Two thousand pictures worth two million words

Owens Gallery houses many paintings, sketches and other works often overlooked by visitors

How much does the average student know about the Owens Art Gallery? While much has been published in the Argosy about the installations and exhibits featured at the Owens over the years, relatively little has been said about its permanent collection or the gallery itself.

The Owens was established in 1895 in a building constructed by renowned Toronto architect Edmund Burke, making it Canada’s oldest university art gallery. “The Owens collection is one of the oldest public collections in the country,” said Gemey Kelly, the curator of the gallery. “Today the collection has grown to include works in all media, including video. A recent acquisition was the stop-motion animated film Secret Citadel by Sackville artist Graeme Patterson. The future for the collection is exciting.”

If you take a right at the reception desk, you will find a room dedicated to the works of Alex Colville, a graduate of the class of ‘42 and later a faculty member at Mount Allison. His most prominent and renowned work, Athletes, was displayed in the Athletic Centre until 2016, when it was moved to the Owens for permanent exhibition due to damage caused by high air humidity near the pool.

Maker Maker Button making workshop held in September 2017.
Gill Hill/Argosy

Colville’s mastery of the human form is evident; his pieces have a certain stillness about them, like a snapshot of a continuous narrative. The Owens has many of his half-finished sketches on display, which elucidate his thought process when creating a piece. “He had geometric lines and he was using carefully calculated angles to figure out the best composition of the piece,” said Liz Rooker, a first-year art history student. “Specifically with Athletes, you can see how that played out. You can see he was using principles of design he really understood.”

The vault storage area in the basement of the Owens also houses many pieces that are not usually on display. According to Jane Tisdale, the fine arts conservator at the Owens, “The paintings vault houses about 800 paintings and there are more than 2,000 works of art on paper in the print vault.”

Students from the Mt. A Women’s College copy paintings at the Owens Art Gallery c. 1895. Owens Art Gallery/Submitted

A large portion of the gallery’s art was purchased in Europe by Canadian artist John Hammond 11 years prior to the opening of the gallery and sent to the Maritimes. Tisdale explained that the original Owens collection was “used for teaching, particularly in the 19th century when students copied these paintings. There is one painting by Louis Welden Hawkins titled The Departure. It was never completed and the artist’s outline of the figures is clearly visible. We believe that the painting was likely acquired in this incomplete state in order to demonstrate painting techniques to the students. The painting was purchased in France directly from the artist’s studio in 1884. This painting has been exhibited many times during the gallery’s salon hanging exhibitions.”

The Owens also has a few student employment opportunities. Tisdale said the best strategy to find employment there is “to drop by with a resume [and] contact information and let us know that [you] are interested in working here.” Students usually work at the reception desk, but there is also a mentorship program run out of the gallery’s art conservation lab. This program, Tisdale explained, allows “one or two students each year [to] gain some practical experience working with the gallery’s fine arts conservator.”

Lucy MacDonald, curator of education and community outreach, said, “In addition to exhibitions, the Owens offers many other ways for students to engage with art, including visiting art talks, openings and a popular series of after-hours art workshops called Maker Maker.”

All in all, the Owens has a lot to offer, not just when it’s actively hosting a temporary exhibit. Even if you think that art isn’t really your thing, it would definitely be worth your while to pay a quick visit.

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