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The Uncarved Block of Campbell Scott

The Uncarved Block of Campbell Scott

By Justus Duntsch

Campbell Scott, born 1930 in Milngavie, Scotland, immigrated to Canada in 1951 as a trained cabinetmaker. I am almost waiting to hear that he himself built the ship that would bring him over; it would not be much of a surprise.

After passing away in 2013, the Niagara artist is experiencing a new chapter as he lives on through the thousands of works he left behind.

“At the time when Scott was starting out, he is in fact for one segment of the population the perfect artist. Because he’s an immigrant, he’s come to Canada and brought his skills, and he is a teacher. That was one of the few ways that an artist at that time can contribute meaningfully to our society,” says Debra Antoncic, Director and Curator of Riverbrink Museum.

Scott was always secretive about his art production, but he was always eager to share technical knowledge with anyone who asked. Examples include his life-long friendship with Ernest Penner, to whom Scott eventually trusted his estate. They met when Scott showed him how to carve and fix a proper dovetail cabinet.

The man never stopped learning, always indulging in the gifts that life had to offer, and he was always passionate about sharing his experiences with the world – whether it was in the form of art, education or thoughtful conversation.

“I think Scott truly believed that expression was a necessary part of human existence. It’s not the kind of thing that he would have separated philosophically from his life, to live was to make things that you shared with others,” says Stephen Remus, Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources at the Niagara Artists Centre (NAC).

Scott’s work resides in several permanent collections including The British Museum, The Scottish National Gallery, Montreal Museum of Art, Rodman Hall, and recently The RiverBrink Art Museum. Confusion to Tension, an exhibition of Scott’s life works is currently on display at Riverbrink Museum in the heart of Queenston.

On display until October 29, Confusion to Tension, displays examples of Scott’s work spanning most of his career. In terms of medium you could say any portable collection of his work would only scratch the surface of this man’s range in ability.

Beyond the meticulously crafted woodblock prints and abstract sculptures, which are relatively easy to transport, he designed public spaces and elaborate sculptures, some of which were built – and others that didn’t make it. In one instance he submitted designs for the World Trade Centre Memorial, one of the tens of thousands of applicants. Scott also proposed designs for a Martin Luther King Jr.  memorial site in Washington, D.C.

A local example that did see completion was an untitled 12-ft high, one-metric tonne abstract sculpture built out of weathering steel which would seal itself in a coloured protective layer as it aged. It was created for what was then known as the James Street Mall in downtown St. Catharines. It stood there until, due to some controversy it was dismantled and stored at Rodman Hall Art Gallery in hope for a resale.

Scott himself also called Rodman Hall home for a period in its early days as a gallery under founding director and curator Peter Harris. Around this time (‘70s), “Rodman Hall had an exhibit called The Soul of Niagara featuring work by many NAC founding members: John B. Boyle, Alice Crawley, Dennis Tourbin, as well as work by Scott. That show is considered the origin of Niagara’s consciousness of contemporary art,” says Remus.

Scott was one of those visionary individuals who pushed for greater support and appreciation of our local artists. Outspoken throughout his lifetime, he had much to say about how the arts were perceived and represented in St. Catharines. On April 19, 1968, the St. Catharines Standard ran an article that included Scott’s ideas for St. Catharines: “he envisions a ‘cultural complex’ with a theatre, art gallery, coffee house, fountains, and lawns and where young people can meet in an interesting cultural environment […] ‘then this would be really a Garden city’.”

Fortunately, we can safely say that Brock University has made a concerted effort in catching up in that regard. Remus expands on how Scott felt about the place of art in such a rather non-appreciative society.

“Campbell was pretty disgusted with the community’s support of the arts, he was kind of a living embodiment of Irving Layton’s thoughts about Niagara-on-the-Parking-Lot; ‘Many of the people here are as you might expect… complacent, parochial, pleasant and agreeable. It is my poetic duty to stir them up, even sometimes with a contemporary thought’.”

Scott once said something along the lines of, “I make art, what the public wants to do with it is up to them.”

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Considering his prolific production, he sold relatively little during his lifetime. His fine art practice spilling over into producing fine wool sweaters, sculptural jewellery, note cards, even his own marmalade brand.

“He was up there in his kitchen with all the canning gear out, I asked him why doesn’t he just get the shop down the road to make the marmalade for him…,” says Penner. In typical Scott fashion, he had to do it himself.

“Eventually he burned himself or something, and that was the end of that.”

Scott was in many ways of an old school of thought, often referred to as a Renaissance man; taking matters into his own hands reflected this, as did his disregard for new-school notions in the arts such as the imaginary wall that separates artists involved in commercial work and those that aren’t.

Debra Antoncic commented on this in a panel discussion about Scott’s work at RiverBrink: “I see an artist who had no hesitation in branching out into commercial ventures, that’s also something that is a bit different and maybe more typical of an earlier generation of artist. You might think you can’t be a serious artist and be a commercial artist at the same time; you’re selling out to commerce. Campbell Scott doesn’t appear to have those same hesitations and was mostly engaged with experimentation and various mediums.”

Scott wasn’t merely a self-indulgent learner and critic however. He made a significant mark on future generations as a teacher at St. Catharines Collegiate. There he was regarded as “cool” (to this day a rare trait for high school teachers) and his lessons as priceless knowledge along with graphic arts and woodcraft he openly shared his philosophical ponderings. This openness reached beyond the classroom. Scott was generally known to speak his opinions with an iconic Scottish confidence delivered and boldly underlined by his unfaltering accent. He was also responsible for the school’s acquisition of a magnificent printing press from New York City. His students still fondly share stories of his teaching; especially those who were allowed to assist him in his home-building endeavours feeling honoured to have him as a teacher.

Anyone that has an interest in print making, sculpture, or local arts legends, should go visit the house as well as the retrospective at RiverBrink before the end of October. There, you will experience the mind-blowing range of this artist. You will get lost in time trying to figure out the journey taken by the initial ideas of line, colour and composition, across several layers of hand-carved woodblocks, and onto delicate rice paper. The baffling detail of his often abstracted forms will draw you into a world that is sometimes balanced and serene, and other times exploding with energy. There is an emotional element to his work, approach it with an open mind and the colourful abstractions will take you into the lively world of Campbell Scott. His representations of tangible people and places capture the energy of that moment shared through Scott’s lens. Scott was a man who wore many hats, and he believed in a need of giving back to the world by means of physical creativity as well as passing on knowledge. Art and education are both priceless elements of culture, but he certainly knew their value. Carving out the value of his never ending contributions, we could all learn something from this man’s approach.

“Going back to the way that Campbell integrated his life and his art so completely,” says Remus. “I think he’d be pretty dismissive of prevailing notions that the arts are something you support because they’re good for the economy. He’d be adamant that they be understood and embraced as a large part of what gives our lives meaning. We’re still a ways from that in Niagara, we’ll need a few more generations of Scott’s to get there.”

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