Tag Archive for: Toronto

Barbara Howard: Canadian Art

Drawing Attention: Barbara Howard’s Ecologies, in Canadian Art Magazine (Summer 2006)


As is the case for many others, I have been deeply informed and influenced by the work of artists who came before me.  There have also been kind and brilliant mentors and role-models, from childhood on.  Sometimes, these have even been the same person — the Canadian artist Barbara Howard, now sadly deceased, was both.

Barbara and her husband, the poet Richard Outram, were close friends of my parents, and a big part of the childhood I shared with my brother and sister. Environmentalists and knowledgeable naturalists, they taught me a respect for the natural world that echoes through into my animal studies interests. Both were dedicated and disciplined artists, and their example (among others) showed me what kind of stamina, technique, method and rigour were required to make a serious contribution to cultural life. They were also both extremely amusing, and often quite ribald.

Several years after her untimely death in 2002, I wrote about Barbara’s life and work for Canadian Art Magazine — a journal in which my own work has often appeared:

“Doubtless the first time I saw sustained attention paid to anything as infinitesimal as an insect, it was in Barbara’s meticulously drawn articulations of living things. Durer’s astounding watercolour of a Stagbeetle and its shadow may have been made 500 years ago, but it was Barbara’s wood engraving of dragonflies I would have seen first. In this, she trained me to look closely at nature, she prepared me for the blinding genius of Durer, and she showed me what hard work and discipline was involved in being an artist.

Unique to Barbara was the transmission of the integrity of these lessons: the conviction that there is a direct link between the arenas of art, nature and daily practice. She was an environmental artist avant la lettre, and the ecologies which she herself practised extended clearly into domains of intellectual, social and spiritual health the interconnectedness of which is only now beginning to be acknowledged — perhaps most notably in the writings of Felix Guattari.

Differentiating historically between serious investigations of what it means to be part of Gaia in Canada or elsewhere and those works of art intended to create a comfort zone of nature porn will require looking closely at work that has not yet been the subject of critical attention. In the immediate, it means not only looking at generations of artists trained and working prior to (and through) the design and conceptual boom of the 60s and the emergence of support structures of the 70s, but also looking at the contexts and techniques of those artists. Barbara Howard’s work is an important place to begin such a project.

What we are doing when we look at animals, how we look at them, and what we do with those observations has in the last decade been a subject of sustained critical inquiry in visual culture and in history of science, from the work of Nigel Rothfels on zoos, to Steve Baker on contemporary art, and Lorraine Daston on attention to nature in the Enlightenment. The relationship between technique and looking, between eye and hand, between what one chooses to look at closely and long and what one is consequently ignoring are all as important as what is in the centre of the final image. Barbara’s work in wood-engraving throughout the 1970s, which was mainly focused on living creatures, is a case in point: drawing attention to something is the first step towards exploring the big picture which surrounds it.”

“These engravings by Barbara Howard were in the main also effected for hand produced books: those of the Gauntlet Press which she and Richard Outram began in the 1960s. Indeed, most of the engravings reproduced here are from one book — entitled Creatures — a work full of awe yet entirely devoid of sentimentality.

Creatures was published in 1972, only a few years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and a few years before Three Mile Island melted down. The rapid and alarming acceleration of visible effects of the degradation of nature into the 80s brought many of us up sharp against the ‘big picture.’ Barbara wrote this in 1987:

“We must constantly attempt to become more fully human… I am concerned, as we all must be, about what we, through greed and ignorance, are doing to the natural world; to the world and all its life forms including, of course, ourselves. I am not an activist and I am not a preacher… I am an artist and believe in doing what I do best as an artist. To be an artist requires of one the deepest concern allied to detachment, otherwise one cannot accomplish one’s work. In my work I am attempting to explore and reveal the essential inter-dependence of all life; to communicate what I have seen, what I love, to engage the viewer in a response of love and celebration and hence deep concern for all that we must treasure or risk losing forever. I must share what I love, to give some insight into what I discover and see as the treasures of existence, which are everywhere to be found, to be seen for the looking.”



Further Links: Barbara HowardCanadian Art; Gauntlet Press at Memorial University; Gauntlet Press Digitised at Memorial University

[Image Credits: Barbara Howard painting Arlette’s Garden (1984); Barbara Howard painting in the kitchen of the Massey House (1952); Monarch, Fish, Dragonflies, Frogs, Lobster, Owl and Snake, from Creatures (1972) all courtesy the Literary and Artistic Estates of Barbara Howard and Richard Outram]

Allan Fleming Project

Allan Fleming Project: Publications, Research, Archive Management (2007-2011)


History of Graphic Design is a budding field that touches everything from advertising to artists’ books, from word and image studies to printing technologies. I first learned about these subjects quite literally at my father’s knee — yes, that knee in the photo above. Thirty years after my father’s early death in 1977, I realised that with the range of research methodologies and approaches that I had garnered in my MA, History of the Book, it would be possible for me to effect a scholarly appraisal of his position in the history of Canadian graphic design. In 2006 I initiated just such a project, which produced among other things two issues of the design and printing journal, Devil’s Artisan, which I edited:  it includes an overview of Allan’s work and several articles by exciting researchers and design historians.


My father, Allan Fleming, has been called ‘Canada’s first design guru’. He was certainly the country’s foremost graphic designer in the spectacular mid-century moment when the fusion of advertising and typography spawned a riot of raw talent across the continent, when technologies of design became intimate with the design of technologies, and when Canada, spurred by the lure of its centennial year of 1967, formed itself as a culturally literate nation – replete with a Design Council that he helped to instate.

Allan trained at his own (and my mother’s) expense in the mid-1950s in London and Europe; he honed those skills at the furnace-face of hot metal as creative director (a position then almost unheard of outside Europe) at Toronto’s Cooper & Beatty Type Craftsmen from 1956 to 1962; he burned it all up at MacLaren Advertising (now MacLaren McCann), where he was Creative Director for six years. Finally, in a post created for him, he helped revolutionise the look of scholarly publishing in North America as chief of design at the University of Toronto Press. He died in 1977, aged only 48.

His best-known legacy is the symbol that he created for Canadian National Railways as part of their mid-century modernisation programme. The CN symbol was itself like a train driving Modernist design straight through the 1960s in Canada and beyond, and it still adorns countless bridges and trains over 50 years later.

In 2006, I was invited by Tim Inkster of the Porcupine’s Quill, publishers of Devil’s Artisan: A Journal of the Printing Arts in Canada, to guest-edit an issue of the journal about Allan’s work. It turned into a double-volume publication and a much bigger project than that alone.


‘DA’, as it is known, is available through abebooks.com and also, as a digital publication, on Zinio. The first of the two issues, DA 62, is packed with information about mid-century graphic design in North America, the conditions in which it took place, and the specifics of the Canadian scene. The second issue, DA 63, contains articles by leading Canadian photo historian Carole Payne and design historian Brian Donnelly. The issues also contain evaluations of Allan’s work and its impact from practising designers working in related fields — Donna Braggins, who, like Allan years before, led a redesign of Maclean’s Magazine, and Robert Tombs, who, like Allan, had been chief of design in a major University Press.

Book historian and Enlightened Librarian Devin Crawley effected a close analysis of archival papers of Allan’s and of the University of Toronto Press, with surprising results. Devin also co-authored with me for DA 62 a finding guide for archival deposits relating to Allan’s work — in Library and Archives Canada, corporate archives and University archives.

And it was indeed in the archives that this project got much bigger — as if writing and editing what ended up being 208 pages including six other authors and a hundred-odd images is not enough!  In discussion with my brother and sister (and our mother,  then still alive) we made a decision to move Allan’s papers and what remained of his substantial book collection to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections at York University. It was a complex job, both logistically and bureaucratically. But the support and welcome of the York’s fantastic archivist, Michael Moir, made it both smooth and exciting.

A digitisation project has started up, and there are already materials available online through York University’s DSpace. I am hoping that there will be link-ups between York’s growing design archives and its research culture, as is happening at the Rochester Institute of Technology and at the University of Brighton. And I am also hoping that history of design will burgeon in Canada, where so many highly accomplished designers — including my brother, the furniture designer Peter Fleming — are working.

Last year, EYE magazine commissioned an article by me about Allan, and I have a funny feeling that there will be more ‘dad’ projects in the future as well. I wouldn’t mind working with the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which has a number of CN locomotives in its collection, to research the relationship between technological innovation and graphic design. How much bigger could a project get?  Sounds like a ‘history of modernity’ to me.



Further Links: Devil’s Artisan; DA on Zinio; York University DSpace; RIT Vignelli Center Collections; University of Brighton Design Archives; Peter Fleming; Allan Fleming Feature in EYE 79; Canada Science and Technology Museum Railway Images

[Image References: Portrait of Allan Fleming from 1959, York University Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections. Design Work by Allan Fleming:  CN Engine Drawing; Type-o-file type specimen box, University of Toronto Fisher Rare Book Library Cooper & Beatty Fonds; Cooper & Beatty A Ad, UofT; Canada Year of the Land, CTA; Stamp Style Guide Drawing, CTA; Olympic Stamps, MF; Economic Atlas of Ontario Spread; Ontario Science Centre, OSC]

Artforum, Vanguard, Fuse, Afterimage, Live, Body Politic

Until late 1984, I continued to publish in a wide range of art magazines and journals of cultural critique, having served on editorial boards of FUSE, The Body Politic, and Fireweed — magazines with international reach produced in Toronto.

The two issues of Artforum pictured above — April and May, 1981 — contained my reviews of the Gerry Schum retrospective organised by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1979/80) and of an exhibition by John Scott at Carmen Lamanna Gallery (1981). Gerry Schum’s pioneering ‘tv gallery’ in Dusseldorf ran from 1968 to 1973 — and even the retrospective I wrote about then is now so long ago that there has been another one since: at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf in 2003. In John Scott’s 1981 show of amazing drawings of the military-industrial complex as a science-fiction, there was a prescient drawing of a man overwhelmed by numbers, a drawing entitled ‘The Googleplex’.

I wrote a number of other reviews for Artforum in that period, about Colin Campbell, Robert Bowers, David Clarkson, Genevieve Cadieux, and others. But for any writer, the most important part of publishing is working with exciting editors: at Artforum I was edited by Ingrid Sischy and David Frankel. Good editors are your best friend.

And indeed some of them became close friends, like Martha Gever and Catherine Lord who taught me so much, and who were working at Afterimage in the 1980s. I published articles about Arnaud Maggs (January 1982), and Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé (November 1982) in Afterimage.

The article about Karl and Carole, entitled “The Production of Meaning,” also appeared in Open Letter and in issue 8 of BLOCK, which pioneered critical inquiry into the rapport between politics and aesthetics, and was edited by Lisa Tickner and others.

Canada had its own publications of distinction in this field, and some of them are still going strong. When I was on the editorial board of FUSE Magazine on the cusp of the 1980s, Karl and Carole were closely involved — as was Lisa Steele, Clive Robertson, and John Greyson. In fact, before it was FUSE, it was Centerfold, and that’s when I first published in it. I wrote about Videocabaret, anorexia, copyright infringement of artists’ videotapes, editing the television news, Toronto’s experimental film collective called The Funnel, the girl-band The Slits, and more.



Fully immersed in the political/aesthetic climate, I wrote about artists’ video and about performance for the feminist journal, Fireweed (‘Lisa Steele: Hearing Voices’ Summer 1980) and for the gay liberation newspaper The Body Politic. In fact, when I attended the landmark conference Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at the University of Champaign Urbana in 1983, I was not surprised to see as many gay rights colleagues as artists and art critics assembled. Thirty years later, there is now an MA in Aesthetics and Politics at CalArts.

I became involved in commissioning and editing cultural news for the Body Politic, and was mentored by some very brilliant people there — Rick Bebout, Tim McCaskill and others. Doug Durand and I published an extensive article about gender and performance for the BP, and with that article, the collective put video artist Colin Campbell on the cover (June 1980, see below).



In part because of my work with video distribution at Art Metropole, I was very interested in artists working in time-based media, and so I also came to be published in short-lived but influential journals like John Howell’s LIVE, Video Guide, and On TV.

The range of art publications, and the different registers within which each approached contemporary art, was much more varied in the 1980s — though the ease and economies of web-publishing over print-bind-and-deliver would have quickly won over most editors from that period.

In Canada, the two main publications were produced literally 3,500 miles from each other, in two different languages and pitched at very different kinds of reader.  They were: Vanguard, edited by Russell Keziere in Vancouver, and Parachute, edited by Chantal Pontbriand and France Morin in Montreal.  I wrote for both. Here is a cover for Parachute issue 14, featuring a 1976 performance by FUSE editor, Clive Robertson, entitled The Sculptured Politics of Joseph Beuys, in which Robertson grapples with the implications — for his own career — of Beuys’ fame.



In Vanguard, which ran from 1972 to 1989, I published mainly reviews — Robert Wiens, Brian Boigon, Les Levine, Spalding Gray, Joseph Beuys, Elizabeth MacKenzie, Patrick Jenkins, Rebecca Garrett, Tod Siler, Ian Carr-Harris, Lyn Blumenthal. In Parachute, I also reviewed — Joyce Wieland, John Massey, Glass’s Satyagraha — but I most enjoyed writing a full-length article about the relationship between experimental film and architecture: Filming Buildings Building Films (Parachute 25, Winter 1981) It concerned the films of Ross MacLaren and of John Porter, both of The Funnel. I feel it would have come as no surprise to them that I would shortly move from Toronto to Montreal, and that I would spend the following decade fully engrossed in the intersection between art and architecture.



Further Links: Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture; MA in Aesthetics and Politics Calarts; Afterimage; FUSEThe Funnel

[Image References: LIVE Magazine 6/7; Artforum April and May 1981; Karl Beveridge and Carol Condé, It’s Still Privileged Art (1976); Fuse Magazine Logo; covers from The Body Politic (1970s/1980s); Parachute 14; John Porter, Down On Me, filmframe from a much larger conceptual filmwork (1980)]

Art Metropole Video Distribution

Distribution Manager, Artists’ Videotapes, Art Metropole, Toronto (1979 to 1981)


Under the direction of Peggy Gale, Art Metropole was one of the first organisations in the world to curate, archive and distribute artists’ videotapes. This was a very exciting time for this medium, then only about a decade old, as video equipment itself moved from reel-to-reel to cassette, from PortaPak to Camcorder, and the battle for Betamax was lost to VHS.

I worked with Peggy and with General Idea — the founders of Art Metropole — to develop distribution networks and exhibitions of video by artists; co-authoring, compiling and helping to produce the first printed catalogue of AM’s video stable. This is still an amazing document, listing early works by some of the most exciting artists in the field — Ant Farm, General Idea itself, Lisa Steele, David Askevold, Colin Campbell, Bill Viola and more.

At the time, there were few curators in major museums who were up to speed with artists’ time-based work in performance and video. One of the few was — and still is — Barbara London, of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, who has continued to evolve and renew herself as a curator alongside the field itself.  Barbara bought a number of works by Canadian video artists and others from Art Metro while I was there.

In 1980, the Canadian representation at the Venice Biennale showcased video artists in an exhibition curated by Bruce Ferguson with co-ordination and support from Art Metropole. This project took me to Venice for the first time, and I accompanied General Idea to the Basel Art Fair that year as well. It was a crash-course in the art world, and a very different world it was then.

I was particularly interested in the way in which formal and technical aspects of video informed the way that artists used it.  It may be amusing now to hear that the advent of colour video — until the late 70s financially out of the reach of most artists — had a big effect on the kinds of tapes being made, but so it is. Invited to speak at the Nova Scotia College of Art, that was the subject of my presentation.

In 1981 the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, then run by Antonia Payne, invited me to curate a group of videos for a larger exhibition entitled Canada in Birmingham. I included work by Robert Hamon among others, and Ed Lam, my student at the Ontario College of Art and Design — where I was co-teaching the performance and video programme with Noel Harding.

During my time at Art Metro, I also sat on the Board of Trinity Square Video, an artist-run production and post-production centre in Toronto which was instrumental in the development of video art in North America.  Though the main distributor for artists’ videos in Canada is now VTape, Art Metro is to this day a significant hub for artists’ books and multiples.



Further Links: Art Metropole; Barbara London; Canadian Video Art; VTape

[Image References: all images are from videos which were distributed by Art Metropole during the period when I worked there:  Ant Farm: Media Burn (1975), Colin Campbell: Hollywood and Vine (1977), Lisa Steele: Birthday Suit, Scars and Defects (1974)]