Jack and Doris Shadbolt

Doris Shadbolt. Photo by Chick Rice

Jack and Doris Shadbolt were one of the great power couples in the world of Canadian art. Their legacy includes not only their creative output – his vast and varied catalogue of paintings and murals found in homes, institutions, galleries and museums around the world, and her work as biographer, art historian and curator – but, perhaps as important, their education of several generations of artists and art lovers through curation, teaching and writing, and the institutions they established (such as the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby, BC, a centre for study and exhibition of visual and performing arts, and the Jack and Doris Shadbolt Foundation for the Visual Arts, which makes financial awards to artists) and helped support (such as the Federation of Canadian Artists, created to advance knowledge of art and culture for  all Canadians).

Jack Shadbolt (1909-1998) was born in Shoeburyness, a seaside town in England. He emigrated to Canada at the age of three, settling with his parents and four siblings in Victoria, BC. Jack’s father was a sign painter, his mother a dressmaker, and Jack grew up surrounded by design, craft, art, and the rugged west coast wilderness. He studied general arts and teacher training in Victoria and earned his living as an arts instructor on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver and Burnaby, teaching in high schools, colleges and at the University of British Columbia. All the while he developed his skills as a painter, studied in London, Paris and New York, and exhibited his work across the continent.

Doris Meisel (1918-2003) was born in the industrial town of Preston, Ontario. She graduated with a fine arts degree from the University of Toronto and began her career as a research assistant, first at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and then at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Jack and Doris met in Ottawa the spring of 1944, were married the following year and moved to Burnaby, BC, near Vancouver.

Jack taught at the Vancouver School of Art (now the Emily Carr University of Art + Design) until he retired in 1966 as the Head of Painting and Drawing. His work was exhibited in all major public galleries across the country, and he represented Canada in international exhibitions around the globe. He was influenced by a community of other West Coast painters including Emily Carr and Frederick Varley, all of whom searched for a style that was unique to the region and the times they lived in. However, he continuously sought new influences through travel, and considered himself a scientific or intellectual artist. He was attracted to subjects of deep meaning and emotional/intellectual engagement, interpreted through his visceral response to the world. He believed that art and artists could be actively involved in society, and his subject matter often drew from personal experiences and the social and political influences on his life and thinking, such as the struggles of First Nations, the Second World War (unable to become a war artist, he sorted and catalogued photographs from concentration camps for the Canadian Army, an experience that left a lasting impression), and environmental issues. In the words of Scott Watson, the director of Vancouver’s Belkin Art Gallery and author of a critical biography of Shadbolt: "His paintings offer a deep and unruly peek into the world of the psyche.” Jack also wrote influential books about the artistic process including the broadly popular “In Search of Form” (1968).

Doris, meanwhile, established a long and distinguished career with the Vancouver Art Gallery, first as a volunteer, then serving as a docent, curator, and eventually associate director, helping to lead the gallery to a position as one of the best-known art institutions in Canada. The revitalization of indigenous culture was a particular concern for her. Doris was one of the first to discern an elemental vitality in First Nations art as a response to the difficulties of post-war industrialization and ongoing political unrest, and in 1967 she curated "Art of the Raven", the first showcase of indigenous works in a gallery setting and one that helped give visual shape to the modern West Coast identity. Her 1970 exhibition "New York 13" introduced Vancouverites to a generation of revolutionary U.S. modernists, among them Robert Morris, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. Doris was also an active art historian and biographer. Her biographies of Bill Reid (which won the 1987 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize) and Emily Carr remain the authoritative texts on the artists’ lives and work.

Both Doris and Jack were extensively honoured for their contributions to Canadian creative culture. Jack was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972 and a member of the Order of British Columbia in 1990. Doris was awarded honorary doctorates by Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, and Emily Carr College of Art and Design. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1976, and in 2000 received a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts for her contributions to literature and the arts.

“Jack and Doris together were a force of nature,” said Susan Mertens, one of the inaugural Jack and Doris Shadbolt Community Scholars. “It was thrilling and inspirational to spend time in their presence. Jack really liked to expostulate about whatever was engaging his mind. He was entirely devoted to art and the issues surrounding it. His personal interests and his creative life were inseparably entwined. Everything seemed filtered through form and colour. Doris, meanwhile, was interested in everything – forging ahead to untrodden areas, whether it was Northwest Coast art or Emily Carr or her determination to become fluent in French in late middle age.” Max Wyman, another Shadbolt Community Scholar, recalls visiting Jack and Doris at their summer home on Hornby Island. “Jack would always load up his art supplies for the summer when they decamped for the island,” he said, “and inevitably he would run out of supplies long before their stay was complete. The day we turned up, he had begun to paint the rocks and logs on the beach outside their home. The creative flame was never quenched.”