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Stewart Marshall: Artist at a turning point

Painter spent 45 years kayaking around the west coast in a 23-foot kayak
A Feeding Frenzy in the Tropical Pacific by Stewart Marshall. (Debra Lynn photo)


The Whale’s Rub Pub in Sointula hosted an exhibition of the work of Stewart Marshall from Aug. 12 to 19. Marshall spent 45 years kayaking around the west coast in a 23-foot kayak, living off the land and painting at the beaches he landed at.

Marshall largely follows in the tradition established by the Group of Seven, especially Tom Thompson, J.E.H. McDonald and Lawren Harris. His approach with acrylic and oils uses rich earthy colours and heavy impasto that reflects the ruggedness of the landscape itself.

This well-loved Canadian art tradition, however, is already a century old. Many artists emulate artists of the past at least for a time during their developments. Some, however, end up on a journey where they discover their “signature style”—a way of expressing themselves that is unique and eventually unmistakably associated with their name. Marshall might be on the precipice of that kind of transformation which, I think, is embodied in his two pieces, Jedediah Island Anchorage and A Feeding Frenzy in the Tropical Pacific: I painted what I remembered seeing.

In Jedediah Island Anchorage Marshall moves toward abstraction doing the “Claude Monet thing”: instead of painting the wide-angle view of a scene, he focusses in on one small section and “blows it up.” He cuts out the sense of perspective and creates a flat, nearly non-objective (non-representational) tableau of painterly brush strokes. Jedediah Island has a dynamic optical effect of switching from a scene of a rock face with water and vegetation to an Abstract-Expressionist image and back again.

In A Feeding Frenzy in the Tropical Pacific, Marshall takes the abstraction even further. Although I assume the image is based on some fish feeding under the water and the light reflecting on the surface as they move, there are no overt indications that this painting is representing anything at all! If not for the title, one might think he was just playing around with colour. His memories combined with a possible sense of freedom he may have been experiencing (perhaps not feeling so obliged to represent faithfully what he sees in front of him in the usual way) and produced a very creative image that coalesced with not a brush stroke out of place! It was like there was a higher force involved in the development of this piece.

Feeding Frenzy stands apart from the Group of Seven style: it is original, fresh and contemporary. It is magnetic and mesmerizing (though a newspaper photo might not do it justice). Marshall went “outside the box” and found a treasure.

Though Feeding Frenzy looks like an Abstract-Expressionist piece, it still carries the essence of something from nature. Although I can’t see the fish, I can still “see” them. I think abstraction of nature is an avenue Marshall should very seriously consider exploring in a big way.

I think Marshall’s watercolours have the potential to move toward greater abstraction as well. Apparently, he is not interested in the “watery” effects of the wet-on-wet technique, but instead gravitates to representing landscape with shapes of flat colour. He can go further with it. Perhaps “playing with” a more simplified geometric style of representation might give his watercolours a more distinctive personal touch.

The freedom granted by painting from memory with Feeding Frenzy, I think, gave Marshall the opportunity to delve deeper into his own psyche—into that well where unique personal iconography lies hidden (which Picasso exploited the maximum!). Marshall says he is fearless when it comes to adventure. I think he would benefit from a little more fearlessness when it comes to his own self-expression…so that he can produce more exquisite and unusual pieces like Jedediah Island Anchorage and Feeding Frenzy.

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Tyson Whitney

About the Author: Tyson Whitney

I have been working in the community newspaper business for nearly a decade, all of those years with Black Press Media.
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