When the American-based Southern Graphics Council announced University of Alberta professor emeritus Walter Jule as the SGCI Excellence in Teaching Award recipient for 2015, Jule organized a printmaking porfolio called From Time to Time. Featuring artworks by 26 of the University of Alberta’s most distinguished printmaking alumni from 1975 – 2008, From Time to Time was displayed at the Southern Graphics Council Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee, March 18 – 21, 2015.
This essay by Blair Brennan was published as a preface to the portfolio From Time to Time.
Walk among the deciduous trees in Edmonton’s river valley before the first snowfall, you will see a tangle of gray-black tree trunks and branches. When the first snow covers the ground, it creates some contrast between the ash-coloured poplars and willows and the now white ground. Wind blowing from one direction ensures that only one side of the tree branches is coated with snow. This weather-created chiaroscuro effect accentuates the volume, texture and tone of the branches. In Edmonton, winter is not a date on a calendar. Winter is when the snow comes and each winter inspiration for an artist, either self- or school-taught, is laid out in the river valley with tree forms against snow rather than ink on paper.
Complex figure-ground relationships created by snow and leafless trees in the river valley are not the only attraction for creative individuals in Edmonton. Most of the artists in this portfolio have completed their graduate degrees at Edmonton’s University of Alberta (U of A), an institution that boasts Canada’s oldest master’s program in fine arts. These young artists are generally too busy to notice the annual drawing lesson that takes place in the brush on the banks of the river. They are usually engrossed in a body of artwork that they will present and defend to their academic supervisors and peers at the end of their programs.
Walter Jule and Lyndal Osborne began teaching at the U of A in the early 1970s. Liz Ingram began teaching at the University of Alberta in 1975. Other instructors, technical assistants and guest artists would arrive later; however, for much of the past 50 years printmaking at the U of A has been directly connected to the aesthetic explorations of Jule, Osborne and Ingram. Their commitment to creating an environment of rigorous graphic inquiry was recognized by the University which designated the Printmaking Division a “Centre of Research Excellence” for three consecutive three-year terms (1995–2003). This year, Walter Jule will receive the Southern Graphics Council (SGC) International Excellence in Teaching Award. The SGC award recognizes the importance of Jule’s art and his immeasurable influence as a teacher.
The biographies of the artists in this portfolio reveal where they came from to attend the U of A and, geographically speaking, it is a broad list of starting points. The biographies also demonstrate the far reaching exhibition opportunities, teaching appointments and awards since graduating from the U of A.
Together, the UAlberta alumni featured in From Time to Time have won more than 90 major awards in national / international graphics competitions.
The connectedness of international print artists is something of a mystery to many artists outside that community. Jule describes his early days in Edmonton and the epiphany that took place when he saw the work of central European and Asian print artists in the 70s. He immediately saw the need to connect with these artists, a need that was no doubt exacerbated by Edmonton’s geographic isolation. Jule sensed how important it was to create a community for artists especially younger student artists — working alone in their studios. Since 1980, the U of A printmaking division has hosted more than 50 artists from more than 16 countries. Over the years, the artworks of numerous international artists have been shown in Edmonton, often connected with visiting artist lectures or longer residencies or appointments of up to 18 months. International print organizations, conferences and exhibitions allow artists and curators to network, plan exhibitions and publications, adjudicate and present awards, etc. As complex as this may seem, the motivation for all of these printmaking events is simple. It is the same as Jule’s initial inspiration in the 70s — to counter isolation with the simple act of one artist looking at the work of another artist.
The river valley observation I began with is the sort of thing that Walter Jule might have mentioned to me in conversation. It brings to mind a description of Edmonton’s relationship to its river valley made by U of A Professor Emeritus, Governor General’s Award-winning writer and former Edmontonian, Greg Hollingshead:
“Other cities are penetrated by 16-lane highways. We have an artery of wilderness.”
Jule lives in a rural landscape east of Edmonton. The home, studio, and small Zendo (meditation hall) that he shares with artist Karen Dugas are nestled in a wooded area close to wetlands, another example of an “artery of wilderness.” In addition to his art and teaching, Jule is committed to a traditional Zen practice. He started his study of Zen Buddhism in Japan in 1975 and in 2002 his American teacher, Joko Beck, encouraged him to open his practice to others.
Like many North Americans of my generation, and slightly older, my exposure to Buddhism is through authors influenced by “Eastern thought” and most prominent are Beat writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder et al. In Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums, the protagonist, a thinly disguised version of Kerouac himself, rails against Zen koans as word tricks fashioned to humiliate naïve students of the dharma. “It’s only through form that we can realize emptiness”, a minor character tells The Dharma Bums’ protagonist Ray Smith.
This is a fitting epigram for Jule’s artwork if we believe that koans are not trickery, but rather an exchange or incident which mocks the rules of logic and serves as the impetus to enlightenment.
Jule’s art work records the most seemingly banal physical phenomena — wet paper drying over different shaped blocks, mud cracking as it dries —and presents within those phenomena such rich detail that any patient viewer can revel in it. Splashes or drips of ink are often overlaid and, in some work, shaped blocks move outside of their physical entrapment up on to the surface of the paper. It is as though every small drip or fissure, every puff or swell of paper stretched over every shape is exactly the drip, fissure, puff, swell or shape that Jule was meant to show us and we were meant to see. Most assuredly, these are the forms we need to understand emptiness.
A man I know practices the most ascetic North American Buddhism I have witnessed. He lives in isolation, shaves his head and dresses in cast-off clothing. Thanks to a small inheritance, he devotes his daily life to prayer and meditation. In his gentle and patient way, this man once warned me about “fair-weather” Buddhists. “Fair-weather” is my terminology. American Zen proselytizer, Alan Watts said of Kerouac that he had “Zen flesh but no Zen bones.” This may reveal some of Watts own insecurity, however both Watts and my ascetic acquaintance are cautioning us about people who see only the superficial advantages of meditation. If you open this pathway, the ascetic warned me, you will find —everything. In my own limited way, I might have labelled these as positive and negative, benign and malevolent, or known and mysterious phenomena. Jule would certainly point out that in meditation and art, you get what you get and those words are just labels we attach to what is revealed.
With Walter Jule, you get—everything.
My observation of Jule’s work, and, not surprisingly my related conversations with Jule about art, are joyous and unpredictable precisely because everything is in there. The primary goal of most students is to improve their art work. Jule places that discussion on the table right next to an essential truth about why one might make art at all and these questions might be situated alongside an observation of tree branches in the snow.
The artists in this portfolio have all studied with Jule at a formative stage in their development. They share a confidence and curiosity that comes from exposure to Jule’s method of limitless inquiry. Walter Jule taught these artists that everything is there and everything is at risk when you make art.