Thursday, 12 November 2015

How Gerry Squires Shaped Newfoundland's Cultural Identity

While other artists would have painted leaves Gerry went for exposed roots.

By now everybody has heard that we have lost Gerry Squires.  He has been hailed as this province's most influential artist, treasured by many for his kindness and talent and honored by all.  The Canada Council, NL Arts, Craft Council of NL and Visual Arts NL plus a wide variety of media outlets have recognized Squires' passing and our profound sense of loss.  Let me try and explain why Gerry Squires was so significant– not just to family, friends and creative peers but– to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  It has little to do with the honors bestowed on him from Memorial University (1992), the Order of Canada (1999), the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts or the many other organizations.

When Gerry Squires returned to this province from the mainland in 1969 a cultural tidal wave was forming that was part of larger social forces.  Scholars have variously called it the Newfoundland cultural renaissance, revival or revolution.  It was the first time many Newfoundlanders saw themselves reflected on the stage, television, canvas or page.  Gerry Squires was instrumental in helping shape Newfoundland cultural identity.  He was part of a generation that produced a period of sustained creativity across disciplines that reflected and validated a sense of self that could have only evolved after Confederation, the establishment of Memorial University, and the glimmer of economic prosperity.  It would be the result of intense inquiry into what it meant to be a Newfoundlander, the questioning of authority and the rise of a generation not directly impacted by the poverty associated with World War II.
This photo (of himself) was originally
supplied by Gerry to a Peruvian newspaper.

Think of the groundbreaking work done in comedy by Codco, Figgy Duff in combing rock and roll with traditional music, innumerable plays and novels and then there was a holy trinity in the visual arts:  David Blackwood, Christopher Pratt and Gerry Squires.  This burst of creativity fed a sense of discovery and pride for the province.  Blackwood mythologized the past, Pratt interpretated the contemporary with a cool minimalism and Squires depicted the landscape with the authority of a self-portrait that was never pretty. (He always smiled when I said that.) Gnarled tree roots, epic boulders …wind scrubbed skies, Squires celebrated the common place and helped stamp the reputation of Newfoundland and Labrador as a hotbed of creativity on the national map. 

This article is a reprint from the November 2015 edition of the Overcast newspaper.

Gerry Squires made art everyday because he had no choice he had to.  Kind and encouraging, he always had the time to give advice and guidance to a growing generation of younger artists.  The man was like a benevolent and gentle ruler.  If he were in a two-artist show, he'd be pitching the other guy's work–coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, singing the praises of a fellow artist to a collector.  What was staggering is that Gerry Squires did it with a rare integrity.  His gallerist, Emma Butler had it right when she said on CBC Radio that Gerry was never in it for the money or fame.  It was all about love and the consequence was that it contributed to the recognition that all artists of this province are a significant force in its economy and society.

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