An excerpt from In the Alley, a new book that celebrates prairie artist, Perreault.
Wilf Perreault: In the Alley is a stunning full-colour presentation of the work of a significant prairie artist, including essays, prose and poetry that responds to the visual feast. Wilf Perreault is in a class of artists known primarily for a single subject—in his case, the humble urban back alley. Coteau Books proudly joins forces with the MacKenzie Art Gallery to present a coffee-table book with more than a hundred full-colour images, accompanied by essays discussing the work of the artist best known as "Wilf". The book contains an additional treat—11 pieces of creative writing by Saskatchewan literary artists responding to Wilf's work in general, or to specific paintings that have inspired them. Wilf Perreault takes us up his alley, rendered in a breathtaking detail that asks us to take another, closer, look at the everyday.
We are pleased to present a gallery of images from the book, and an excerpt from former Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Don Kerr's contribution, "Wilf Perreault at Work."
Preparing a Work
The first time I visit Wilf he does a work from beginning to end, so I can understand the process. I’ve always been delighted to watch an artist at work, to see how he makes things. Wilf has a fine large studio, lit during the day by skylights. His painting outfit is a long black apron. He’s chosen this day to work on two canvases, one three feet square, the other a foot square. He begins by turning on his computer and scanning in a series of postage-stamp size colour photos. The images are of alleys, mostly from Lakeview and Cathedral neighbourhoods, older residential areas with good alleys and garages. There are seven images, all winter shots, with puddles in some of them. “This process gives me a head start,” he explains. After scanning the photos, he’s able to get large images of them on his monitor. He chooses an image with a water reflection. Now he has two choices, he explains: either focus on the alley itself, or shift the focus downward to give the puddle equal weight with the alley and the tops of the trees are chopped off.
“It’s a March picture?” I ask. I like the full reflection because it seems to combine his early water pieces and his alleys.
“Yep. I’ll play with this composition.” He starts with the larger canvas, sands it briefly with ordinary sandpaper, places it on his easel and begins drawing out lines with a pencil, one of a handful he has on his work table. The photograph he’s using was taken on an absolutely still day so the reflections are precise. “The canvases already have gesso,” he notes. “I put three or four coats of gesso on a canvas.”
He uses a T-square to get straight lines for the telephone poles. “I need an edge. I learned to do this when I started the large project [for the MacKenzie show]. I have to do it pretty fast.”
He chooses a brush from a coffee tin full of them—“I’ve got tons of brushes,” he remarks—and begins to sketch out his work with black, starting on the left, outlining a large tree. As he works, he talks about his practice. “I was never a cutting edge artist. All I want to be is true to me. I’ll be a cutting edge artist someday.” Now he’s feathering the tips of a tree, skillfully. He keeps looking back at the photo as he works. He’s not sitting on his chair, but standing, a good sign the tendon is strengthening. He’s drawing everything with that black paint. If he presses, it goes on black. Applied more lightly, it’s grey, of different shades. “I’m doing the groundwork. I’m just playing around. I go to the unknown. You’re going to see some paint strokes.” He moves so rapidly with the sketching, now filling in details on that tree on the left, darkening lightly some parts on the snow. He moves the canvas to get more light from above, pushes it away to look, or looks at it in a mirror on the wall. “For the last several years now I’ve started out with the black paint.” Now he’s starting on the reflection. He outlines the telephone poles, above and in the reflection. He adjusts the easel to put the canvas at easy arm level. He shifts to the right side of the canvas, including the large electrical pole in the foreground. There are other poles that give some perspective to the work. “I like the way it looks now.” I like this stage too. I’m reminded of an observation made once by Paul Fudge, a former Saskatchewan Arts Board executive director, now retired in Nanaimo, that Wilf’s paintings “have colours without colour.”
"I was never a cutting edge artist. All I want to be is true to me. I’ll be a cutting edge artist someday."
Wilf looks again, and in the mirror, and upside down. “I’ll look at the photograph as I go along. But the work changes as it goes on. I need a crutch. Or a road map. Then I make it up. At a certain point you don’t need the map. You want to get off the highway.”
When I see Wilf again in October, he is preparing the This House exhibit at Nouveau [Gallery] with [Grant] McConnell.
At the studio, I remark that Saskatoon is defined by one building, the Bessborough Hotel, which can be seen down many streets. Wilf brings out a painting he’d done some time ago depicting a partial view of the Bessborough down an alley. He likes it again at once and began to work on it, using black on two bare trees that cover part of the stately old hotel and one in an area to the right, and darkens the alley. The work is based on a bright photo that shows the alley flanked by parts of two buildings, the Avenue Building on the left, the Traveller’s Building on the right, both constructed in 1912, and the Bessborough, erected at the conclusion to Saskatoon’s second boom, 1929–1930. It’s a fine painting that reads my city perfectly. He thinks it will make a fine addition to the Nouveau exhibit, at which McConnell will be showing several paintings of Regina’s Legislative Building.
Wilf flips the painting upside down and it’s an abstract with the alley like a curved top, the buildings as a doorway. He blackens poles, makes more wee splashes on the alley, steps back, and checks the mirror. “It’s from the Nineties. It’s unbelievable. Grant is doing Regina and I’m doing Saskatoon.” It’s a splendid work and we both think it will make a splash at the show.
When I return a week later, Wilf is working on a show to open in late November at Toronto’s Mayberry Fine Art. He is preparing fifteen works for the show, including one marvellous large work, Moon Branching Out, more than nine feet wide and over seven feet high. Wilf had to use a ladder to finish the top of the work. The magical part of the work is a white streak of sky emanating from the moon. “There’s something mysterious about it,” Wilf says. He painted that new feature to cover a flaw in the painting, one more happenstance that works for him. That spread of white creates the chill of winter so the two central houses at the bottom of the work, with their snow-hat roofs and bright lights in windows, are the warmth under that cold sky. The accuracy of the houses is lovely but it’s the context of small warmth against the cold sky that creates the magic. Wilf plans to have it as the grand entrance to the show. It will be a stunning lyrical introduction.
While most of the pieces going to Toronto reflect Wilf’s alley world, there are three anomalies. One is an Ontario farm landscape, at Collingwood, where Wilf and Sandi had a fine holiday. I like it as is, but Wilf says it “needs to have the evening reddish sky deepened.” Then there are Eiffel Towers at the back of five works—though Wilf has used the Parisian landmark in earlier works, it will come as a surprise to Toronto viewers in the work of this definitive prairie artist. Finally there are two remarkable colours, a yellow sky in one circular piece, a peach sky in another, both chosen by his friend Jim Steeves. Wilf hasn’t used either of the colours before, but they work exceptionally well.
The show is Wilf’s celebration of his wife, who died earlier in the year, and is called Moon River, after Sandi’s parents’ favourite song and the last song she heard before her death. To adhere to the “Moon River” theme, Wilf has added moons to his three circular pieces and to some square and rectangular works. The moons are made by a company called Regina Silkscreen Signs. They’ve made moons of various sizes. Two moons on rectangular pieces are too small, so Wilf pastes new moons on the works, squares with a moon in the middle—they look like postage stamps. He whitens the rectangles, then lays them down to dry.
Moving from work to work is typical of Wilf today. I remark that he’s like a grasshopper. He replies, “The first time you saw me I was performing.”
Wilf is working primarily on the yellow-sky circular piece, which we name Yellow Sky. He takes it to the next room to spray. I don’t recognize the change until Wilf removes the protective tape from the moon, which is a strikingly pale yellow against the now richer yellow. “In the yellow there’s blue and red,” he points out. When Wilf returns Yellow Sky to the easel he rubs dust off, then sands it. “You should see how rough it is after I spray it. It’s like sandpaper.” Wilf then uses a metal strip to help him paint perpendicular lines, like telephone poles. “I have to be careful not to cut myself.” He grins: “I’m a cutting edge artist at last.” He then paints the poles without external assistance. “I can be accurate in the perpendicular,” amazing to me. He uses the black paint on other items, like trees and bushes and garages. By bringing other features forward by darkening them, the Eiffel Tower seem to recede, so it isn’t the sole focus of the work. “The Eiffel Tower is there but not dominant.”
The second circular piece has the peach sky. Wilf etches a new tree upper left, obviously from no photo. It provides balance. “I needed something up here. There was so much happening down there.” Wilf stands back, checks the mirror, knows he needs to make the tree more complex, which I’ve seen him do with a series of small black strokes.
I return to Wilf’s studio a week later, in late October. Wilf is arranging his paintings so he can photograph them. He climbs a tall ladder for that photograph, which he’ll be sending to Mayberry Fine Art in Toronto. Wilf’s work is on the move. He notes modestly that he “did well” at a small show a year earlier at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Vancouver. And he would do very well at the Nouveau show, where his larger pieces, priced at $6,000 and up, sold first.
Wilf takes the peach sky canvas to spray it, to reduce some white in the sky. “I toned it down, but back it goes to the drawing board.” Then he takes the Collingwood painting for spraying, to make the low red sky more rich. “I like it now. I have to darken the trees.”
He wants help with titles. We choose Garage Heaven for a work with large and colourful garages; Five O’Clock Sky for one of the winter sundown pieces; Moon Over the Alley for a work in which Wilf dropped the moon from high to low, improving it by that simple change; Moon Lines, for a line reflected in a puddle; Winter Trees for a work in which tall trees tower in the foreground; Reflections for one of an alley with a large pool of water. Wilf writes the titles on strips of green tape he applies to the backing of each work.
As we talk, he puts finishing touches on several pieces. He’s happy with a small painting, Cityscape, with an Eiffel Tower behind trees. “It’s a lot softer now. Before it was in your face.” The black foreground trees give way to softer bushes at the back, giving it greater perspective. “That doesn’t always work.”
Wilf is at work on the circle piece with the dark blue sky (the other large circles are yellow, peach, and a light blue, all distinct from one another). “I’ll try to bring the blue down to the houses. They’re gray now.” He brushes the buildings with blue paint. Then he sprays the work to make the sky darker. “It just feels better.” All that’s left is to darken the trees—“an easy fix now.”
Wilf feels he’s “getting closer. I can finish a painting each day.” By next morning, he has sprayed two smaller circles with snow to add distinction to them and he’s returned to the dark blue circle piece, the one with the low moon, Moon Over the Alley. It has a white line in the sky but partly behind the trees so it’s not overt. Because it’s got both blue sky and blue buildings, the blackening of trees and especially of fences foreground left and right seem important to the work. Later Wilf adds white to the fences and some trees. “I had to soften the black. Maybe my next move is to colour the windows.” He applies yellow to the windows but isn’t satisfied, covering them with white instead to make them “more modest.”
Wilf uses a quiet black on the car tracks in the alley, the feature that is foreground in almost every piece. Cars have been driving down those alleys but we never see a vehicle. He has two paint cans in his left hand, one black, the other greyish. “I’m using dirty water of transparent greyish black,” which he’s applying to the foreground of the alley. I ask why he rubs areas with his hand. “It makes it a little softer if it’s too strong.” Now he’s applying white to the black area in the work, like the fences. “It’s like a controlled burn. This way I can play with the surface better.” The white seems to vanish. “I’m softening it. The black was getting too black. I’ll come back and play with it again.”
I like the word “play.” It gives a sense of the pleasure Wilf takes in these works, a lifetime of work and pleasure. People who create such art are, as Wilf well knows, fortunate people.