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Unheralded Artists Back

Jack Akroyd, First Nations Art Show at the Bay

Jack Akroyd, First Nations Art Show at the Bay (1969), gouache on paper [Burnaby Art Gallery, Burnaby BC, Jul 3-Aug 16]

The Life and Art of Jack Akroyd

by Peter Busby

When I set out to research the life and art of Jack Akroyd, I knew it would be a challenge. Despite living on the West Coast for four decades and capturing on canvas our mountains and shores and the quirky daily lives of our fellow Cascadians, Akroyd had left little trace on the public record. But he had left plenty of memories among his many friends and admirers, who had collected around 500 of his paintings and drawings. With their help and with Akroyd’s own letters and diaries, the fascinating story of this unjustly neglected Vancouver artist can finally be told.

Jack Akroyd (1921–1996) was a member of a group of artists living in Vancouver in the early 1960s that included sculptors Paul Huba, Elek Imredy and David Marshall, photographer Jack Dale and painters George Fertig and Frank Molnar. Akroyd’s characteristic blend of figurative detail and surreal composition found admirers in Canada as well as in Japan, where he capped his career with three sell-out shows in 1987.

Born in Halifax, Yorkshire, Akroyd was raised in Swindon, in the south of England. As a child, he was passionate about scouting and camping in the Cotswolds countryside. Leaving school at 16, he became an engineering apprentice. Five years of war service in the RAF followed, two of them in Canada, which inspired him to emigrate to this country in 1948. He spent four years at the Ontario College of Art, studying under Carl Schaefer and Jock Macdonald, alongside fellow students Graham Coughtry, Shizuye Takashima and William Kurelek.

After graduating in 1953, Akroyd moved west to British Columbia, living in Nanaimo and then Vancouver’s Yew Street enclave in Kitsilano. He pursued his art while supporting himself first as a draftsman and later by fixing kilns for local schools and potters and assisting sculptors George Norris and Elek Imredy.

In 1960, Akroyd made the first of two long journeys through Japan, which proved life-changing, both emotionally, through an ill-fated love affair, and artistically, in his deep affinity for Japanese culture. Japan profoundly affected his perspective and his iconography, and he developed his signature style, combining images of his daily life and his inner world in witty juxtaposition.

From 1967 onward, Akroyd and Frank Molnar made annual sketching trips to the Okanagan and up British Columbia’s West Coast, producing landscapes that sold well at Artists West Gallery in Ottawa. Vancouver Art Gallery and Burnaby Art Gallery also honoured Akroyd with solo exhibitions.

In 1996, Akroyd collapsed and died on a city bus. He was 75.

Akroyd frequently found inspiration in the many odd jobs he took to support his painting. In 1969, he was hired for a few hours to hang pictures in a department store. The result was First Nations Art Show at the Bay, a gouache that’s a typical example of Akroyd’s quiet humour. The composition is neatly bisected by a scaffolding pole. To the right, we see Native art displayed as a cultural and commercial product. On the left, a flashlight reveals an old totem pole, authentic expression of traditional communal life, stashed away in a dark room. The contrast speaks for itself. Akroyd evidently enjoyed creating parodies of First Nations painting, and the gritted teeth on the face of the totem pole eloquently express the figure’s rage at his undignified situation.

This article is based on the book of the same name, which is eighth in the Unheralded Artists of British Columbia series (Mother Tongue Publishing), which illustrates and explores the lives and art of important but previously undocumented BC artists from the 1900s through the 1960s. The books are available at the Vancouver Art Gallery Shop and other venues, as well as from mothertonguepublishing.com.

 Sat, Nov 19, 2016