By Jamie Rieger
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Patricia Failing has been studying the artwork and life of Clyfford Still for decades and recently paid visit to Bow Island to learn more about the artist’s time growing up in the small southeast Alberta community.
Failing, professor emerita for the Division of Art History at the University of Washington in Seattle and her husband and research assistant Bob Sitton met with Bow Island resident Fred Mellen and former resident, Robin Dann at the Bow island Golf Course clubhouse on Sept. 10 to share historical tidbits about the famous abstract expressionist who called Bow Island home in his boyhood years.
The research is being compiled for the third in a series of exhibits at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.
“The first exhibit was a project of when Still was involved with Washington State to have an art colony on a reservation. Pullman had a dream of doing this. Still hid wonderful portraits of the people,” said Failing.
In 1947, Still and colleague Worth Griffin, co-founded the Nepelem Art Colony where portraits and landscapes of the Colville Indian Reservation were created over several summers.
“For the second exhibit we went backwards in time and it centered around his time at Saratoga (Saratoga Springs, New York 1935-36). He did a lot of thinking there.
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Now, this third exhibit will be finished in the summer of 2020 and will be a survey of the work he did while in Alberta,” she said.
Failing has taught art history for more than 30 years and has been researching Still for much of that time.
“I taught modern contemporary art history including abstract expressionism and Clyfford Still was an expert in that field. I began researching him because of this regional connection and interest from my students,” she said.
For the upcoming exhibit, Failing has been working with the Esplanade in Medicine Hat and the Galt Museum in Lethbridge, both of which have been very helpful in her research, but she noted that photos relating to his early years in southern Alberta are scarce.
Still’s family was from Ontario, then moved to North Dakota, where Clyfford was born in Grandin in 1904.
“Then followed the railway. They first went to Spokane and were there for three or four years,” said Failing.
“Some of his family farmed in Oregon, some stayed in Spokane, and his father, John and uncle Eugene came to Bow Island. They were here by 1910 and Eugene applied on behalf of his brother for a homestead. John came in 1911. John got the patent for the homestead in 1913,” she said.
The homestead is located a few kilometres south of Highway 3, near Highway 879. While in the Bow Island area, Clyfford’s father worked at the mercantile and had a house in town for during the winter months.
“They brought a piano with them when they came to Bow Island and Clyfford could not decide whether to become a painter or a pianist. He was also in a mandolin trio,” said Failing.
It was at this homestead that he painted some of his artwork, including “Bow Island from the Farm” that he painted in 1923.
During this time period, the family divided their time between Bow Island and Spokane.
“Between 1911 and 1925, they came back and forth a lot. Sometimes, Clyfford was a student here, sometimes in Spokane,” she said.
Mellen, who writes a historical column “Down Memory Lane” in the local newspaper, said Still’s name appeared numerous times in archived papers while he was doing research for his column.
“Clyfford Still went to school in Bow Island, and his name came up in a few little notes in the papers. I sent many of these to the Denver Museum,” said Mellen. “It is evident from the little notes in the paper that Clifford was a popular young fellow when he went to school here.”
During the meeting on Sept. 10, Mellen shared with Failing a class photograph that she had not seen before.
“A lady ( that I went to school with ) who now lives in Calgary made contact with me. Her father ( Lawrence Halpin ) went to school with Clyfford Still, and she provided me with a school picture of the class of Grades 8-9-10 and she identified every one in the picture. In those days they tried to take a class picture every year. She thinks the picture was taken in 1918,” said Mellen.
Still’s uncle Eugene moved to Killam in 1916 and Clyfford’s family followed about 10 years later. In 1930, he and his sweetheart eloped to Forestburg. His family moved back to the United States in 1940.
Clyfford, however, was in Washington state earlier, attending school at Washington State College (now university), where he also taught classes.
“He went to San Francisco and was a major figure in expressionism there as well,” said Failing.
It was in the 1950s that Still detached himself from the art community and severed ties with art galleries. His collection for the most part, was kept closeted to the public and when he passed away in 1980, his will stipulated that his collection be kept together and a museum was to be built to house it. Access to his work was closed to both collectors and scholars for years.
A Bow Island resident had contacted Mellen after seeing a KSPS feature on Clyfford Still which included information about one of his pieces selling for more than $61 million at an auction in New York. This painting, along with three others, raised money to fund a museum in his name. The Clyfford Still Museum opened in December, 2011. This led to Mellen and Jamie Rieger, former editor of the Forty Mile County Commentator in working together in gathering information from the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, Colorado.
The museum has been instrumental in Failing’s research, as well.
“Once the (Clyfford Still) museum opened, there were all these resources that were not available before,” she added. “David Anfam is the senior consulting curator at the Clyfford Still Museum leads the research team and his research is the foundation to all of it and it’s amazing because he never had access to all of the work and archives that are now available. There is not much information about Clyfford Still’s early history and time in Canada.”
Failing was selected by the museum to conduct the research for the exhibit and she said there is still a lot of artwork remaining to be seen.
“He was a very private person and wanted to make sure his collection was kept together in one place and there is still lots of unrolled canvas,” she said.
“He is the major American/Canadian artist that we don’t know much about,” added Sitton.