William Paterson Ewen

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William Paterson Ewen

1925 - 2002

Paterson Ewen developed his art under two opposites of the Canadian Art spectrum – he was taught by Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer, but also socialized with the Automatists. His phenomenon paintings and gouged plywood works brought him to prominence in Canada.

Born in Montreal to a strict Protestant family, Ewen escaped an alcoholic father via the Canadian Army, serving in the infantry from 1943 - 1947. He attended McGill University, taking drawing classes with John Lyman and also met dancer Françoise Sullivan, (who he married in 1949) a member of the Automatists group who introduced him to her fellow painters, poets and writers. Ewen transferred to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design in 1948, where Lismer and Goodridge Roberts were teaching. The school’s focus was landscape, and Ewen would be heavily influenced by the contrasting work of Roberts, whose personal style and methods he admired, and the bold abstractions of Paul-Émile Borduas and the Automatists. In 1950, two of Ewen’s works were exhibited by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in their 67th Annual Spring Exhibition, and at the same time, two works were shown in the l’Exposition des rebelles, organized by the Automatists. This caused a rift between Lismer and Ewen, and Lismer handed Ewen his diploma two years early. Forced to find work, Ewen sold ladies’ hats and then carpets to support himself and Françoise, who was expecting their first of four children.

In 1956, Ewen became a founding member of the Non-Figurative Artists’ Association of Montreal and began to exhibit abstracts with them at the Galerie Denyse Delrue. Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant, two of the Plasticien painters who were gradually taking centre stage in Quebec contemporary circles, were strong influences. In 1962, Ewen’s canvas entitled Yellow Abstract was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada. His style became increasingly hard-edged in the mid-1960s, but while his career was moving forward, his marriage was failing and he and Françoise separated in 1966. At this time, Ewen was suffering acutely from depression and alcoholism and had to be hospitalized. Recovering in 1968, he settled in London, Ontario, meeting Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, Murray Favro, Tony Urquhart, David and Royden Rabinovitch and David Bolduc, who encouraged his work and helped him regain his footing. He began to show at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery in Toronto and was included in the Seventh Biennial of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery of Canada. His work in collage, exploring ‘portraits’ of the weather using fabric, metal, linoleum and nuts and bolts, led to the router-gouged plywood works in which plywood sheets, first intended as a large format surface for block printing, became a medium in themselves. A Canada Council Senior Fellowship awarded in 1971 allowed him to take a year off to work further with these ideas. Ewen taught at the University of Western Ontario in 1972, the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1976, and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 1976 and 1977. His 1973 self portrait The Bandaged Man, in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, reflected his troubled personal life. His mid-1970s phenomoscapes were based on natural phenomenon such as comets, lightening, celestial bodies, and together with his weather images are most associated with his name. He represented Canada at the 1982 Venice Bienniale, and was given the National Award of the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1987 and the Toronto Arts Award in 1989. He was the subject of a major show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1996, and his work is widely collected both nationally and internationally, being represented in many collections including the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and the Museé du Québec.

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