Jack Akroyd may be the most interesting Vancouver artist you’ve never heard of.
Working during the second half of the 20th century in a mostly figurative fashion, he was a bit out of step with the times. He was neither a modernist nor a postmodernist, his illustrative imagery, precision of line, and meticulously rendered detail revealing something of his background as an engineering draftsman. Although he was dedicated and prolific, he remained mostly outside the established art scene.
“He was on his own path,” says Mother Tongue publisher Mona Fertig, speaking to the Straight by phone from her Salt Spring Island home. “Those kinds of artists are always a little harder to catch, to pay attention to.”
Akroyd is the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Burnaby Art Gallery (on until August 16) and a new book by Vancouver writer Peter Busby. The Life and Art of Jack Akroyd is the eighth in the Unheralded Artists of BC series from Mother Tongue, and Fertig is reflecting on how these publications came about.
She also recalls meeting Akroyd, a shy and quiet man, when she was a child, and mentions that he was part of an informal group of like-minded artists who lived, worked, and socialized in Kitsilano in the 1960s. Among them was her father, George Fertig, whose metaphysical paintings took him down his own highly individualistic path, and who was also overlooked by critics, curators, and high-end collectors.
Mona Fertig recounts that trying to find a publisher for a book she had written about her father inspired the series. “No publishers were interested, because he’s not famous, he’s unknown,” she says. “That was my key reason for moving forward on those books.”
In 2008, she founded the trade-book publisher Mother Tongue. “I thought I would attempt to open the door on some of these artists who are not known.”
Many of Akroyd’s pictures, created between 1947, when he arrived in Canada from his native England, and 1996, when he died of a heart attack on a Broadway bus, possess a surreal quality. Engineers, scuba divers, photographers, hockey players, pilgrims, broadcasters, masked raiders, kimono-clad women, ravens, raccoons, dragons, an angel hovering above a jellyfish-like atomic cloud, all participate in inexplicable dramas, played out against the built and natural environments of British Columbia and Japan, a country to which Akroyd felt profoundly connected.
“My paintings have no deep meaning,” he wrote in an artist’s statement in 1986. “They are based on everyday things, objects I have collected in my sketch books, and anything else which interests me.” Still, for believers in the power of the unconscious mind, Akroyd’s pictures suggest a wealth of psychological and philosophical interpretations. A ladder floats in the air, a human hand sprouts out of the ground like a stalk of corn, a boy rolls up the shadow of a sword-wielding warrior.
“He always claimed that his work wasn’t deliberate, that he just kind of made it up as he went along,” says Busby, interviewed by phone in Vancouver. “I suspect he protected himself against people wanting to interpret what he did and declined to participate in that inquiry.” Busby describes Akroyd as a contradictory blend of the gregarious and the solitary—and guarded against an overly analytical approach to his often playful work. Some of his pictures appear to be more mechanical than emotional in execution, the writer observes. “But on the other hand, there were artworks that I talk about in the book where he seems to be much more passionately engaged.”
Busby’s personal favourite—seen in the BAG exhibition and in the book—is Life Story, a mixed-media work created in 1967. Its composition of a recurring male figure climbing up ladders and sliding headlong down poles mimics the children’s board game Snakes and Ladders.
“It represents his life at that point, the progression from being a child playing on the beach to his discovery of his muse in Japan,” Busby says. The writer is especially intrigued by the fact that Snakes and Ladders was invented in India in the 16th century as a game to explain the concept of karma. Would Akroyd have known that? Maybe, maybe not. “We should simply look at the painting and marvel how the notion of the wheel of life is so powerfully expressed.”