From her gorgeous, shiny piles of ceramic apples to her papier-mâché men’s shirts and vivid paintings of sidewalk cement and flower beds, Vancouver artist Gathie Falk has been celebrated for her “veneration of the ordinary”.
But her life of 90 years turns out to be anything but ordinary, as readers of her new memoir, Apples, etc., published by Figure 1 and coauthored by Georgia Straight art critic Robin Laurence, will discover. The book launches this Saturday (May 26) with the opening of The Things We Grow: Selected New Paintings at the Equinox Gallery; the artist will be in attendance from 2 to 4 p.m.
Subtitled An Artist’s Memoir, the book traces Falk’s journey from hardship growing up in Manitoba to her status as one of the country’s most esteemed artists—a winner of the Order of Canada, the Governor General’s Award in visual and media arts, and the Audain Prize for lifetime achievement.
Falk fills in the details of growing up in poverty as part of an immigrant family—her Mennonite parents fled to Canada from Russia—and how her mother struggled, working the fields by day, to support her and her siblings. There are weeks of eating just rice, but then there is also joy: a back-yard ice rink, music lessons from an anonymous donor, and made-up games with her brothers.
From childhood, art compels Falk, and in adulthood she returns to it with passion after a string of factory jobs and training as a school teacher. Along the way come little personal revelations, from the fact that Falk has a lifelong love of thrift stores to how she came to be called Gathie, when her birth certificate says “Agata”.
The chapter names are as whimsical as some of her artworks: “My Brother Jack”; “My Secrets”; “Blessings, or the Mysterious Chronicles of a Broken Arm”.
And art fans will gain great insight into her work, including the experimentation and inspiration for Fruit Piles and the image of the dress sculpture that so impressed itself upon her mind but took years to execute. (“I could see that clay would be too heavy for it, too impractical. And it would undoubtedly break during firing...”).
The book also offers a wealth of archival photos, from pictures of a teen Falk with the Mennonite girls’ club of 1944 to shots of her 1970s heyday teaching at UBC and of working on her sculpture Winter Tree in her studio in 2012. There are also colour plates of a range of her art, including 1968’s immersive ceramic installation Home Environment; 1970’s Rotten Apples and 30 Grapefruit; and the surreal oil-on-canvas Development of the Plot III: The Stage Is Set, from 1992.
Falk’s life has been an adventure, fully lived, with an appreciation for even the ordinary things around her. And she makes it clear by the memoir that she doesn’t feel anywhere near retirement, even at 90: “This does not feel like the end of my story,” she writes, “any more than it did a few years ago, in 2013, when I was awarded the Audain Prize.”
The Things We Grow exhibit continues at the Equinox Gallery until June 30.