Gathie Falk: It’s the Simple Things

As I step over the threshold into the home of Canadian artist Gathie Falk, there is an immediate understanding that this is no ordinary place. The foyer expands into a bright, airy, open concept sitting-dining room that is home to some of Gathie’s – and Canada’s – most noteworthy pieces of art.

After being greeted by Gathie and welcomed into her home, my eyes are instantly drawn to a perfectly stacked grouping of shiny ceramic red apples. I have seen the apples before, on the websites that promote the work of this iconic artist and on the cover of her new book Apples, etc.: An Artist’s Memoir by Gathie Falk with Robin Laurence.

The apples have a story unto themselves. Entitled “A Stack of Apples,” they were created by Gathie in the 1970s. They have been displayed in galleries around the world and now here they sit, casually presented waiting for visitors’ eyes to feast upon them. Gathie says the apples represent a time during the 1950s when, on the corner near her home in Vancouver, there was a grocer that always had a shining pile of apples on display. “They were stacked perfectly, like a pyramid,” she says. “The shimmer, the shape, just called out to me. The stack was simple and attractive, yet, I knew I could make them look better.” And she did. Her arrangements of glimmering ceramic apples and other fruit have become trademark pieces within her collection.

Gathie is casual in her manner. She possesses a calm, nonchalant warmth about her. If one did not know of her legendary life and work, her modest demeanour would lead one to conclude she is just another 70-something resident passing time in this east Vancouver neighbourhood. But there is nothing ordinary about the 91-year-old artist, other than the fact that her art is inspired by ordinary and simple things. “I enjoy transforming simple things into art and making them better and more interesting,” she says.

Gathie paints in her studio at her home in Vancouver. Photo by Tom Gould.

Gathie’s art weaves together everyday objects. The clothing we wear, the food that grows in our gardens, the weather, and simple times spent enjoying the people in our lives. However, life has not always been simple or easy. Gathie was born January 31, 1928 in Alexander, Manitoba to unassuming Russian immigrant parents. Her father died when she was 10 months old and her brothers, Gordon and Jack, were nine and three. “My father was very creative and musical,” says Gathie. “I am much more like him than my mother.” Gathie also speaks fondly of her mother and says they had a close bond until her mother died in 1972.

As a child, Gathie spent her free time and holidays drawing and painting. She cannot recall a time that she wasn’t compelled to draw.

“I always knew I would be an artist, but as a young child there were no crayons, paint or paper in our house, so I drew on what I could find with what I had,” says Gathie. “But when I started school, I had access to pencils and paper and became obsessed with drawing.”

“Around the age of 13, one of my teachers saw that I had a talent for art and encouraged my mother to enrol me in art lessons at the Winnipeg Art Gallery,” she says. “The lessons were painful, and I eventually dropped out. I preferred to draw on my own, to create on my own; I didn’t want to be bothered with the technical aspect of drawing.”

Gathie’s mother remarried when she was still in school in Manitoba. “My mother did not have an easy life. My stepfather treated her poorly. He drank and had a very angry temperament,” says Gathie. “It took a great deal of courage for my mother, who spoke no English, to leave him, especially in those days. It also left us in a rather sad state financially.”

In her memoir, Gathie describes the hardships her mother endured over many years and recalls the night her mother died: “My friends and family could hardly believe my sorrow. How could I explain to them that I wasn’t crying because of her death? I was crying because of her life.”

At 16, Gathie was forced to quit school to help support her family and pay off the family debts. She took on a variety of jobs over the years, including picking fruit, plucking chickens in a smelly processing plant, waitressing and working in a luggage factory to support her and her mother. After struggling financially for several years, Gathie, then 19, and her mother moved to BC.

In 1952, she enrolled in a teaching program and became an elementary school teacher. “I hated teaching,” she says. “But I stuck with it because the money was good, and we had to pay our bills.” In her second year of teaching, Gathie began taking summer classes and spent two years in Victoria studying design, drawing and painting with artist Bill West.

Over the next few years, she took several summer and evening arts classes with artists such as J.A.S. (Jim) MacDonald, Roy Oxlade, Jacques de Tonnancour and Lawren Harris. She says MacDonald was one of the most influential and supportive forces in her life. “He always liked my work and understood what I was trying to do.” Then, in 1965, having eliminated most of their family debt, Gathie quit teaching to pursue her art full time. She has been creating ever since.

“A Stack of Apples”, by Gathie Falk on display in the artist’s Vancouver home. Photo by Toni O’Keeffe.

On a visit to her studio, Gathie was both accommodating and enthusiastic. She walked me through her home, which she designed in the mid ’80s. The house was built by her nephew, Bob, and is adorned with many of the pieces she has produced over the years, including a papier-mâché shirt that sits in her window and was created as an homage to Bob. Other pieces from a collection titled “Shirting” and various works from her solo exhibit entitled “Paperworks” also add grace to the interior of her home.

The courtyard outside her studio took us by an apple tree filled with fruit. The tree is perfectly situated as the focal point of the backyard. Sitting on a table near the tree was a crate of apples Gathie had picked, emphasizing the uncomplicated way she looks at the world and translates it into art.

As we entered her studio, I was struck by the warmth and natural light that flowed into all corners of this artist’s haven. The walls are adorned with paintings, both large and small. Paint palettes lay about, stained with the colours that are now the DNA imprinted in her work. A white wicker chair sits not far from her easel and I wonder how many creative sparks have been born from the artist as she sat here pondering the simplicity of life.

Several colourful paintings depicting neatly set tables of afternoon tea and simple suppers dot the room. Tables covered with artists’ brushes, tools, decades-old tin cans from cherries, tomato juice and coffee that are used to clean her tools or mix paint, left no doubt that this place is well used.

I approached a large piece of art mounted on the wall that displayed 20 paper squares showcasing a pair of petite female ankles gracefully crossed, presented in monochromatic greyscale. “Whose ankles are these?”, I ask. Gathie says the owner of the ankles shall remain a mystery. That mystery unto itself adds to the allure of this work-of-art.

Gathie judges herself as a visual artist and has worked in various mediums, including ceramics, paint, drawing and papier-mâché. Evidence of all these mediums still live throughout the studio.

She says there is not one thing, in particular, that inspires her. “My work is inspired by everyday things. There is not one piece that is more important than the others. Nor is there one that is more meaningful than the other. They are all just art,” says Gathie.

It seems absurd to ask if she has other hobbies to help her escape the world of art, but I did. “I don’t need other hobbies,” she says, “I never feel a need to get away from what I do. My life is simple and good, and I don’t feel a need for a break.”

However, when she is not producing art she likes to read, primarily fiction. She is also diligent at staying both mentally and physically fit. She enjoys playing piano and spending time with family and friends. Of what she is most proud, she says, “I’m proud of the people I know, the friends I have and I’m proud of what they have accomplished in their own lives.”

A mystery woman’s ankles. Photo by Toni O’Keeffe.

Gathie’s attitude about her life, her art and what she looks forward to each day is simplistic and perfectly her. “I look forward to church, to choir and visiting friends. I look forward to having breakfast then going into the studio. The simple things like going for a walk, that’s what I wake up to do every day.”

Highly organized, she takes pleasure in maintaining a daily routine that includes: waking around 8 a.m. Monday to Friday; having her coffee and toast with an aim to be in her studio by 9 a.m.; and she wraps up her art by 4:30-5. Gathie exercises daily to stay fit and to help her manage acute back pain. Although she doesn’t look forward to exercise, she says it is necessary if she wants to continue to create art.

Gathie is happy with her life and has no plans to stop doing what she loves. “I have no plans to retire,” she says. “Why would I do that? I love what I do. I have no desire to travel anymore; I am quite satisfied staying home, producing art, spending time with my family and friends and enjoy the simple things in life.”

While she had one short-lived marriage in the seventies, which she addresses in her memoir, Gathie confesses her true loves are creating art, her family and friends.

Although she possesses a tough outer shell, there is a warmth and tender nuance that radiates from her. A spark flickers when she speaks of the people in her life that give her joy – her niece, her nephew, her artistic colleagues, fellow parishioners, her best friend, Elizabeth, and the memory of her brothers and her parents.

When asked what advice she would pass on to other aspiring artists, especially those in their senior years, Gathie says, “It is never too late. Just get started. Stop thinking about it and do it. You don’t have to take lessons, you just to need to start doing it.”

Gathie has been bestowed by several prestigious awards, including The Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, which she says is the one award she is most proud of. She has also been awarded the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual areas, the Gershon Iskowitz Prize and both the Order of British Columbia and the Order of Canada. She is humble and nonchalant about her success. She also has a good sense of humour and, in her memoir, ponders the possibility of an “after-the-lifetime-award award”, that she can aspire to.

Gathie is represented by Equinox Gallery in Vancouver and Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario. According to Hannah Reinhart, Exhibitions Manager with the Equinox Gallery, her work elevates objects of the everyday experience into extraordinary things.

“Gathie works in a variety of media that includes performance art, sculpture, ceramics, painting and drawing,” says Reinhart. “She creates work that feels surreal and dreamlike, reinventing clothing, fruit, plants, shoes or baseball caps into objects of much greater significance.”

Gathie’s work can be found in private and public collections including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Burnaby Art Gallery, and the National Gallery of Canada. According to Reinhart, Gathie will be creating an exhibit of new work for the Equinox Gallery in 2019 (dates yet to be determined).

Artist Gathie Falk poses in her studio. Photo by Tom Gould.

Before I left her home, I took a final glance across the room at one of Canada’s most creative and beautiful art collections. I tucked my notepad and pen inside my bag and thanked Gathie for her time. As I walked up the street to my car, contemplating how inspired I had been, I heard a voice call out to me. Gathie was running up the street waving to me with my jacket hung over her arm. I walked back towards her and she smiled. She handed me my jacket and I humbly thanked her again for her time. She reached out and embraced me, such a simple act of kindness that meant so much.

Indeed, it’s the simple things that inspire us all.

Apples, etc.: An Artist’s Memoir is available through major book retailers online and off.


Snapshot

If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give her?
“I would tell her that I am proud of her. I would encourage her to keep doing what she is doing. And, I would tell her not to worry; it’s all going to work out.”

Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
“A teacher by the name of Jim MacDonald that I met at UBC’s Summer Art Camp. He understood my work and understood what I was trying to achieve.
“Other artists such as Vincent van Gogh. And my friends and family because they have always supported me and still support me.”

What are you most grateful for?
“Everything. My family, my friends and the kindness of people in my life. I’m grateful for the parishioners from my church, my friends in the art world, including all the teachers and mentors I’ve had along the way. I’m grateful that I’ve had a good life and continue to have a good life. I’m grateful that I have been able to use my creative gifts to make a living and that I get to do what I love every day.”

What does success mean to you?
“A life filled with work that one appreciates and the ability to use your gifts to make a living.”

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