Robert Amos: Mining a rich vein of old Canadiana

robertamos.jpgThere is a rich vein in Canadian art that uses our national identity as its theme. Cornelius Krieghoff made much of life in British North America, and the Group of Seven developed our True North imagery. Greg Curnoe, in the mid-1960s, made his pop-art motto “close the 49th parallel,” and Charlie Pachter of Toronto made icons of the moose and the Queen. Douglas Coupland brought Canadianism to an international audience. Victoria’s Timothy Wilson Hoey continues the work with his Canadiana series, now 6,000 paintings strong and growing.

Hoey boldly paints our pop icons — Gump Worsley, John Diefenbaker, Old Dutch Potato Chips — in rich acrylics on old pieces of plywood, or whatever comes to hand. Special requests pour in daily and, according to Hoey, the paint-encrusted table in his workshop is like a “conveyor belt.”

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Before the panels are shipped off, he makes a frame for each from broken hockey sticks, their trademark lettering proudly showing. Rather than mitre the wooden sticks for a neat corner, he just butts them together and tapes up the joint with the black stuff we used to call “friction tape.” This artwork is virtually indestructible.

Canadiana is his shtick, as they say in vaudeville. And Hoey doesn’t mind.

“I see myself as a reflectionist rather than an actual artist,” he told me. “I hate that word — artist. I think it’s used far too … quickly.” The basement in his neat older home in Victoria centres on a workbench, like the one your dad used to repair the lawnmower, and Hoey’s huge collection of old tools is neatly stacked all around.

“I get way more inspiration from an old repaired tool than from a visit to an art gallery,” he confessed. “It’s always been about making something, for me.”

Hoey’s parents were part of the artistic milieu in Victoria, and he grew up literally playing at the feet of the Limners. He has never been to art school, but in Calgary he worked for a long time at an art supply store, getting to know the materials, and teaching.

His graphically enhanced forearms attest to 10 years working in a tattoo shop, where commissions were the order of the day and his drawing had to be right. Influenced by the prairie trends, he was struggling as an abstract painter when Victoria’s Fran Willis Gallery began to display his work. Each of these experiences has provided a rich training ground for what was to come.

One day, his wife Candace noticed him loitering about in the kitchen and suggested he go downstairs and paint something he had never painted before. He went down, and without much thought knocked off a portrait of Pierre Trudeau. Later, his dealer came by and asked if that odd portrait was available for a Canada Day show. Hoey was reluctant.

“Heaven forbid you go and change your style,” he recalled. “You might lose your audience!” But he agreed to it, if the show involved a street hockey game. A hundred people showed up, and the event turned into a classic Canadian block party.

His gallery in Calgary heard about this, and in the next year booked its own Canada Day show. Things took on their own momentum, and six years later Hoey was the star of a Canada Day party in London’s Trafalgar Square, with 50 of his paintings in a tent.

“No Canada Council money,” he assured me. Hoey was given a ticket to London by the organizers, and pre-sold the work to his Canadian fans to raise the money for shipping.

“I treat the things as a commodity,” he explained. “I don’t like ‘openings.’ I treat it like a trade show, to show the product.” He runs the risk of not being taken seriously, but that doesn’t bother him.

“It’s not up to me — it’s up to the audience,” he laughed. And his fans seem just fine with his approach.

Without much effort at promotion, Hoey has been taken up by numerous galleries. Whistler and Canmore are big for him, and locally he is shown at the Phillips Brewery and upstairs at Ferris Oyster Bar. These are hardly high-profile galleries, but the commissions pour in and orders are sent out by the box-full. In a box by the door I riffled through small panels depicting Starlac Powdered Skim Milk, a Tim Hortons sign and a bag of Hawkins Cheezies.

“There are lots of people on the prairies who are very reminiscent,” Hoey mused. His current partnership with the Trounce Alley Gallery in Victoria is giving him more exposure than ever.

Hoey has been immersed in this sort of native memorabilia all his life.

“I’m a hopeless history buff,” he confessed. We sat in his “museum,” a room next to his workshop jammed with a life-time of flea-market finds where, under the watchful gaze of a stuffed beaver, he held forth.

“People see old things with rose-coloured glasses and, when they see something that reminds them of something they love, it goes from there.” Painting pictures of these objects enables him to share his enthusiasm.

“I get these great stories,” Hoey smiled. His simple painting of a “stubby” beer bottle opened a memory for a woman whose dad had let her have a taste of beer on a summer afternoon years ago. When she shared her story with Hoey, his work was complete.

So here’s Tim Hoey, in his ball cap down in the basement. Don’t call him an artist, don’t expect a wine-and-cheese opening, and don’t expect him to apply for a government grant.

“I love the idea of people having fun with art,” Hoey said.

“That doesn’t mean it has to be dumb, or poor quality or nostalgia, but you have to let people in on it, to enjoy it.” He does — and they do.

Tim Hoey at Trounce Alley Gallery, 616 Trounce Alley, 250-886-6347

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