It is mind-boggling to think that an artist, who recently had a show at the National Gallery of Canada, might never have picked up a brush.
Describing Chris Cran as one of Canada’s most notable contemporary artists, the prestigious gallery was home to 120 of his artworks for three months.
Tomorrow evening, the talented artist will return to his childhood home with a mix of old and new works that will take viewers on a visual journey of his ongoing exploration on canvas that will form the Salmon Art Gallery’s September exhibition.
None of this might have transpired had Cran’s “longest, best friend” John Woods, aka musician Herald Nix, not challenged him.
“I was following his (Woods) work when I was 12 years old; he introduced me to Picasso, Matisse, the Group of Seven,” says Cran. “When I was 19, he said ‘you should try this’ and handed me a board and oil paint. And that was it, I began experimenting.”
At the time, Cran was planning a career in film at the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education and was part of a film crew making documentaries for various academics.
In 1972, with his first wife, three small children and a fourth on way, Cran gave up film making and began working in construction to keep the increasing brood in food.
“A fellow came through from Nelson, who was going to Kootenay School of the Arts and he said ‘you should go to art school,’ laughs the artist, who attended for one year before heading to the Alberta College of the Arts in Calgary to complete three years of study.
Another talented local artist, Steve Mennie, had shown Cran some of his realist techniques, which, in order to make money, saw him take on portrait commissions.
“I read electric and water meters, my marriage broke up, my wife and kids moved to the U.S. and I decided it was time to do something with my education,” he says, noting he became bored with portrait painting and began exploring and developing a technique to create self portraits.
“It was just an idea I had where I could utilize the realist techniques and could do large paintings in which I was the character,” he says noting his first two self portraits took two to five months to make. “I had a studio with a big wall. In those paintings, I had and idea and could see it, and I took all steps to make it happen.”
Then came the striped paintings in which Cran applied evenly spaced, coloured, acrylic stripes on a board, then, using oils, painted a black and white “photo image” over top.
“Then I blur it and take the tape off and the stripes come forward visually because they have sharp edges,” he says. “It appears they’re on top.”
Another exploration led Cran to cover a canvas with black paint, dragging the brush vertically, when an accidental horizontal swipe led to a new experiment.
“It caught the light and looked lighter, and I thought ‘wow’,” he says. “I dragged all the light part of the portrait sideways; it was like an image of a photographic negative… depending on where you stood, the viewing changed the look.”
Cran says he applied more paint, big swirly strokes that caught the light and the pleasure of the artist.
“It was luscious and it opened a whole new area of work,” he says, noting in the mid ’90s, he began investigating another new technique – what would happen if he put an idea on the right-hand side of the canvas then started working on the left, moving towards the right.
“Over hundreds of hours of time, this interior framing device just appeared, an asymmetrical shape,” he says. “It’s not like an oval or circle, just a shape with rounded corners.”
As time passed, these interior framing devices got smaller and smaller, taking on the shape of sculptures.
Moving into the early part of the century, Cran launched into making what he calls pop photos, painting the same person but with an ever-changing background.
Cran’s newer work includes the chorus series, which comments on a main action, concentrating on the mouth, nose and eyes on a round or oval structure. They are meant to be placed next to one of Cran’s or some other artwork as if they are commenting on the work – “like Italian cherubs who are floating about the art and commenting on them.”
His artwork is an intriguing evolution of cerebral questioning that continues to lead him in exciting and innovative directions.
And if something doesn’t work, he simply changes direction.
“Failure is just temporary and it’s a useful tool as well,” he says, pointing out his latest exploration includes “playing with a lot of optical stuff” using technology – a computer, Photoshop, Illustrator and a vinyl cutter.
“It’s a new technique and there are a zillion directions I can go using it.”
Cran’s inquisitive mind, combined with creativity and a willingness to explore beyond the norm has served him well.
A longtime Calgary resident, Cran is included in a list of 150 of the most influential Albertans for helping to put the province’s contemporary arts scene on the map.
His paintings hang in galleries and private collections in Europe, U.S. and China. He was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2002 and received their Alumni Award of Excellence in 2011.
He has been involved in several residencies at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and has just completed a piece for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
“It’s an honour but I don’t dive into them too much,” he says of the many accolades he has received.
Cran is looking forward to sharing and explaining his art in a preview of his show “Save the Date” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31. His exhibition opens with a reception at 7 p.m. Sept. 1 and continues to Sept. 30. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.