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Great Canadian Art & Artists

The Creative Genius of JD Kelly 2
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Opening the First Welland Canal (detail) - JD Kelly

Orig. Personal Artist's Proof - Size - 34 x 47 cms
Found - Aberfoyle, ON
Titled in JD Kelly's hand, Original printer registration marks, Prov - JD Kelly friend collection

Simply Fabulous! One of JD Kelly's most famous prints - the opening of the Welland Canal - was issued for the Confederation Life series. This was the personal proof print used by JD to ensure quality control on the wide variety of colours he used on this complex and highly detailed composition.

The biggest obstacle to sea-going ships on the Great Lakes of Ontario, had always been the Niagara River and Falls which connected Lakes Erie and Ontario.

The First Welland Canal was built from 1824-1829 by William Merritt, to bypass the Falls and rapids and create a direct ship route for goods which previously had to be transshipped by wagons on a portage route.

 

Large ships could now sail from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the end of the Great Lakes.

JD Kelly's glorious picture for a grand occasion included rich detail, like the action vignette of the crew throwing the line to the canal worker.

And as was his custom JD did painstaking research to make sure that the costumes for all the figures were completely correct for the 1820s. Note the variety of headgear JD displayed.

And Kelly, who obviously liked people - ordinary folks, cast in heroic roles, were often the focus of his paintings - did not forget children as participants in history.

Amid the men - Scots and French-Canadians with their sashes - pompositing about their great achievement, Kelly included a young boy racing through the crowd to share in the excitement of watching the ship cross from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.

The Creative Genius of JD Kelly

The Canadian Boer War Museum is fortunate to have discovered a treasure trove of the original creative art work once used by Canadian Master Artist JD Kelly, to create many of the most famous images in Canadian History.

It allows us to peek at the original drawings JD created to express his vision of the part of history he was trying to bring to life for Canadian viewers, in the days before there was television, or films and documentary programs, about Canadian history.

The art of Master Illustrators like JD Kelly, Art Hider, CW Jefferys, Arthur Heming, and Owen Staples, gave Canadians of their era the only vision they had, of the people, places, and events that had shaped the Canada they lived in. JD and the other members of the Fab Five, defined what Canadian History, and its major figures, looked like in the consciousness of the Nation, and in the hearts of the average Canadian, from Mummer's Cove to Moose Jaw.

Why not lift JD's wrapper, below, with which he once protected his original artwork, and under which it has been hidden for over 70 years...

JD Kelly - 1862-1958 - 11

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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Linking the Great Lakes of Canada, First Welland Canal, 1829 - JD Kelly
Orig. Gouache wc - Size - 61 x 81cm
Found - Aberfoyle, ON
Titled in JD Kelly's hand, Original printer registration marks, Prov - JD Kelly friend collection

The original large board on which JD Kelly worked directly, to complete the second mock-up of the figures and elements for the final design. Once the drawing was approved, JD would reproduce the picture once more, again from scratch, and this time finish it in full watercolour. He protected this version of his work with a large sheet of construction paper, which he taped to the top and folded over it. On its back he noted that it was his #2 mock-up of an original design subsequently published by the Confederation Life Ass'n. It is interesting to see the changes that he was still making from one version to the next...

Above, the beaver hat has gained a ribbon, the frock coat another button, and the cane has become more elegantly supportive.

The ratlines on the ship have been simplified, and a garland of festive flags has been added. The lad's kerchief, by being defined more clearly, and swung back, gives a much stronger sense of the boy running.

Below, new background figures appear, behind the sail, and on the shore. The rope gets an extra loop, with the rope thrower keeping his whiskers, while the men on the dock exchange theirs!

The drawing stays substantially the same; the colour is what transforms the work. And the enormous amount of historical research JD had to do before he could even begin...

Pass it on...

Go Tell the National Gallery of Canada

To Sell the "Voice of An American," left and use the millions it paid to get it,
to Buy, and Preserve, instead
Great Canadian Art by
Great Canadian Artists.

Overnight Genius! JD Kelly made his fame and fortune in an age when painters had standards they had to meet, in order to win acceptance by their peers, and the buying public. Art and artists were expected to achieve benchmarks of excellence that were defined and took years to attain. Painters - as adults - went to study - as a point of pride - under the established and recognized Masters in the field. (Yes some even went to the United States and Europe to learn better techniques of artistic expression they could put to use when they returned to paint in Canada.)

JD learned his craft in an age of standards - women and Indians did not have the vote because they were seen as not having the "right stuff." It was a tough age, for women, Indians - and painters.

Spreading democracy changed all that - for women, Indians, and painters. Since they got the vote the lot of women, and Indians, has been miraculously transformed - and they have nothing to complain about anymore...

Democracy made similar improvements in painting too...

Modern art - unlike that of JD's day - no longer comes from without, a set of external standards you work hard to master and impose on yourself to validate yourself as an artist, to yourself, and to others.

Quite frankly, was the refrain, that process took way too long, and was a needless waste of time... Just like most things in life, it could be improved upon by a dose of democracy. The time it had once taken to create a good artist could now be enormously speeded up. And good art too...

Democracy in art meant that you could now be "a born artist," just as, in a republic, anyone - regardless of merit - is born with the right to vote! The benefit was that lack of merit, need no longer be a hindrance to advancement - like it once was - in politics or in art... or life generally.

So nowadays - certainly not in Kelly's day - anyone can be an artist, with any old scribble that comes from within.

An artist, today, is his/her own validation... So, for example, in the Canadian arctic, in the 1950s every Inuk was told he/she was an Inuit carver with a God-given talent to create. They believed it, and a huge rock chopping business began there.

Tellingly, the Department of Economic Development - not of Heritage, or Culture - took over the direction of Inuit art, and had everyone carving - make that chopping - and it certainly shows... making big city auctions that handle their output - we could think of other words here - look more like a Neanderthal hunting camp ossuary, or the refuse dump in a quarry, than a showcase for the carving cream of a culture.

The end of adhering to artistic standards, in creative art, began an age when more than one monkey, wielding a brush, has fooled modernist art snobs and left them floundering, because, by their own standard, they could no longer distinguish between the Art of Man, and the Art of Monkey. Begging the question, of course, of who is aping whom? And how do you tell bad from good Inuit art? Retort the punditing snoberati, those are not valid questions.

Ordinary people, of course, have no trouble telling the difference, but they aren't allowed to let on that they smell a rat - well at least an ape with a brush! - lest they be personally berated by the snoberati... Make that snoberarzi, the snoots who set themselves up as high priests - or priestesses, if they wear skirts - of taste, which we are desperately in need of - right - as never before, to tell us which of all the offal produced by democracy in art, is good or bad, or produced by a man, or his or her monkey.

(In fact this is one topic, for some reason, which Emily Carr, apparently, never talked about. It's not that she was secretive about it all - she tried to signal that perhaps the credit for what she painting was not entirely rightfully hers alone - by treating her monkey like royalty, pushing it around in a baby buggy. But oddly enough, the academic literature, by Shadbolt and others, failed to pick up her cry for help; all are mum on this subject.)

For most people who want to like art today, it's often hard to tell the bad from good art. Democracy in art has made it so hard to distinguish. Even the best people - with or without skirts - can be taken in by the hoax, when no standards become the standard.

We thought that with democracy - and monkeys - expanding into art, being judgmental was supposed to go out the same door the simians came in. In fact, democracy turned the art world on its head. Art, the pundits said could no longer be divided into bad and good; instead it was we art viewers who would now be graded instead, by petulant prigs - into mature and immature!

Ouch! That hurts!

As the director of Canada's National Gallery - a stern enforcer of the democratic no standards in art clause - took great pains to say, most loftily, in a recent interview, that Canadians who see some art acquisitions by the Gallery as awful - and there are millions of us - should just stop being immature and "Grow up." He said he "hoped" the public had matured, intimating in so many words that those who disagreed with his artistic choices were basically infantile.

Now that strikes us as - you add the word here...

When bereft of reasonable arguments, strike a low blow. How low, indeed, has democracy in art brought us... Some of us... Trying to make the rest of us believe that when they show us a skunk, we are supposed to see a pussy... Make that kitty...

Geez... Sorry, for saying - along with millions of other Canadian art lovers - that the Gallery's "Voice of An American" was frankly "God awful." And so it was, and is! On many planes of deception...

Great Canadian Trash Sure
Voice of An American
Flag, Kingdom of Cambodia
Orig. purchase - National Gallery
Found - New York City
Picture taken just before central building slid to the floor producing - violà! - Voice of an American...
A Great Canadian Question...

If JD Kelly spent 70 years developing his craft to create his Welland Canal... how many minutes, and puffs, did it take to acquire the skill to reproduce the stripes from the Cambodian flag, above, for which the National Gallery of Canada paid $1.8 million in 1989 ($4 million in 2006 dollars) to a gleeful American agent?

Apparently the Gallery did insist on a name change from the work's original title Voice of Cambodia! They didn't think the name was suitable for a Canadian acquisition! They got no argument on that.

Hey, for 4 mil I'd even change my gender...

And we are not persuaded by defensive arguments about how big a hole in the wall the giant American stripes covered! Or that it was cheaper to buy it in New York than to pay contractors in Ottawa to fix the hole. Or that Barnett was a poor starving artist in New York, and needed a helping hand... make that a helping handful of a million or two - probably 4 million in today's dollars... from the Canadian taxpayer... In fact poor Barnett got no benefit at all. He had been dead since 1970, so only a slick, smooth talking New York agent got rich, courtesy of the hard working Canadian taxpayer, for pulling that one off, not the artist. Plus ça change... (Which is French for more change in someone's pocket; we just don't know whose!)

We thought that expanding democracy - and maturity - in art appreciation, meant that, just like artists are free to create any valid art from within, we, the audience, are also free to express parallel democracy in art appreciation, by calling a spade a spade, trash what the wife puts out Monday morning, and the Voice of An American as an abominably misguided waste of money by those holding the purse strings of Canada's national treasury. And, yes, most certainly we're biased - after all they spent our money, not theirs... And supposedly on our behalf... not theirs...

So, lamentably, art snobs - an abomination in JD's day - were not wiped out with spreading democracy in art. The established high priests of art were not going to give up their own medieval right to pontificate on what is good and bad art. Luckily their rules are simple; what they like is good, what they hate is bad. It's as easy as it sounds.

And - you guessed it - what they like is usually overseas!

Needless to say - "Ay, there's the rub," as Shakespeare once foresaw - this required many, repeat visits to exotic places, like Italy, to fondle statues, and dare we say it, busts, and anything else that comes to hand, perhaps with an eye to bringing it back to Canada - if only as a memory! We all pay for these elitist foreign adventures.

But we don't blame them... Who would ever want to fondle anything in Kapuskasing! Or Ragged Ass Lane, in Yellowknife...? Or Nancy's Cellar in Nova Scotia, or Dildo in Newfoundland...? Let alone, up at Frenchman's Butte in Alberta...

Important people of substance don't go there. They spend their research time looking for art where the real stuff is, in Milano, Firenze, or the Piazza San Marco, where they can relax thinking of Italian Masters as they listen to Lara's Theme blaring over loudspeakers, and dodge pigeon ploop from above.

Now... can we see that one by the monkey again? Oh you already sold it to the National Gallery, and for how much? And they want how many more? And how many monkeys did you say you have, painting in the basement? Oh, and they're not monkeys you say, they're apes... Sorry, we didn't mean to be offensive... And oh, yes, yes, I know we are descended from them. Or at least, some of my relatives are... Do you think the National Gallery would take some of them... their paintings I mean?

Sadly, democracy was not a cure all in art anymore than it proved to be in other fields. Ask women; ask Aboriginal Peoples...

With "bad art" supposedly no longer an acceptable, or valid term, one would have thought that the high priests of political correctness in institutional art would have folded their tents, too, and the art snobs departed, to wolf down their last horse doovres - that's French for something the horse leaves behind, and which the art snoberati are endlessly fond of trying to force on you, literally and figuratively... when you attend one of their functions...

So, no matter how smartly they dress up, bad gas, from the purveyors of horse doovres at art functions will continue to becloud the foreseeable future at Canadian art soireés.

But enough of that. I mustn't be late to attend that National Gallery talk on "Our ten year plan to correct the woeful and widespread Canadian immaturity in art appreciation by filling our vaults full of Italian Masters."

Sounds like a lot of bad gas coming up...

Now where did I put that carton of Beano!

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Calendar, Confederation Life, 1941
Orig. calendar - Size - 47 x 71 cm
Found - Brampton, ON
Titled in JD Kelly's hand, Original printer registration marks, Prov - JD Kelly friend collection
Aged to Perfection! Few people know that JD Kelly created many of his most well-known images when he was in his seventies.

JD was at the peak of his form after a life-time of learning. But that was the kind of art he had set out, early in life, to devote himself to. Art that celebrated Canada and Canadians, not - as is the case with most artists in the modern age - art that only expresses their untutored inner urges as budding geniuses in art, literature, music, or film.

It was because JD was seen to speak, so authoritatively, to Canadians about Canada, that his work was featured on calendars, so that millions would be reminded, every day, of the glorious heritage of Canada whenever they checked the date in the grocery story, the bank, the livery stable, the bus station, or the car garage.

Through JD's calendars, year after year, and his prints on the wall of their homes and institutions, Canadians of the early 20th century absorbed into their psyche, JD Kelly's vision of Canadian history.

Without a doubt, the art of no other Canadian artist in history has had such a profound effect on influencing how Canadians see themselves as a Nation.

If one artist alone was considered indispensable, to defining Canada to Canadians in the 20th century, that artist - without peers - would be JD Kelly.

JD Kelly placed his brush at the service of his clients, and his country - instead of his inner artistic ego.

As a result, his work will live forever, in countless mainstream history books, films, and television programs, that speak to coming generations about the people, places, and events from which Canada has developed.

(Conversely, the work of the ego-centred Modernist artists will, mercifully, be relegated only - by the Darwinian process of natural selection - to the dust bin of history, the clammy pages of obscure art books, moldering in the dark recesses of some fire-trap used book store on Murk Street in Winnipeg.)

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

On the Old Caribou Trail, JD Kelly
Orig. calendar - Size - 48 x 89 cm
Found - Aberfoyle, ON
Prov - JD Kelly friend collection

A Great Canadian - JD Kelly: JD could - like many who play at art - have abandoned Canada, gone to Italy, and hung around the Palazzo Vecchia, in Firenze, pretending that the real art was there, in the gargoyles on the ballustrado.

But then JD was no prig, no poseur, no chaser of castrati around the campanile; he knew that there were - in Canada - more deserving art and artists than the National Gallery, with its limited acquisitions budget, could ever give decent representation to, in the Art Museum of the Nation...

JD Kelly was a salt of the earth Canadian. His art proudly reflected his belief in this country and the maturity of its artistic heritage, unsurpassed by any other in the world.

Untold millions of Canadians agreed with him.

We shall not see his like again.

Certainly not in Ottawa...