Author Tags: Art
The son of a vicar, Joe Plaskett was born in New Westminster on July 12, 1918. Growing up in nearby Sapperton, he lived modestly in a pro-British enclave, ‘the Royal City’, named by Queen Victoria.
“My generation inherited a poverty-stricken attitude to money,” he wrotes in his illustrated memoir, A Speaking Likeness (Ronsdale Press 1999), “a factor that governs our psyches as powerfully as sex. I inherited two crippling inhibitions: about sex from Anglo-Saxon puritanism and about money from the spectre of poverty.”
Submissive by nature, Plaskett was resigned to ignominy. But art, as he reflects, was like a stick of dynamite waiting to blow him into another universe.
For seven years he worked ‘in bondage’ as a schoolteacher, loathing it, taking courses at the Vancouver School of Art at night. He didn’t believe he could ever become an artist. In the 1940s there were no commercial galleries in Vancouver.
Rejected for military service, he enrolled at the Banff School of Fine Arts for a six-week course in 1945, during which he met A.Y. Jackson and Jock Macdonald. A year later Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson recommended Plaskett for the first Emily Carr Trust scholarship.
With this money he received from a fund established by the sale of Emily Carr’s paintings, Plaskett studied in San Francisco and New York for a year, transforming himself from an experimental dilettante into a professional painter.
The lure of Europe could no longer be resisted. “Paris! I was enchanted,” Plaskett recalls. “Could it be possible, I asked myself, that a city with medieval streets still existed? I had not the slightest intimation I would stay for ever, but in the meantime I surrendered to its charm.”
After Joe Plaskett's death, his publisher Ron Hatch recalled, "Joe was fond of telling the story of how, when he was in Paris, he found this old house that was being propped up by two huge poles -- so that it would not fall over. Joe bought it for a song, and then had it looked at by a Canadian engineer who found that you could take out the props and all would be well. It was worth a mint later when the Centre Pompidou went in nearby, and eventually Joe decided to sell the house and convert the money into a $25,000 a year scholarship for a BC art student to study abroad. He liked the idea because he had been given the first Emily Carr scholarship, which enabled him to start painting professionally. In more recent years he lived in Suffolk, England. He came back at least twice a year to have his shows at the Bau-xi in Vancouver and Toronto, the Winchester in Victoria, and what is the name of the gallery in Montreal."
So, in 1949, at age 31, Joe Plaskett found himself switching continents. It was like living a dream. In post-war Paris he lucked into a rented salon on boulevard Saint Germain, intending to stay for a short period. Instead he stayed for 12 years during the period when Saint-Germain-des-Pres had replaced Montparnasse as the Mecca for artists.
“By 1950,” Plaskett writes, “the Paris of artistic legend, the Montmartre of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Montparnasse of Modigliani, was beginning to resemble a vacated stage set.”
Leaving behind the Abstract Expressionism of New York and San Francisco, Plaskett was born anew in Paris, enchanted by youth and beauty, or age and history. His landlady summed up his viewpoint when she gave a title to one of his paintings, “Le Peintre émerveillé devant le monde.” The Painter in wonderment before the world.
In the early 1960s Plaskett bought the narrow medieval house (mentioned by Hatch) in the old, run-down quartier known as Le Marais. It was an unfashionable neighborhood until the Pompidou Centre for modern art was built two blocks from his home. Soon he was again surrounded by the lively gallery scene. However, Joe Plaskett’s conservative approach to painting, his placid nature and his inabillty to master French combined to keep him separate from the French exhibition scene.
Having spent half his life in France, Plaskett never showed his work in Paris, returning to Canada for his sales and exhibitions. In this respect, he resembles the Montreal-born short story writer Mavis Gallant, an old acquaintance of Plaskett’s, who is also little-known in Paris.
“Though I have hardly any public recognition,” said Plaskett, “I have an immense private following. This kind of success is not the same as recognition.”
Joe Plaskett’s illustrated memoir, A Speaking Likeness (Ronsdale $37.95), reflects upon his own work and obscurity with candour and detachment “I think I am more loved than loving,” he said. The book contains a posthumous foreword by George Woodcock.
“Joe Plaskett is not a public Canadian figure,” Woodcock says. “He has received no honours; he has been largely ignored by the critics. Yet many people passionately collect his works for the joy in life they project, and privately value them.”
Beset by dementia, Joe Plaskett died at his home on September 21, 2014 at the age of 96.
Since the 1940s, Paskett had over 65 solo and group exhibitions, with work in major public, private and corporate collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, but public renown was slowly gained. In the Spring of 2001, he received the Order of Canada for his excellence in the field of visual art. He was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
Founded in 2004, The Plaskett Foundation provides $25,000 each year to a young Canadian student to enable them to travel and study art in Europe for one year. "The art that I make and that I see others make confirms the miracle of being alive," Plaskett said, explaining his philanthropy. "Almost every day I live in a state of exaltation."
A Speaking Likeness (Ronsdale Press 1999) 978-0921870678
[BCBW 2014] by Alan Twigg