Sackville remembers Colville’s life and legacy

Allisonian artist lives on through his art work.

Canada’s art community suffered a loss this summer when Alex Colville, prolific Canadian painter and former Mount Allison student, teacher, and resident artist, passed away on July 16 at the age of ninety-two. Although this news was felt among those who knew both Colville and his bounty of notable works, it is obvious that his contributions to Mount Allison and the Canadian art scene will be cherished and enjoyed for many years to come. 

Born in Toronto and raised in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Colville discovered at age nine that he possessed an affinity for drawing and painting during a period of illness. He attended Mt. A, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1942 before enlisting in the Canadian Army. During his deployment in southern France, the Netherlands, and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, Colville served as both a soldier and a war artist and learned that his style of art was best suited for capturing the experiences and realities of individuals in a neutral context, in an attempt to answer his favourite question: “What is life like?”

Colville is known for the meticulous geometric planning that preceded each of his paintings, and therefore preferred contemplative solitude when creating his artwork. He also felt that location was essential to his process, and thus chose the familiar town of Sackville as his base of operations, believing that the town provided “the feeling of belonging, the solitude, and above all, the freedom from distraction” that he required to establish himself as an artist.

Colville described himself as a realist, and his artwork reflects this attitude. Although he deeply appreciated life and individual consciousness, his philosophy also respected the inevitability of its end; Colville famously said “Many people live as if they expected to live forever —I don’t. In the end, we’re all dead.” While his realism could appear blunt or harsh to some, it ultimately illustrates his understanding of the complexities of life and his familiarity with human hardship.

In addition to his time as an art instructor at Mt. A, his contributions to the university are numerous. Several of his paintings continue to adorn the university’s buildings, including the fitness centre, Tweedie Hall, and the Owens Art Gallery. His former residence on York Street, now renamed Colville House, also serves as an extension of the art gallery and a testament to his life and career. Because Colville drew so heavily from his own experiences and almost exclusively painted people and places that he knew intimately, one need only view Colville’s collection of art in order to obtain the story of his life, his mind, and the world around him.

Colville’s body of work serves as his own visual biography. Although one may mourn the loss of one of Canada’s greatest modern painters, it is only fitting that this is coupled with a thorough celebration of his contributions to the Mt. A community and abroad, his passionate and inquisitive character, and his artistic legacy that will endure in the culture of Canada and the minds of its people.  

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