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On Art: Spreitz films for real

Karl Spreitz has been a fixture on the Victoria scene: a joker, filmmaker, photographer, painter and member of the Limners artists’ society. In my experience, his films have existed more as rumour than reality.
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Karl Spreitz's films captured the local arts scene. The films have been given to the University of Victoria.

Karl Spreitz has been a fixture on the Victoria scene: a joker, filmmaker, photographer, painter and member of the Limners artists’ society. In my experience, his films have existed more as rumour than reality. Now, the Karl Spreitz Film Collection, more than 100 reels of 16-mm film, has been donated by Spreitz to the University of Victoria. The films, described as “in various stages of production,” are both professional commissions and personal projects, collaborations with artists and friends. Many are now available online in an archive that also includes paintings and drawings by Spreitz and short essays by some of his collaborators.

Born in Graz, Austria, in 1927, Spreitz came to Victoria in 1951. It was about that time that artist Herbert Siebner, Spreitz’s partner in pranks, arrived from Germany, and Colin Graham, a huge supporter of these artists, became the founding director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Modernism in Victoria grew from that beginning and Spreitz was there with his cameras. In conversation, Spreitz is both provocative and amusing, but though I have repeatedly tried to interview him, he would have none of it, so we must leave his biography largely to inference.

The earliest of Spreitz’s films posted on the UVic site is Steelhead River (1964, 18 minutes), a documentary about fishing on the Cowichan River, centring on Richard Ciccimarra, another expatriate Austrian. The film is a straightforward, albeit poetic, look at Ciccimarra who, though a famous fly fisherman, was better known as a brilliant artist of existential expressionism.

Much more experimental is Don’t (1965, 26 minutes), a homegrown bit of iconoclasm created with friends at Beaver Lake. Sculptor Bob de Castro waggles a finger — “Don’t!” — at all manner of naughtiness; the word “don’t” is painted and erased; the film switches from positive to negative; a puppet is buried in the sand.

In 1968, Spreitz recorded a 20-minute conversation between painter Herbert Siebner and publisher John Manning in the close confines of the latter’s boat. Extreme close-ups and unusual camera angles are intercut with zoomed and panned images of Siebner’s art. Siebner waxes philosophical while a parakeet stalks on its cage behind him.

At this time, Spreitz was gathering footage of sculptor Elza Mayhew, whose totemic bronzes stand in many public locations around town. He watched her carve a Styrofoam original in her studio at Fisherman’s Wharf and then followed her to Oregon where she cast it at a foundry. The resulting film, called Column of the Sea (1985, 13 minutes), shows the installation of this, her largest bronze, in Charlottetown, P.E.I. Working with whatever footage they had, Spreitz and Mayhew’s daughter Anne put it all together in 1985.

The most concerted filmic biography that Spreitz completed resulted from his long-standing relationship with painter Myfanwy Pavelic (1968-1980, 25 minutes). Here is the beguiling Pavelic, painting and talking in her studio and wandering the grounds of her waterfront property on the Saanich Inlet. In this intimate close-up, the presence of the cameraman is quite forgotten. A phone call from Katharine Hepburn and appearances by violinist Yehudi Menuhin and his sister, Hephzibah, add to the legendary Pavelic glamour.

Pavelic’s visit with artist Maxwell Bates is also offered as a stand-alone film (1968, five minutes). In audio that is almost unintelligible, she gushes about his work, while Bates demonstrates his unique monoprint drawing style. His sparkling eyes and elevated eyebrows make a uniquely telling document.

Spreitz was at his best when working purposefully with committed collaborators. Ninstints: Shadow Keepers of the Past (1983, 25 minutes) was made with producer Vicky Husband to encourage the preservation of the remote site at Haida Gwaii. The film incorporates archival footage of a salvage operation of some poles there, undertaken by Bill Reid and Wilson Duff in 1957. Spreitz’s filming is tender and engaged. Understated music by Patrick Pothier and Haida singers join with the poetic vision of the cinematographer to make an unforgettable tribute.

Beyond Spreitz’s artistry, this compilation brings into focus just how far motion pictures have come. He had to lug huge and heavy cameras, eke out expensive film stock, and then wait to find out what developed. The dust specks and scratches, the erratic audio and primitive zooms and pans are relics of another age, but this filmmaker’s vision remains: personal, artistic and constantly creative.

 

Karl Spreitz: Online exhibition at uvac.uvic.ca/gallery/spreitz.

Curated by Caroline Riedel for UVic Art Collections.

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