And he documented the whole London scene as it unfolded taking photographs all the time of everybody in this show and just of London, his whole life was photography.” Vincent’s work also appeared in 20 Cent Magazine, a delightfully scrappy local art magazine started in the mid-60’s with many of the people in the show, including Boyle and Curnoe, contributing writings and drawings. 20 Cent Magazine sold for 25 cents, ha! Vincent also photographed The Nihilist Spasm Band who are regarded as the first noise-rock band; this amazing, mind-blowing, intense and milk-spurtingly funny act was founded by the late Greg Curnoe, with Boyle and Favro (playing unique guitars that he builds himself) as still very active members over fifty years later. They are unique cultural ambassadors bringing such songs as “No Canada” to the world, having performed in Japan and in Vancouver at The Western Front with poet George Bowering guesting on guitar, and have had a documentary made about them by the late noise artist Zev Asher.

In one of Heart Of London’s comic book panels about Boyle an early issue of the four color MAD sneaks its way in. I asked him if he read MAD, “Yeah. Although that is from the designer. I read MAD, although not madly.”

A very young Boyle states in one of his panels, “The day I can truly defile myself in public, I will have accomplished everything, and I will no longer have a need to paint.” Reflecting today he says, “I still think that actually, and I think I may have succeeded. Because I do still have the need to paint. But I don’t have the need to show it anymore, or to get applause or approval from anyone. And I don’t know how that arose in me. But I kind of had a fair amount of attention and approval and acceptance and shows in fancy places and meeting important people and pleasing art administrators. And I kind of reached the conclusion that most of them aren’t worth pleasing and their opinion was not as good or not as important as the opinions of other people that I happen to know. And I thought they made a lot of mistakes and people that they chose to support. And also, their approval was very fickle. They were very fickle about it because as soon as fashions would change, their eyes were directed elsewhere and the people they thought were geniuses today were no longer geniuses tomorrow. I did kind of lose my enthusiasm for the art world, but not for painting. So, I was mistaken.”

The final pages of this catalog feature a few reproductions of pieces from the show itself, including Bev Kelly’s window paintings which, with its window panels, adapt quite easily to the comic book form, comparable to an ornate and mysterious painted comic page. The layout, however, was a bit fast and loose with one of her works being printed sideways. In her fumetti section she says, “These windows aren’t ‘real’ windows, they are still paintings. They don’t have sashes and you can’t see through them. A real window is to look through, these are to look at.” Painted on canvas, the window pieces used lumber to make the frames of the paintings, carved to look like the ribbed mouldings of window frames.

Bev Kelly was the sole woman in the show and when I asked her about this she said, “I’m very happy that they didn’t concentrate on this issue that I was the only woman. I didn’t want to be known as an artist because I was a woman.” Having recently moved to London from Saskatchewan with her husband, they were warmly welcomed by Curnoe and she would go see The Nihilist Spasm Band play every week at The York Hotel. Her first solo show was at The 20/20 Gallery in London.

She spent the first two years of her life in Biggar, Saskatchewan where the signs read, “New York Is Big, But This Is Biggar.” Being in London changed her notions of places like New York being the absolute cultural mecca. Beverley says, “There was a really vibrant cultural community there. You know what a regionalist Greg was. He really believed, as a lot of writers do, that you should write about what you know, or you should do your art about what you know, including where you live and so on. And, of course, when I started on the windows that was right out where I was living. The first ones were of my house and then I walked around and took pictures of various houses that I thought looked interesting. When I got a studio in London above one of the businesses downtown I used some of the windows there as inspiration for my works. And then when I went back to Saskatchewan, I was very into that, looking around at what is there where you live. I even got a grant to travel around small-town Saskatchewan and look at the local -in air quotes- ‘folk art’ or untrained artists, let’s say, just painting odd things on their house or their property or whatever. So, I went and I did interviews, took pictures of them, and I imagine I must have produced some kind of a report on it because I probably had to for my grant. So that led me into being more observant and looking more at where it’s from and what is around you and that you don’t have to go to some huge, big place to find art.”

Bev Kelly was her married name and she returned to using her original name, Beverley Lambert in the 1970’s. Lambert did a series of three large lithographs for International Women’s Year in 1975 on women’s issues dealing with real news stories that happened on the prairies. Many of these prints were donated to many women’s centres across the country. She has also worked in clay doing an entire main street based on the fictional Saskatchewan town in the humour book Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert. Beverley Lambert currently resides in St. John’s, Newfoundland where she makes art and is active as a conservator.

Flip the comic over and it is the same but in either French or English depending on where you first started reading!

Boyle comments, “Last night, my wife and I were looking at the Heart of London catalog. She was amazed that this was a National Gallery touring show with a lot of artists who became major artists in the country. And it looked like they were trying to spend as little money as possible by making this skinny little comic book-like thing on newsprint and I think there’s a large measure of truth in that. Because, again, I remember when Greg Curnoe had a big one-man exhibition retrospective at The National Gallery and the catalogue that they did for him was kind of a minimal thing. It was like a paperback book with one colour reproduction and a number of inferior black and white reproductions and basically a list of artworks in the show. And in the same year, The National Gallery did a big one-man exhibition of Donald Judd, the American sculptor, and his catalogue was a huge coffee table book that weighed about 15 pounds and was three inches thick and loaded with colour from beginning to end. And that just, I think, represented a specifically Canadian problem.” When I mention this to Hairy Who member Art Green he responds, “Well, of course, because they’re trying to impress their betters in New York, so you get a job at The Whitney or The Museum of Modern Art. Canada has been an incubator for museum directors since forever.”

Hairy Who catalog page by Art Green, courtesy of the artist

This style of catalog for Heart Of London corresponds nicely with The Hairy Who, another such grouping of artists around that time who were part of “The Chicago Imagists.” Their three Chicago art shows starting in the mid-60’s were accompanied by comic books that also doubled as exhibition catalogs. The Hairy Who weren’t very aware of the underground comics scene then just barely getting started, they chose this method out of creative necessity, printing a glossy catalog was cost prohibitive. Green explains, “And the printing was expensive and not very good. And we didn’t want to have a show that was called ‘Six Recent Graduates’ or something unexciting like that. And so, we realised we all liked comics and we all knew how to do colour stripping because we’d taken silk-screening courses, we figured out we could do it. And it was cheap.”

Delineating further, The Hairy Who made playful art inspired by a wide range of neat stuff. The London artists were well aware of The Hairy Who. In fact, The Hairy Who were even going to show in London at The 20/20 Gallery. Boyle notes, “20/20 was kind of a precursor to the art in the so-called artist run centres, most of which aren’t run by artists anymore. But anyway, it was one of the first and it was all sponsored by local people in London. And I don’t think it lasted longer than a couple of years, but it was a terrific gallery while it lasted.” Many of the artists in The Heart Of London show were active in 20/20, which lasted from 1966 to 1971. Greg Curnoe discussed the show with Hairy Who artist Karl Wirsum, who in a letter to Art Green wrote, “Well, if they go ahead and publish a comic book, that would be all right.” Green notes, “He may have thought that the 20/20 Gallery was more well-funded than it probably was. But it was on, we all agreed to do it. We were looking forward to it.” Green himself left Chicago for Canada in 1969. The 1968 Democratic Convention had transpired and as Green puts it, “Everybody was angry at everybody.” He was dissatisfied with his teaching job there as well, so when offered a job at NASCAD, the art school in Halifax, he leaped at it.

Alas, the show didn’t happen. In a letter to Art Green, Curnoe writes, “We had to cancel The Hairy Who show and a lot of us were disappointed.” Boyle notes, “I suspect that it got caught up in the death throes of the gallery. And they would have had to cancel whatever exhibitions they had coming up.”

Green notes that both London and Chicago are far enough away from the more major centres that artists can, “…be free to go their own way because there’s not much at stake partly and nobody’s paying attention. And I remember the first time I had been in London, we were driving on our honeymoon to Halifax where I got the job. And I thought, ‘I’m gonna stop here and get a Canada Dry.’ I’m driving down what’s the main street that runs north south and pulled into a corner store. And I said, ‘Do you have Canada Dry?’ ‘No, but we got America Dry.’  I have never before or since seen a bottle of America Dry. I bought it and it wasn’t as good as Canada Dry. And, and that’s not a dream. I mean, I have never seen it ever again. But that made me say, ‘Wow, this is a weird place.’”

While Green was teaching at NASCAD, Curnoe came for what Green calls, “One of his annual excoriations, if that’s a word, he would rip them up one side down the other in public, for being a Canadian art school with no Canadians teaching, hardly any, and all yanks -and it was true! And so anyway, they would invite him and it was almost like a ritual. He would be in the public, there’d be 400 students there and Greg would just rip the place apart. I had known Greg, I heard about the show and so on, and we got along fine. And afterwards he’d come up to me and say, ‘Well, how did I do?’ ‘Greg, you’re doing great, but you do realise I’m a yank’, but I agreed with him 100%.” Both Curnoe and Green commiserated on how Canadian art was neglected at the school. “If he had been in Chicago, Greg would have been a member of The Hairy Who or maybe started it. But he was more political, he had to be, and Chicago, the politics were so acidic that you wouldn’t have wanted to be to be involved in it, unless you went in full immersion. And we were decidedly unpolitical. Although we all agreed on the politics of it. We were a collective in the sense that we wanted people to collect us.” On this, Art Green is a tad glib, having made art responding to and criticizing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Both Art and Greg would visit with each other in various Canadian cities: Halifax, Vancouver, Toronto. “Nobody appreciated Greg in Toronto, they went out of their way to un-appreciate him. And luckily, they did put a put up a pretty nice retrospective after he was safely gone.”

Of London, Green notes, “I think that for a period of time. I don’t know how long it was maybe a few minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe a few months? Maybe a few years. London, Ontario was most interesting art scene and literary scene in the whole world.”

The propensity for great art still ran in the water there, the stream flowed, there was a continuum and a recognizing of that history. London has some great galleries including Forest City Gallery, founded by Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe, where The Nihilist Spasm Band plays every Monday night.

In 2013 The London Museum held the group show L.O. Today with artists Jason Mclean, Marc Bell, Jamie Q, Billy Bert Young, Amy Lockhart, Peter Thompson, and James Kirkpatrick. Many of these artists are a part of the Canadian Psychedooolic art comic movement that began in the 1990’s, captured and collected in the book Nog A Dod, edited by former Londoner Marc Bell and released by Conundrum/PictureBox. Much of the work in Nog A Dod occurred in Vancouver with a couple of these London artists relocating there, immersing easily, doing a lot of collaborative drawing and art books with other Vancouver based artists. Yes, ‘Canadian Psychedooolic’ was named after the fact by Bell, but we weren’t thinking of ourselves as a movement or a group at the time. Yet all of these art books had an unfettered comic wildness, funny, and expansively playful. And Nog A Dod got out there, impacting and influencing a lot of artists the world over. Furthering the connective tissue, in 2003, The Western Front in Vancouver put on an art show featuring ‘documents and ephemera’ from musical acts The Nihilist Spasm Band, The All Star Schnauzer Band (a somewhat fake band as mail art project involving Bell, Mclean, and Thompson) and July Fourth Toilet, a Vancouver based group that often involves many Nog A Dod and Nog A Dod related artists, including yours truly occasionally wearing outlandish semi-functional semi-nude costumes specially designed by Jason Mclean. The show was curated by Jonathan Middleton, who is now Executive Director at Art Metropole, a Toronto based artist-run centre dealing primarily in artists’ publications.

Getting back to Greg Curnoe. Released in two parts in 1970, The Great Canadian Sonnet contained numerous images by Curnoe. Described as a “Beaver Little Book”, the format was modeled after the popular Big Little Books, distant cousins to comic books so named for being small, square and thick. Big Little Books were marketed to children and featured popular comic, cartoon, radio and film characters of the day in text-based stories with illustrations on every other page. Some Big Little Books had flip-it cartoons in the top corner so one could make the character move. With its second volume The Great Canadian Sonnet does this as well, stating “See ‘em move – just flip the pages” on the cover and, sure enough, in the corner a spot rolls up a hill-like abstract shape transforming into a medley of human faces.

Written by poet David McFadden, Curnoe riffed off lines in his text creating a great many detailed pen-and-ink drawings for the book with titles that included “Proud Possessor Of Meaningful Pain”, “One that will be Truly Loved by the Prime Minister”, and “The Empty Universe” which featured a drawing of a tin of apple juice and a packet of bird seed -the book’s drawings contained many such absurdist pairings. The Great Canadian Sonnet was published by Coach House Press who were -and still are- known for releasing all manner of experimental works including poetry, prose and beyond. Both volumes together weigh in at over 400 pages, with every other page being a drawing by Curnoe.

Many thanks to Jason Mclean, Marc Bell, and Judith Rodger for their immense help with this piece.

Thanks as well to Art Green for use of his respective artworks.

Part Two: Scraptures, Snore and More coming tomorrow, Friday, August 20!

  • Robert Dayton