Photo above: Owen Gordon, Dancing Women, 2022, acrylic and oil on panel, 24 x 30 in. Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Good at Bible quizzes, Owen Gordon won his first water colour set at Sunday school and although he was quite young, he remembers going through that set of 10 squares of paint quickly. A few years later, around the age of eight, he started drawing with pencils in his schoolbooks — usually cars and houses or shacks, he said.
“I wasn’t good at drawing anything,” the Toronto-based painter, sculptor, mixed-media artist, and writer recalls. “The cars I drew, I think I’ve seen them on the road today. Back then the cars were long, like boats. My cars were all compact.”
The 76-year-old Jamaican-born artist, and former sanitation worker, amassed a remarkably diverse and large body of works over several decades — many of which he painted since coming to Canada in 1983 — but has until now remained relatively unknown.
“By the time I was about to retire, I had six weeks of holidays. I would take two weeks off at a time and paint,” said Gordon, who still spends most days at his easel.
Following his retirement from a career in waste management with the City of Toronto, Gordon turned to Black Artists’ Networks in Dialogue (BAND) to help him find a gallery to show his work and represent him as an artist. In January of 2020, the charitable organization took pieces of his work to the Art Fair in Jamaica. Later that year, it hosted his first Canadian solo exhibition, “A World Asleep But Me,” in its gallery, a Victorian house in the Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, but it was ultimately the connection BAND facilitated with the prestigious Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto that is revealing Gordon’s work to Canadians and the world.
BAND supports, documents, and showcases the artistic and cultural contributions of Black artists, and curators and administrators in Canada and internationally, while also aspiring to educate and inspire the next generation of artists in the process.
In conjunction with Black History Month, Scotiabank announced a new $450,000 commitment over three years, as part of ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s 10-year, $500 million initiative to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups.
“Scotiabank is committed to increasing opportunities that create more inclusive and resilient communities,” said Meigan Terry, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability, Social Impact and Communications Officer at Scotiabank. “We are proud of our ScotiaRISE partnership with BAND, which supports them in their vision to connect Black culture to communities to inspire, enlighten and educate through the arts.”
Photo: Owen Gordon, The Other Curator, 2004-2021, oil on canvas, 22 x 15 in. Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Photo: Owen Gordon, Gauguin's Paradise, 2022, acrylic and oil on panel, 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
BAND Co-founder and Director Karen Carter says Gordon is one of the organization’s biggest success stories so far. In the fall of 2019, when she got her first look at his work, she was floored by the sheer number and quality of the pieces, which covered almost every surface of his home, and knew she had to get his work seen.
“The deliciousness about Owen Gordon is that he has no lane,” she said. “His work goes from figurative to abstract; large to small.”
Gordon’s artistic career started in earnest after joining the Rastafarian community, where he was influenced by “really creative people,” he said. In 1969, after being in the community for a few years, he entered some pieces in a self-taught artist exhibition curated by the Institute of Jamaica, and a second-place win paid his tuition to attend the Jamaica School of Art and Crafts (now Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts).
While Gordon acknowledges subtle influences of Impressionist painter Pablo Picasso and Canadian Group of Seven artist Tom Thomson, he said he most wanted to paint like French impressionist Paul Cézanne. What stood in his way was that he felt he could only paint nature by copying it. “I wanted to paint a leaf green. Cézanne painted leaves blue, and all different colours,” he said.
Photo: Owen Gordon, Girl in the Red Chair, 2020, mixed media on paper on linen, 22 x 30 in. Courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Browsing through photographs of Gordon’s work on the websites of BAND and Nichola Metivier Gallery, it is evident the artist draws on his rich life experiences to paint stories. Whether he is recreating a scene from Jamaica of fishermen at work or a busy street market, or from his garbage collection beat in Toronto, or political turmoil and world events, there are common threads of rich colours, movement and, above all, people.
The funding from Scotiabank will help BAND to support and promote more emerging Black artists and complete the renovation of the Victorian house to bring it up to international gallery standards for institutions borrowing and showing artists’ work.
“Our plan, our hope, our desire, is to scale up so that that little house becomes a test model, and an example of how small spaces can have big impact in the arts,” Carter said.
“But also, to create opportunities from what happens in that house to help our African Canadian artists shine brightly across the international stage.”