Gerald Squires (1937-2015) was a Newfoundland painter, a title that describes both his culture and his practice: a Newfoundlander who painted pictures, a painter who painted Newfoundland.
His long career is the subject of new book by Stan Dragland, a friend who undertook this project at the request of Squires’ estate. That Squires, a passionate advocate for all things Newfoundland–and an inveterate critic of “come-from-aways” being brought in as experts to tell Newfoundlanders about themselves–chose as his biographer a writer and editor who retired from Ontario to Newfoundland in 1999, is the first of the many complexities revealed by the book. Dragland ably conveys Squires’ awareness of his contradictory stances towards the culture of the rest of Canada, in fact, of the rest of the world.
Gerald Squires, which I read in an advance copy, promises to be a mammoth book, 240 pages in my electronic version, with dozens of images of the late artist’s work, from his earliest pieces to the last he made before his death in 2015.
The portrait that emerges is of an artist with a strong sense of mission, someone willing to endure material hardships and to work as hard as circumstances demanded to make a go of it as an artist where he chose to live–Newfoundland. Squires believed strongly in his community and was a constant booster of cultural activities of all sorts. A fervent Newfoundland nationalist, at least in his younger years, he nonetheless befriended many artists and writers who had moved to Newfoundland from across Canada, the United States and Europe.
Squires was born in Newfoundland but raised in Ontario, where his parents moved seeking work. His first art training was there and for a short time he attended the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. It was in Toronto that he had his first success as an artist, showing with some acclaim at a commercial gallery there in the early 1960s.
Eventually working full time as a commercial artist for the Toronto Telegram, Squires seemed set in Toronto. However, a six-month sojourn on his birthplace, Exploits Island, a painting trip he wrote about for his paper, put paid to any chance of Squires remaining in Ontario. Within a few years, he had moved his young family to an old lighthouse at Ferryland, returning home to stay. Those early years are well conveyed in Dragland’s book, which is made all the richer by full access to Squires’ papers. He was a prolific writer of his ideas and thoughts, even his dreams, in sketchbooks and on loose sheets of paper that he called “table scraps.”
Once settled, Squires became one of the loudest voices in support of the art and artists from Newfoundland, which rightly views itself as a distinct society. One of the strongest facets of this book is the way Dragland conveys Squires’ acerbic, often bitter battles about local culture with a balanced, albeit loving, approach. The biographer has the advantage of hindsight and a first-hand knowledge of the mellowing effect age and success had on the artist. Not that Squires ever rested on his laurels. He was ambitious for recognition as a Newfoundland artist at home and beyond Newfoundland as well.
This is one of the pitfalls of all regionalisms, of course. Local success goes only so far–there is always a desire to be recognized beyond one’s home, to test oneself against the best that the world has to offer. Squires, beloved and famous at home, never did achieve the national or international recognition he thought he deserved. The world, after all, rarely comes to us; we must go to it.
The kind of recognition most artists crave tends to be found in the centres of the art world. An artist stubbornly, joyfully and productively ensconced in Ferryland, Newfoundland, was unlikely to attract the attention of critics and collectors from the larger world. Isolation, of course, does not mean irrelevance. Dragland writes of the constant tensions at play in any regional art.
There is no sense, however, that Squires’ was a career of missed opportunities. Quite the contrary, based on the work illustrated in the book from his time in Toronto, it is safe to say that Newfoundland made his career. His work is unabashedly and unashamedly local. He strove, in a career spanning four decades, to convey the essence of Newfoundland to himself and to his fellow Newfoundlanders.
Stan Dragland’s essay is broken up into several sections that look exhaustively at aspects of Squires’ long career. In sections with titles such as “Duende,” “Poetry” and “Vision,” he dives deep into Squires’ work and writings, situating the art into the long conversation of western art history.
Dragland does not take a critical approach; he does not step back to assess the work of Gerald Squires. He is much more like a guide taking us on a journey through the life and work of this remarkable character, conveying the wit, passion and commitment of the artist with directness and sympathy.Squires come across as a figure from epic poetry, a character from an origin myth.
Dragland considers Squires a great artist and he makes his case with compelling candour and exhaustive research. While this book can seem very long it is leavened by the humour and self-awareness of Squires’ own words. That tone of honesty is one that Dragland, too, sets and maintains throughout the book.
The book also features a piece of writing by the novelist Michael Crummey, three short word portraits that succinctly present a picture of living, breathing Gerald Squires, an admired friend and esteemed colleague. Throughout Gerald Squires, the reader is treated to a layered and complex picture of an artist who is presented almost as an embodiment of the aspirations, the success and excesses of the Newfoundland arts community.
This is the kind of book that can only come out of a local culture that is confident and aware of its strengths and weaknesses. While it is unlikely that this is the book that will make Gerald Squires a household name in Canada (how many artists are household names in this country anyway?), Stan Dragland makes clear why Gerald Squires is a household name in Newfoundland. In so doing he made this reader, at least, envious of the culture that created, and was created by, such an artist.