David Blackwood: a storyteller through his words and his art

Black Ice: David Blackwood’s Prints of Newfoundland

Where: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

When: Opens Friday, 8 p.m. Continues through Sept. 8. Artist talk Saturday, 2 p.m. at the Victoria Truth Centre.

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Tickets: Gallery admission $13 adult, $11 senior/student, $2.50 youth, children and members free.

Artist David Blackwood calls himself a storyteller.

It was inevitable, growing up along the shores of Newfoundland’s Bonavista Bay, he says. Everyone was.

“I grew up surrounded by storytellers. They were in the school, they were in the house, they were in the church,” he said on the phone from his studio in Port Hope, Ontario.

“The preachers were telling stories, the Sunday-school teachers were telling stories … then in the evenings you’d have people exchanging stories about their experiences, all having to do with the fisheries and the cod, of course.”

Blackwood’s own stories are often told without words. Dozens of dark figures silhouetted in morning light heave-ho in a line, dragging an entire house along the ice together, in his 1979 print Hauling Job Sturges House. A tiny lifeboat drifts away from a flaming ship in 1980’s Fire Down on the Labrador, while a mammoth whale moves below the surface. And a schooner floats past a towering iceberg in 1978’s Flora S. Nickerson Down on the Labrador.

These prints and etchings, on display Friday as part of Black Ice at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, are among the works that have made Blackwood one of Newfoundland’s most beloved artists.

But despite his decades of work, Black Ice was also the first comprehensive exhibition of Blackwood’s work to be shown at a major gallery when it launched at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2011. And in a twist that made some less-conservative art fans bristle, it was presented in the contemporary section of the gallery.

“It’s quite amazing, because 15 years ago, the Blackwood exhibition would not have been installed in the Centre for Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario,” he said. “All sorts of people felt it didn’t belong there, but things have changed.”

Contemporary art, for many, points to a particular style. Often it means non-representational art, or abstract art. But in Blackwood’s eyes, there’s been a shift, thanks to globalization that has broadened the term, bringing it closer to its dictionary definition.

“Now we’re blessed because in the year 2013, it’s very broad. Contemporary art means anything that’s being done right now. It could be realism, it could be performance, it could be installations of an esoteric nature. So it’s really wonderful,” he said.

Black Ice has since travelled, including a stop in Newfoundland’s The Rooms gallery, where visitors faced some of the same weather conditions represented in Blackwood’s prints at the opening.

“It was blowing a gale,” he said. “The people in the lineup were from 10 to 90 [years old] and waiting patiently. It was heartbreaking for me to see those people line up.”

Newfoundlanders relate strongly to it, he said. But what has made his work so accessible, he added, is that it represents the human experience — not just a Newfoundland one.

And while many see the purpose of art as inspiring critical thought or challenging traditional forms, Blackwood’s goal relates to his storytelling roots.

“I feel very strongly that art should communicate,” he said. “And in the great tradition of printmaking going back 800 years, it has usually been concerned with communicating feelings, ideas and so on.”

He gave examples: Francisco Goya’s disasters of war. Rembrandt’s great etchings.

“And then in a more contemporary nature, there’s a whole group of contemporary people in the last 100 years who have used printmaking as a means of reaching out to people.”

Winchester Galleries (Oak Bay) also hosts a show of David Blackwood’s Works on Paper May 3-June 1.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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