Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Artist kept drawing as his memory faded

While walking in James Bay recently, I met Julia Wallace Halliday. She told me that her father, the artist George Wallace, had died recently, in his 89th year.

While walking in James Bay recently, I met Julia Wallace Halliday. She told me that her father, the artist George Wallace, had died recently, in his 89th year. She mentioned that, while confined to a care facility because of his Alzheimer's disease, he had created an unusual and interesting series of drawings.

Wallace was born in Dublin in 1920 and had an excellent education, reading philosophy at Trinity College during the Second World War and continuing with art studies in Bristol. After emigrating to Canada in 1957, he made his mark as a vital member of the Fine Arts faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

Upon retirement, Wallace came to Victoria where I became aware of him through exhibitions at the Winchester Galleries and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. I learned that he had made a number of large public sculptures in welded steel, many of which grace important Ontario locations: the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the MacDonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, the Halton County Court House, the Jewish Community Centre and the Church of St. John the Divine, among them.

His work was figurative and intense. Pierre Arpin, then director of Victoria's art gallery, wrote that Wallace's sculptures were "eloquent testimonials to a century that has revealed itself one of the most brutal in human memory. The figures, which appear hung, seated and screaming or lying swathed in burial cloths, all speak to the precariousness of our mortality and the transitory nature of the flesh."

Upon arriving in Victoria, Wallace's wife Margaret told him "no welding in the house," so as a lifelong printmaker, he used his unrivalled understanding of the techniques of etching and aquatint to refine the records of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's extensive collection of prints. During that time, he was also in constant communication with the McMaster University Art Gallery and its munificent donor, Herman Levy, buying prints worldwide for its burgeoning collection.

Wallace walked the byways of Victoria, drawing superb charcoal studies of Beacon Hill Park and taking note of the faces and foibles of our citizens. He pursued his love of sculpture by making wax models which were cast in bronze in Ontario. His last show at Winchester centred on a series titled Ten Characters from a Spanish Comedy (2000-2001), a panoply of heads as evocative as the caricatures of Daumier -- saints and sages, stupid and sublime.

As the years went by, Wallace became more and more forgetful. He stayed home and got his exercise by gardening and climbing the stairs in his large four-storey house. Local artists Phyllis Serota and Waine Ryzak came to visit Wallace and to savour the inspiration he offered. In his final days at home, he created hundreds of monotypes of faces, and a few vary large paintings on sombre and profound themes.

The Wallaces moved to a retirement apartment but as his Alzheimer's grew more pronounced, he was confined to a private room at St. Charles Manor Care Home.

"It was a quiet time," his daughter noted. "He started drawing. We brought some things for him -- a seashell, a plant, an apple, a ball. And black rocks -- he always collected black rocks. He liked feeling them in his hands."

The new drawings were made with a soft pencil, its graphite worked diligently to a glossy sheen. Faces and heads emerged from deep in his thoughts and memory, their clothing embellished with polka dots or grids. Later Wallace lost the ability to communicate, but the nurses respected the attention he gave to his drawing. "He's been working," the nurse would say. "He's been working on his drawings".

At last he could do no more. His family carefully filed and found homes for his prints and paintings, and contemplated his legacy. The value of Wallace's work is powerfully evident to anyone who sees it, but how does one deal with the life-sized steel sculptures of dead bodies, legless men and hanging thieves, prey to rust and damage?

This is not a time for sadness. The family is full of gratitude for the caregivers who looked after Wallace in his last years, and letters of appreciation for his work and influence have come pouring in.

A celebration of his life will take place at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Sunday, Aug. 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. At that time, you are invited to see the final, mysterious drawings of George Wallace.