Who was Donald Jarvis?

It is truly rare to become captivated by more than one piece in an artist’s collection. However, the same cannot be said of one of Canada’s most overlooked abstract artists, whose works are a series of alluring glimpses not only into his riveting imagination, but also his philosophy.

Jarvis once proclaimed “I am not a creator. How can one create what is already there” only to allude to his inherent rapport with his art. His connection to what he painted was akin not only to his emotions but the world that surrounded him. When he became dissatisfied with a piece which did not capture this process, he simply ripped the canvass apart only to start over.

Yet his legacy lies not just in his ability to place himself in the natural world, but rather his sublime skill to represent it through his emotions. The hundreds of pieces he painted throughout his lifetime are a manifest not only of himself, but how he felt when he saw his environment. This sentimental principle is what makes his art so particularly enticing. This, however, is not to say that nature did not play an role in his brush work. He was, after all, a witness to British Columbia’s crowning glory: its natural beauty. Something which he undoubtedly used to his advantage. In one such literal example, he once left out a painting outside for months just to see what would happen. Whether out of sheer curiosity or for artistic effect is hard to say, but one thing is sure: Jarvis was an intriguing man.

Born in Vancouver’s not-so-roaring 20’s, he was a precocious child, especially in his ability to draw which later developed in a desire to become a cartoonist in his teenage years. He soon enrolled in Vancouver’s most prestigious art school, where he was persuaded by his professor, B.C Binning, a leading Canadian artist at the time, to continue in the path of painting rather than cartoon illustrations. This with some obvious foundation, as upon his graduation he was awarded a substantial scholarship which prompted him to travel and study in New York in 1948.

In New York, under the guise and skill of the famous Hans Hofmann, the abstract expressionist best known for his perplexing spatial configurations on the canvass, Jarvis continued his education in the fine arts within the practical medium. This particular period had a profound influence on the fundamental ideals of abstractism that not only immediately showed themselves in his works, but ones that would subtly carry on for the rest of his life.

In fact, during his time with Hofmann he had already began to develop his own style, which mainly manifested itself in a series of anamorphic urban landscapes. Many of these dwelled within abstract ideals such as the solitude of the individual amid the populace. The most famous of these, “White Lunch”, is an exquisite example of personal desolation within cold and dejected scenery.

How, however, someone could so completely transform not only his overall style but his form as an artist is without a doubt beyond me. By the 60’s and 70’s, he had entered an era which not only made his versatility as a painter quite evident, but also his tremendous aptness for producing beautiful work doubled. It was during this time, which is known as his “Hard Edge” period, that he revisited the enticing Phoenix series. The very same whose depthness alludes to the circularity of life, from death to reincarnation. Yet, it wasn’t just these particular series that had a story or some sort of apprehension to morality or philosophy. No, in fact if one looks into each and every one of his paintings it becomes immediately obvious that aesthetics dominates ideas, but also push them forward.

As “West Coast” art is continually dominated by the tedious shadow of stodgy and frankly insipid artists such as Emily Carr, those whose work has proven to be remarkable, unfortunately remains immeasurably underrated. Donald Jarvis, in my opinion, is only a remnant of the past glory of the creativity that once existed in Western Canada- certainly the epitome of the artistic fortitude that is no longer present today.

You can find more of his work Here.


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