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Peter Busby’s The Life and Art of Jack Akroyd is the eighth and latest book in the Unheralded Artists Series presented by Mother Tongue Publishing. The series as a whole makes a significant contribution to the art history of British Columbia and to the province’s social and cultural history. Whether or not the reader is already familiar with Jack Akroyd is immaterial. Busby brings Akroyd to life in this beautifully written and presented biography. The quality of the writing is high, the artwork is well selected, photographed, and generously presented with a useful index. An introduction by art collector and patron Paul Wolf succinctly provides additional context and meaning and underscores the merits of this study.
Busby shares the origins of a childhood in Yorkshire, where Akroyd was born in 1921, and also British Columbia, where Akroyd arrived in 1953. Keen to the importance of context and connection to local landscape, Busby digs deeply to explain the background for events as well as for Akroyd’s paintings. True to himself, Akroyd was quietly driven to create and realize his own artistic vision. His training as an engineer made him a talented master of spatial relations; his inquiring mind enabled him to understand, create, or repair everything from kilns to aircraft engines. Details-oriented, he reassembled ideas and events from his own experiences to create art, and invariably his work reveals an original and personal expression.
Before he moved to British Columbia, Akroyd trained at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) where he studied with the BC artist and automatist expressionist painter, Jock (J.W.G.) Macdonald, who had himself studied and taught in Vancouver and drew his inspiration from there. Macdonald and Frederick Varley had been brought by Charles Scott to teach at the newly established Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts in 1926, and they also founded the short-lived British Columbia College of Art in 1933. These earlier connections meant that when Akroyd worked with Macdonald at the OCA, he was really receiving an introduction to British Columbia. Akroyd benefited as well from exchanges with fellow OCA students including William Kurelek and Shizuye Takashima. After graduating in 1953, Akroyd moved to British Columbia, first to Nanaimo and then to Vancouver. Self-supporting, Akroyd worked at a whole range of odd jobs but primarily as a draughtsman, turning to his painting as much as time allowed.
Akroyd’s story is also an illuminating story of Vancouver, particularly Kitsilano, in the 1960s. He was part of a productive circle of artists and sculptors that included George Fertig, Elek Imredy, and Frank Molnar. Busby also addresses the artistic encounter between surrealism and British Columbia. And while surrealism is the style most associated with Ackroyd, he was fluent and brilliant in a range of media and materials. Busby considers Akroyd’s personality through a Jungian lens and connects Akroyd’s art to the work and thought of the ground-breaking abstract painter and theosophist, Wassily Kandinsky, who believed that the painter’s eye should encompass the inner self and vision. Busby critically analyses the highly imaginative and precisely-composed work that Akroyd called his “visual diaries.”
Ackroyd’s landscapes of the coast and Okanagan regions are sublime. His first trip to Japan in 1960 was a turning point in his personal life and career and became the crucible for his commitment and ensuing creativity. Busby explores his time there through Akroyd’s notebooks, journals, photographs, paintings, correspondence, and relevant articles published in Japan and Europe.
As with so many brilliant artists, Akroyd hasn’t received the critical attention he is due. His star was rising at the time of his death in 1996. This lively, informative, and path-breaking book will bring this vital artist to a new appreciative audience and add a new level of appreciation to those already familiar with the work and world of Jack Akroyd.
The Life and Art of Jack Akroyd
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2015. 156 pp. $35.95 Paper.