Why Do I Like This?
Searching for the Past in Collecting Flexhaugs
As far as I know, I was the first person from the art world to take an interest in Levine Flexhaug. During my fifteen years as Curator/ Director of the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina, I bought my first Flexie at a small antique shop in the 1970s … perhaps attracted by vague memories, perhaps looking at it through a lens of Pop culture or irony, perhaps considering it a part of the research into regional culture that was informing many of the exhibitions I was generating at the Dunlop. Then I bought another, and another … and today I own nearly one hundred.
Trying to understand why I am attracted to this work takes me back to my personal history and to the history of western Canada.
I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan – a prairie town renamed “Crocus” in W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. When I was in public school there was a kid in my class who could paint sunsets, the amazing colours that dominated our skies each evening. But it was the only thing he could do in art class … maybe because a sunset is so abstract and does not require any drawing.
My father had been in RCAF Coastal Command during World War II. He came home from the war with this bright painting on paper of a sunset against which an airplane is silhouetted. It had been done by a guy in his squadron who would whip off a sunset painting, throw in a plane taking off, and then give it away. He did them for everyone just as my public school friend did for us.
This is a kind of shorthand formula painting, an easy blending of colours that gives an illusion of reality. No skill is required other than the back and forth gesture to blend colours — and it is what Flexhaug did.
When I was about twelve years old I saw Levine Flexhaug painting in the window of Pittman Electric in downtown Weyburn. This was the first time I had ever seen anyone actually making art. As a kid I liked to draw, but there were no art teachers and all I could do was copy what I saw around me … advertisements in Maclean’s, comic strips, and a few science fiction magazines. I was good at drawing Little Lulu and Henry because they were easy to imitate. The sci-fi magazines drew upon the Yves Tanguy paintings of the day that made contemporary art look easy. I think I won an art award at the fair imitating Yves Tanguy.
But this guy painting these small pictures of trees and a lake and mountains.… It was so cool, all green and blue, so fresh and pretty. I wished I could do that.
At about this time our family took our first long trip with my cousins and aunt and uncle to Glacier National Park all the way across Montana. No more Regina Beach or Carlyle Lake — it was the Rocky Mountains that drew prairie people on their first real vacation. “Mom, they’re so big!”
We did not get a TV until a couple of years later. Then I got to see Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw. Gnagy, I would learn later, was a pioneer in art lessons on TV. He had this ‘artiste’ van Dyke beard and drew simple scenes with lots of curves and winding roads and barns and cute landscapes that had nothing to do with the gridded landscape of south-east Saskatchewan.
I thought about all of this when I found a 10 x 14-inch Flexie in an antique shop about 1977.
I also thought about my experience as a pilot project for the Saskatchewan Arts Board in 1968. After my art studies with Ken Lochhead et al. at Regina College, I returned to Weyburn as Canada’s first community resident artist. I set up art classes in towns like Creelman and Radville, where I learned to my surprise that virtually every adult with an interest in art was painting pictures of mountains and lakes. I told them to paint what they knew, so on my bad days I feel personally responsible for the plethora of images of abandoned barns and farmhouses.
I had been directing the Dunlop Art Gallery at the Regina Public Library since 1970. Things were going well. I was part of the first generation of artists and curators who chose to be part of the world while staying in Saskatchewan. We would contribute to Canada from here. And it was very important to all of us that we understand what “here” was … to retrieve the past that was shaping us, to uncover the stories, and to share it with the public. At school we had studied the history of elsewhere, and we needed to learn our own.
For many of us, folk art was a starting point. Our grandfathers had been the first to break the land, and we were in touch with settlement through our families. Folk art made this history immediate and palpable, and allowed me to bring the past to the present through exhibitions of folk artists, both painters and modelers. Folk art, quilt making, weaving and dyeing from local plants, documentary photography, the current and past history of pottery, the decorative arts of the prairie kitchen – all emphasized that we are here, we have a history, and don’t you dare just fly over Saskatchewan anymore.
With my own background in studio art rather than the academic study art history, and working in a gallery that was close to the public because it was part of a library, I felt I had a license to explore what I uncovered and thought important for the public to see. Exhibitions became tools for community awareness, and the artists in Regina shared my enthusiasm for these explorations.
But there was something else … the fresh air of the 1970s, feeding off the 1960s. There was a new freedom to like kitsch, collect knick-knacks, read comics, and admit that everyday popular culture could be a lot of fun while pursuing “high art.” In Regina popular culture was feeding the local artists and my exhibitions were an important source for them … exhibitions of comics, pinball, illustration art, wildlife sculpture, and whatever.
In our personal lives, the lack of affordable good design and our modest incomes led us to rely on taste and semi-competitive foraging to furnish our homes. Like my friends, I shopped at the Salvation Army and any antique store that could provide something that was better designed and cheaper than at Simpson’s or Eaton’s. Without an IKEA, you had to have some skill in sorting out furniture and decorative art, and the absence of good design left us with irony and kitsch as a survival mode.
So … haunting the antiques stores of the day, I found a Flexie. Suddenly I was thrown back in memory to a cabin at Carlyle Lake, to a house somewhere I could not precisely remember, and to the window of Pittman Electric. It struck a chord deep within me.
It also stirred feelings about my parents and aunts and uncles who as young people survived the drought and the Depression. When they saw this wonderful green and mountainous image, it was so refreshing, so dreamy … a refuge from the tensions of their past. In the 1950s when they could afford a rye and ginger on a holiday, they never cried about the poverty and bleak future of their younger days. They laughed and laughed.
These calm cool paintings evoked the unfulfilled promise of our parents’ youth.
At five bucks, I thought, this painting is a connection to my past, and just a sweet little picture from a guy I saw paint in Weyburn.
I installed my first Flexhaug in my living room. After openings at the Dunlop I always had parties at my home, and people who saw these little mountain pictures growing on my walls started to say, I remember that. Terry Fenton (curator, director and artist) – whom I have known since the mid-sixties when Ron Bloore hired him to assist at the MacKenzie Art Gallery – stated he had bought one at Simpson’s in Regina as a present for his parents when he was about twelve. Richard Spafford, a local collector and antiquarian book dealer, remembered Flexhaug painting at Waskesiu National Park in northern Saskatchewan – a memory shared by Saskatchewan-born New York sculptor Robert Murray, who remembered that for an extra twenty-five cents the artist would add an elk to the landscape. The Governor-General’s Award-winning poet Patrick Lane surprised me with his memories of Flexie on the B fair circuit in the interior of British Columbia. In every case the experience was the same: this was the first time I saw an artist making art.
In 1985 I moved to a new position at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and I installed my growing Flexhaug collection in rows on a wall at the foot of my bed. Every morning I stared at them – all the same subject, all the same size – and asked myself, why is this interesting? When I saw the contemporary artist Francis Alÿs’s installation of hundreds of near-identical portraits of Saint Fabiola that he had collected at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2010, I recognized a kindred spirit – although I have not found Alÿs to be any more articulate on the fascination than I am.
When I left the West for Ontario, I had an arrangement with my old friend Richard Spafford, who often dealt with collections and estates. He would scout for Flexhaugs for me; if they cost more than five dollars I had to pay him, and if they cost less than five dollars they were a gift. This worked well for a few years, but then the prices rose substantially as pickers assumed there was a market. My collection continued to grow more slowly, through the occasional purchase and gift (from family and friends who knew I would always consider a Flexie the perfect present). Then in 2007 I received a phone call from my brother-in-law Wayne Ingram from a Red Deer antique mall with a Flexie alert: almost fifty works! By now a hopeless completist, I bought them all, sight unseen.
I was not merely collecting – I was also eager to share my research. I first articulated my insight into Flexhaug painting as sanctuary in a 1987 paper presented at the joint annual meeting of the Popular Culture/American Culture Associations in Montreal.1 Then in 1995 I had the opportunity to really examine the oeuvre since many others had now also acquired these works. Expanding the rows of works that had so engaged me in Winnipeg, I had sufficient range for serious analysis of the works, resulting in a striking installation wall at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in the exhibition Welcome to Our World: Contemporary Canadian Folk Art.2
My reflections at this point: my response to Flexhaug is deeply tied to my personal history and the history of the part of Canada where I am from. I can see young people’s yearnings and dreams of a better world in those mountains and trees, painted by someone who shared these dreams and used his limited talents to realize them.
Recently I found a quote by novelist Milan Kundera that spoke to me: As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch … becoming as touching as any other human weakness.
I think of my parents’ struggles, and I understand Levine’s. They came through to the other side, dreams a bit battered but able to enjoy some simple pleasures … a beer and a $5 painting.
- W.P. Morgan, “Flexie: The Popularity of a One Scene Speed Painter on the Canadian Prairie, 1935-1965,” (presentation, joint annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association, Montreal, QC, March 25-27, 1987).
- Susan Foshay, Pascale Galipeau, and Nancy Tousley, Welcome to Our World: Contemporary Canadian Folk Art, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, ON, September 14, 1996 – January 12, 1997.
- Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Part 6, quoted in Tomas Kulka, Kitsch and Art (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 107.