Local art lovers who know Jerry Grey principally through her public art and her vibrant portraits may be surprised and intrigued by Jerry Grey on the Grid: 1968-1978 (Ottawa Art Gallery, June 24 – September 25, 2016.)
The exhibit showcases a 10-year period in which Grey used “grids” – a framework of parallel and perpendicular lines – as the basis for drawings and paintings that explore colour, shape, repetition, and contrast. PAL Ottawa spoke with Grey in early May about the exhibit, as well as her extended career, still in full force, and her connection to PAL Ottawa.
“It’s something I got very interested in during this time,” Grey says about the grid technique. “How colour works when you organize it in a certain way. And the grid allows for a different way of looking at space.” Grey acknowledges that the technique was not novel at the time – she points to Dutch painter Piet Mondrian who employed grids as early as early as 1919. But this mode of abstraction saw several iterations over the 20th century, and Grey is one of many North American artists who explored its possibilities.
Michelle Gewurtz, curator of On the Grid, is excited to showcase this period of Grey’s output. “People don’t necessarily know that she was involved at Emma Lake,” Gewurtz told us, referring to the artists’ summer workshops that took place annually in Regina from 1955 to 1973. “The program was known globally in the early 1960s as a real centre of modernist activity.” Gewurtz is also glad to be shedding light on the history of visual art in Ottawa. Grey produced these works while employed at the National Gallery in the Education department – a position that afforded Grey her own studio and the time to devote focused attention to her art; but at the same time, Grey’s works, like those of other local artists of the era, were often overshadowed by the collection and the activities of the National Gallery. On the Grid helps to fill the gaps in Ottawa’s art history– demonstrating that professional artists have been part of our region’s fabric for decades. [Painting pictured above: “Yachting Party,” 133 cm x 135 cm, 1972, acrylic on canvas.]
PAL Toronto: “a godsend”
We asked Grey how she first became involved with PAL and she said that it was through Jim Bradford who reached out to her along with several of his arts sector colleagues in 2010. Grey says with an ironic chuckle, “Jim asked me at the right time. I was in terrible pain and it was hard to feel positive about anything.” Grey is healthy and active today, but at that point had suffered an episode of sciatica which reduced her mobility and caused her to look seriously at the future: “I thought, ‘What am I going to do when I get older?’ I just began to think about the problem for artists with erratic incomes.” And while Grey manages comfortably today in her downtown condo / studio, she is committed to PAL Ottawa because she knows that she and her colleagues in the arts are all at risk of financial hardship or isolation as they age.
So, Grey accepted Bradford’s call, became a founding member of PAL Ottawa, and served on the Board for two years. She remains an active PAL member and friend today, and still lends her visual services to the organization when called upon. She believes in PAL Ottawa’s goal of a housing community for aging arts workers in part because she’s seen the difference a such residence can make: “I have friends who moved into PAL Toronto, and it’s been a godsend for them.”
Vintage elders, expressive hands
While Grey has practical concerns about the future and well-being of senior artists, she has also turned her artistic curiosity and empathy to seniors as subjects. Her series Rare Spirits: A Personal Tribute to Vintage Elders (1996-2000) depicts elderly people who, “despite the debilities of age, remain fully engaged in the business of living.” Grey used pastels for this series finding they allowed her to best capture the character of her subjects’ faces. In the full version of this work, the portraits are accompanied by written profiles and audiotape of the subjects’ own voices.
Completed more recently, Grey’s series A New Offering (2015) presents a study of hands, many of them belonging to older subjects. As Citizen critic Peter Simpson notes, “elderly hands are marked by years of experience and change, with each wrinkle earned through decades of work, and surviving.” Grey is particularly proud of this series, and notes that her inspiration came in part through her work on a commission by the Sisters of Charity (see below), an order of nuns counting many elderly members: “when I did the Sisters’ murals I realized how expressive hands were and it’s something I’ve always been interested in.”
When we asked Grey about career highlights, she cited her series Dualities (1991-1994), that ended up taking her to Kuwait to exhibit her work in the very region depicted by the paintings. The series contrasts images of wartime destruction: explosions, oil-soaked coastlines – with images of nature that bear resemblance in form but not content to their “mirror” images.
Grey described how the idea came to her: “Here I am working in my studio. The first Gulf War was well under way, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I’d been out to Mer Bleue [nature conservation area] with my friend cross country skiing and I thought, “Look how beautiful it is out here.” We started a conversation about how nature regenerates itself. And this idea worked itself into the series. And the series literally came to my head – bang – like that.”
While showing at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the series came to the attention of the Ambassador of Kuwait, who arranged for Grey to exhibit overseas. Several of the works were purchased there – some by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Culture; and some by private collectors.
Commemorating Ottawans, representing Canadians
Grey’s artwork is not always so directly responsive to contemporary events. She’s gone through different phases when it comes to subject matter and approach: “I tell people … you just have to do what you feel you believe in at the time…. But you have to do something with intention, so that it means something to you. You don’t know where your work will go.”
And neither does Grey know where her work will go– or at least, not exactly – when creating public art. With several prestigious commissions to her name, Grey knows well that there are many challenges (along with many rewards) that come when she renders her artistic vision for a public venue.
Take the mural at the Ottawa Police headquarters, Tiles of Time (1982-1982), commissioned by the City of Ottawa. Grey is the artist behind this colourful work that presents the history of Ottawa’s police force from the 1850s to the present, showing the changing face (and uniforms) of our region’s officers. The work was produced under the tightest of deadlines: its unveiling was set for the first royal visit from newly married Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales. Grey had to pull strings with her sister on the west coast to get the tiles flown in from Italy (because shipping by boat would have taken several weeks), and then, she says, “we literally worked around the clock to complete the mural. The people that worked for me – they really made a difference. I’ve had some very good helpers over time. These works don’t happen all individually.”
Grey has now completed two commissions for the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa, the order of nuns founded by Élisabeth Bruyère in 1845. The first piece is an installation of etched and carved glass, The Sisters of Charity Building Hope, (1978-89) situated in Ottawa’s Saint-Vincent hospital. More recently, Grey completed a large mural La compassion au coeur du monde (“Compassion at the centre of the world”) celebrating the lives of four generations of the Sisters. The 6 by 15-foot work is comprised of 50 small paintings, each detailing a story in the history of the Sisters. Grey sought in part to emulate the rich illuminations of medieval and renaissance manuscripts.
For the glass installation at St Vincent, Grey remarks, “I was going through the history of the Sisters figuring out a way of talking about them and I got the idea of building bricks… I called it Sisters of Charity Building Hope in Ottawa because that’s what they believed they were doing. They set up so many institutions: hospitals, schools… They’re very special women.”
Grey’s most prestigious public art commission is arguably The Great Canadian Equalizer (1975-79) which brings us back “into the grid.” Visitors to the upcoming exhibit will get a chance to see this work in maquette form. The real artifact –a grid made of large steel and porcelain tiles, and measuring over 10 by 16 feet on the wall, resides at the Jean Talon building at Statistics Canada in Tunney’s Pasture.
This work was in a sense the culmination of Grey’s experimentation with grid-based art, but here the abstract technique is applied to the most concrete and humanistic of purposes: to endeavor to represent all people and regions of Canada – using space and colour to depict the country’s geographical expanse and the drastically different surface area and populations across our provinces and territories. The historical context, Grey notes, was “the period after the failure of the Victoria Charter…. This idea first came about while I was working on my [grid] paintings and I began to think about how you could rearrange Canada so everyone got equal time and space.”
Pleasures of the grid
While The Great Canadian Equalizer is a very outward-looking piece in scope and topic, most of the works in On the Grid present a quieter, introspective character. These are works borne of focused study, what curator Gewurtz calls a “mindful practice.”
We asked Gewurtz what viewers can expect from the exhibit, especially viewers who are less familiar with non-representational art. “Like all abstract art,” Gewurtz says, “this work requires that you spend some time with it.” But if you do, she suggests, the works can be meditative, even relaxing. And while Gewurtz sees these paintings as exemplars of North American high modernism, she doesn’t think they have to be distancing to the uninitiated: “As a viewer, you don’t have to have a specific art knowledge to enjoy these works – they’re open-ended, and accessible to everyone.”
When asked about the attention given to this very specific phase in her career, Grey admits that she’s excited, now that it’s almost upon us. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, who’s’ going to care about my work from ages ago?’ Once you finish something it’s over with.”
But Grey has in the end enjoyed this deep dive into her own archive, spurred on in part by the engaged approach of OAG’s curatorial staff. “When a curator does something like this, it’s nice to have the depth so they can talk a bit more about the work.” To this point, the OAG provides detailed notes about the works, but has also arranged a series of complimentary activities to give the series context, including readings, discussions with the artist, and even a group “field trip” to the Jean Talon building to see The Great Canadian Equalizer in place. (See p. 8 of the gallery’s Summer Exhibitions Booklet for details.)
When asked about life as a professional artist, Grey is both passionate and pragmatic: “For me, being in the arts is not always easy financially. You have your winners and your losers and most of us are somewhere in the middle. We’d all like to be great stars… but we’re not all going to be. We’re going to survive and we want to survive doing what we love. And it’s not a matter of simply following your bliss. It’s a matter believing in what you’re doing.”
Jerry Grey on the Grid: 1968-1978 opened June 24 and runs until September 25 at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Arts Court Building, 2 Daly Avenue. Audio is available for select pieces in the exhibition. Contact the Ottawa Art Gallery at 613-233-8699 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.