'What was in his paintings was the life he created," Xisa Huang was saying the other day from Vancouver. She was speaking of Joseph Francis Plaskett, the prolific New Westminster, B.C.-born artist and writer who joined her contemporary art gallery, Bau-Xi, with outlets in Vancouver and Toronto, in 1972 and stayed on its artist roster until his death on Sept. 21. He was 96.
Mr. Plaskett – "Joe" to his numerous friends and acquaintances – died peacefully in his country home, the Cedars, in Suffolk, England, tended by his partner and fellow painter, Mario Doucet, after being diagnosed earlier with dementia.
The son of an Anglican clergyman, and a professional painter for more than 70 years, Mr. Plaskett first studied art at the Vancouver School of Art and what is now the Banff Centre in Alberta in the early 1940s, numbering A. Y. Jackson, B. C. Binning and Jack Shadbolt among his associates.
Nominated by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris, Mr. Plaskett won the first Emily Carr Scholarship in 1946 and travelled to the California School of Arts in San Francisco to study under David Park, founder of the Bay Area Figurative School.
In 1947, Mr. Plaskett went to Provincetown, Mass., and New York, where Hans Hofmann, the pioneering abstract expressionist painter, was both instructor and influence.
Teaching gigs in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Banff followed – but, after a stay in Paris in 1949, a scholarship to study engraving and etching there in 1953 proved decisive.
Faced with what Mr. Plaskett later called "the enchantments of Paris and Europe," he broke with abstraction to paint what was largely at hand – still lifes, interiors, friends, "landscapes where he lived or visited, the things in his studio."
By 1957, the City of Light was his permanent home, more or less. "Which totally suited him because he was such a romantic," Ms. Huang said. It would stay that way for the next 40-odd years.
A bungalow in rural England was obtained in 1973 from a clergyman friend of his father. Over the years, Mr. Plaskett often divided his time between the two locales, spending April to October in England and the balance in France. Suffolk became his home in 2001 after fire devastated his 400-year-old Paris apartment.
Yet for all his life, as what Canadian art historian Maria Tippett called, in a 2006 profile, "the arch bohemian, the classic expatriate," Mr. Plaskett kept up his Canadian connections, returning to the country for visits.
Most of his private collectors resided here, as did most of his institutional ones. Eventually, they came to include the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, Calgary's Glenbow Museum and the Vancouver Art Gallery, among others.
Most of his exhibitions were held here, too: Bau-Xi's most recent Plaskett show occurred only a few months ago in Vancouver, featuring paintings done up to 2011. His autobiography, A Speaking Likeness, was published by Vancouver's Ronsdale Press in late 1999.
Two years later, he was named an officer of the Order of Canada and commissioned to paint the portrait of Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
In 2004 he established the Joseph Plaskett Foundation, which annually awards one mature student $25,000 to spend a year travelling and painting in Europe – a place he described as "a treasury of great art. Every young artist needs to enjoy and learn from its riches … I owe so much in my art to the experience of Europe that I want to pass it down to others."
Described as "an ardent – one might say an obsessive – collector," Mr. Plaskett furnished his residences with "mirrors, lush draperies, classical sculptures, chandeliers, frames, exquisite furniture" and included almost all these objects in his works of oil and pastel. In Suffolk, Ms. Tippett reported, he went so far as to create a large garden "fit for Monet," with ponds, an arched bridge, paths, flowers, plants and a tea pavilion.
"He was an absolute gentleman … always just lovely to deal with," Ms. Huang remembered. "The most elegant man I've ever met," in the words of Alissa Sexton, co-director of Bau-Xi Toronto. "We showed him repeatedly in Vancouver and Toronto," continued Ms. Huang. "As an artist, he was top-flight in his genre, in his area. He was always fresh; he didn't want to keep copying himself, not ever. So he went through lots of different periods. Ten or 15 years ago, for instance, he ventured back into abstraction and was very excited by it.
It just stimulated him tremendously."
Riko Nakasone, director and curator of Bau-Xi Vancouver, noted that while Mr. Plaskett's "subject matter remained quite constant, his treatment of [it] changed over the decades." He gradually moved, she said, from "moody, dark, romantic and fully formed and realized objects … to the simplified, bright and unusual colour juxtaposition [of] his later years."
Sales of Mr. Plaskett's paintings are on hold pending settlement of his estate. But Ms. Huang predicts that his popularity will not abate in the meantime. "A lot of people love his work and still want it. It sets a particular mood."
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