Victoria’s Walter Dexter — described as a gentle giant and an “almost unsung hero” of Canadian art — achieved national renown as a ceramics artist before his death this month.
He was the first Canadian ceramics artist to achieve wide recognition as an abstract expressionist, said Jonathan Bancroft-Snell, a London, Ont., art dealer.
“His importance as a contemporary ceramics artist, I think, is just beginning to be understood. I believe, historically, he will be considered in the top five ceramics artists in the country,” said Bancroft-Snell, author of the 2012 book Walter Dexter: The Torso Masterworks.
Dexter, who had survived a bout of cancer and heart surgery, died on June 2 at Royal Jubilee Hospital at the age of 83. He will be remembered on July 25 at a public celebration of his life.
Patricia Bovey, former director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, described Dexter as a major figure in the ceramics world. She said one of his crowning achievements is his torso series — a “vastly important” collection of vessels inspired by the human form.
Bancroft-Snell runs the Jonathan Bancroft-Snell Gallery, specializing in ceramics artists. He said Dexter’s torso series (which he began in 1996) is so iconic in Canada, any ceramic artist who uses a similar form is said to be “taking after Walter Dexter.”
Today, these torso artworks sell for $8,000-plus, while Dexter’s earlier pieces from the 1970s have sold for as much at $15,000. Bancroft-Snell said when he mounted a Walter Dexter exhibition at his gallery about eight years ago, all pieces available for purchase were gone within 20 minutes.
Although also represented by Oak Bay’s Eclectic Gallery, Dexter is better known outside Victoria, Bancroft-Snell believes.
“It took people [there] a while to adjust to the fact they had a major artist in their midst whose prices were skyrocketing,” Bancroft-Snell said.
Dexter’s artwork was showcased in 1995 at an AGGV solo show. In 1992, he won the Saidye Bronfman Award, Canada’s top crafts honour. His pieces are in the collections of the AGGV, Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Burlington Art Centre and Canadian Museum of Civilization.
London art collector Mim O’Dowda owns pieces by Dexter. She was also a friend. She recalled once encouraging the artist to make a self-portrait in the torso series. He did so, but was dismayed when the artwork fell to pieces in his kiln. She suggested Dexter reassemble it, which he did.
“I said: ‘Oh, Walter, it’s magnificent.’ He said: ‘It’s my gift to you.’ That’s the kind of man he was. He had such a kind heart.”
Known by some as the Gentle Giant, the six-foot-six bearded artist was a soft-spoken, highly educated man who was quietly opinionated. Several of those interviewed recalled him as a ladies’ man (his wife, the poet Rona Murray, died in 2003).
Bancroft-Snell said he would take Dexter for a beer and a burger at an Oak Bay pub whenever he was in town.
“My god, he had waitresses eating out of his hand. And they were 18, 19. He could charm women like nobody I’ve ever seen. And they adored him. He was a complete gentleman.”
O’Dowda recalled once hosting an art party in her home for 100 people. Dexter, becoming fatigued, lay down on a bed where women lined up to chat with him.
“He was such a flirt. He loved women. He was an innocent flirt. If a woman walked into a room, his eyes lit up,” she said.
Dexter, who is survived by his daughter, Anne Dyer, was born in Calgary. He attended the Alberta Institute of Technology and Art (now the Alberta College of Art and Design). At one point, before turning to ceramics, he became disenchanted with the notion of becoming an artist. Painter and ceramic artist Luke Lindoe, who taught at the institute and became Dexter’s mentor, persuaded the young man not to quit.
“He took him to an area of the college where somebody was working the [potter’s] wheel. Walter was mesmerized. He told me the first time he put his hands in clay, it was magic,” Bancroft-Snell said.
Added Bovey: “He’s very important, almost an unsung hero. He’s a giant and he’s going to continue to be a giant.”
A public celebration of Walter Dexter’s life will be held at 3825 Duke Rd. in Metchosin (his former home) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 25.