Regina Clay: Worlds in the Making
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by Wayne Morgan

Saskatchewan public libraries have always played an important role in the province's cultural life.  The Regina Public Library had begun exhibiting art in a dedicated gallery in the late 1940s.  When professional staff arrived in 1961 with the hiring of artist Bruce Parsons, the RPL gallery—later named the Dunlop Art Gallery after the visionary Chief Librarian Marjorie Dunlop—had been participating in national art touring programs for some time.  Placed strategically by the entrance to the new main library, the gallery complemented Canada's first public library film rental service, an educational picture loan collection, and other innovative and democratic responses to contemporary life for which the RPL was becoming famous, an approach described as John Cotton Dana meeting the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.

In the early 1960s two artists would curate the art Regina would see as the decade unfolded:  Bruce Parsons, a studio-trained artist from Montreal, and Ron Bloore, an art historian from Toronto.  Both ran one-person operations within larger organizations of similar age.  Regina College was then about the size of a rural high school.  It was heady days in the small capital city of Regina: the introduction of medicare was capturing headlines around the world, and Emma Lake Artists Workshops had echoes of Black Mountain College for the American artists attracted to Saskatchewan.  The allure of North America's first elected democratic socialist government had made Saskatchewan a magnet for public intellectuals, several at the invitation of Regina College (then growing into the University of Regina), and Saskatchewan's citizens took pride in their awareness of the wider world.

Bloore, who stated he once brought in an exhibition for a single artist to see, did not have the public responsibility of Parsons at the more accessible public library art gallery.  The Norman MacKenzie was a university art gallery based on a donated collection, housing an art school, and was, by its nature, inward looking.  The internecine warfare that can come with academia would plague public perceptions of the MacKenzie for over a decade.   It had a tendency to declare rather than observe, sometimes ignoring the local art history and sometimes embracing it, but it nevertheless provided one of the few social scenes for art students and the art public.  The occasionally intransigent MacKenzie was in contrast to the growing reputation of the feisty Regina Campus then attracting attention in politcal science, psychology and art, and soon to offer the first MFA in Canada.  Contrapuntal to this was the Regina Public Library exhibitions ... immediate, responsive, open to the general public and often with chamber music.  Shaped by an institutional commitment to public accessibility, the RPL gallery proved to be more in tune with the forces that were re-shaping ideas of art and culture in the 1960s.  During a period when the barriers were breaking down and it was possible to act upon your dreams, the MacKenzie presented itself as a filter of what was right and correct.  When the MacKenzie acquired Associate Museum status and its concomitant public responsiblities under the National Museum Policy in 1973, it was one of several galleries not quite ready for this new role.  In contrast the RPL art gallery was open neutral territory that responded quickly to changing times, like the RPL itself which was one of the busiest and most relevant libraries in Canada.  The library/gallery model was copied across the province and the country.

The Dunlop's third studio-trained curator, Wayne Morgan, arrived in 1970, after serving three years as Canada's first community resident artist in Weyburn.  An early member of the generation of artists and curators who expected to stay in Saskatchewan, he had been part of the scene since 1961 when he studied with the newly minted Regina Five.  With the confidence of having been part of the scene as it developed, he picked up at the Dunlop where his predecessor curators (Parsons, Glen Cummings, and Jed Irwin) had left off.  He had met Yuristy, Sures and Fafard at Emma Lake, Cicansky and Levine had joined Regina College as students during his second year, and Beth Hone and Ric Gomez had also been his instructors.

Inheriting a liberal mandate and an almost blank schedule, Morgan put Gilhooly and Levine on the exhibition schedule by year's end, and he filled the gallery with local and regional art that he felt needed to be seen.  The extraordinary pace of exhibitions at the Dunlop had begun with Glen Cummings, who found it necessary to hang a new exhibition every two weeks.  With a local boy in charge, the Dunlop continued its aggressive acknowledgment of the exploding regional scene, featuring not only clay artists but painters, photographers, craftspeople, urban planners and industrial designers.  Regina was then an important art centre in Canada and a point on the Chicago/California triangle of similiar artistic sensibilities.  Without a commercial art gallery in the city, the Dunlop also served that function by selling regional art and craft to citizens and to national institutions.  Artists knew their work would be highly visible to a broad public for eleven hours a day and could be sold to aspiring collectors.

During this period, art in everyday life was the mantra and accessibility the key, a key the Dunlop provided.  The Community Resident Artist program of the Saskatchewan Arts Board had spread across the province bringing art instruction to small towns, and new ideas about art education rippled through the school systems inspired by the writings of Sir Herbert Read and John Dewey.  The Dunlop championed the jazzy democracy of funk and a plate for every table from the numerous studio potters in Saskatchewan.  Its exhibitions were tools for community awareness.

While the winds of societal change could be seen at the Dunlop, where art  in everyday life did not require a catalogue, the Mackenzie's struggles with the clay artists' clever public machinations to gain access to its galleries played out on the pages of the local newspaper.  After the Dunlop had shown their work, these university artists fought publicly to be exhibited in their university gallery, seeking the validation of a publication the MacKenzie could provide.

Two other driving forces of Regina Funk found attention at the Dunlop:  folk art and popular culture.   Norah McCullough, Ron Bloore and Ken Lochhead had earlier discovered folk artists such as Jan Wyers and W. C. McCargar.   Like the clay artists, Morgan found in the folk artists a sense of personal history . a sort of great uncle who said it was okay to do what you do,  that your ideas were worth it.  Morgan sought out McCargar and included him in an exhibition with Vic Cicansky's father, Frank, and Fred Moulding, a model maker he discovered at a family picnic.  This exhibition, Windmills, Wagons and Railroads, began a long tradition of folk art research and exhibitions at the Dunlop.  In a parallel track the Dunlop also exhibited popular culture, including Japanese Culinary Pop and Canadian Comic Book Heroes from, of all places, The National Gallery of Canada.  And the Dunlop's exhibition on pinball, the first serious examination of the game, circulated across Western Canada, attracting worldwide attention that lasted for years.

Thus, the Dunlop not only exhibited the work of Regina's clay artists, but it also served them as a resource.  The artists drew upon the sense of personal voice and history as well as community connection inherent in folk art and popular culture.

Too much has been made of the conflicts between modernism and funk in Regina.  Each was driven by an American influence, a point forgotten by the clay artists attacking their colleagues at the University of Regina.  Much of the conflict took place in an ivory tower and was driven by personalities.  The warfare was a signal that the influence of university art departments was fading as they fought over tenure and entrance to the club.  The clay artists of this story left the university and made a living through their art; the Americans went home.  The stories told by the main clay artists during this period—Cicansky, Fafard, Levine, Thauberger and Yuristy—remain true today and are still important.  Whatever the stresses and battles within the art world,  the public was the beneficiary of a wide variety of art during this time . . . much of which was first recognized by the Dunlop Art Gallery at the Regina Public Library.

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Virtual Museum of Canada REGINA CLAY: WORLDS IN THE MAKING MacKenzie Art Gallery