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George Sawchuk with his wife, Pat.
George Sawchuk with his wife, Pat.

Self-taught artist followed Thoreau to the woods and never looked back Add to ...

Engraved in a wooden book slipped into the notch of a cedar tree deep in the forest that surrounds George Sawchuk’s Fanny Bay, B.C., home are the words of Henry David Thoreau he chose to live and die by.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Sawchuk, a logger, hobo and self-taught artist, was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1979. His forest gallery has served as a magnet for thousands of visitors, where he was available to any who wandered up to the house or sought the company of the artist and his wife, Patricia Helps, in the backyard. His work has been exhibited in solo shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery and The Smithsonian Institution and has toured throughout Canada.

Sawchuk was born in Kenora, Ont., on Jan. 22, 1927, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant pulp mill worker and a Russian mother of six. Although he left school in Grade 6, his early education left its mark. Throughout his training at a traditional Roman Catholic school, he also attended daily lessons in the Russian language and world politics sponsored by the local Bolshevik Hall. Catholicism and Communism would become the central preoccupations of his artwork.

At the age of 15, Sawchuk winter-camped with a work crew near Kenora timber cruising. “All of our food was mushed in by a fella with a sled dog team,” he once recalled. “Well, the musher didn’t show for a few days and we had no food. I remembered that he kept corn meal and beef tallow for his dogs at the camp. We ate that for three days.”

The musher failed to show because it was too cold for the dogs to sled. “Too damn cold for the dogs to work – but we had to!”

At 16 Sawchuk was working at the pulp mill. “I was working the graveyard shift for the pulp mill and at about 2 o’clock in the morning I took this pike pole and I threw it out to the lake. Rather than face a life working for the mill, he grabbed a freight out of Kenora, and headed west for a life logging, fishing and working at other manual labour. He loved being in the woods, where he could escape the demands of people and the city.

In 1956, while working at a steel mill, a pile of metal slipped and crushed his leg. For the next decade, Sawchuk would live with significant pain while doctors tried a variety of treatments. Finally in 1968, his lower leg was, as he put it, “bucked off.” He was without pain, and for the first time in his adult life had time to explore his creativity. He bought a chainsaw with his first compensation cheque and began to carve nooks in trees, where he placed what would become his trademark – wooden books filled with colourful quotations.

In 1976, Sawchuk and Helps, his second wife, came to Fanny Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island in 1976. They lived off the land and the sea and slowly built a home. He made artwork in the woods.

“I can’t say why I did what I did. There was no money in it. I wasn’t looking to have my picture in the paper.” He just kept at it.

A pair of logging caulk boots sits on a cedar-based plinth in the woods, a statement about labour, a central theme of his work. “I’ve dragged enough trees out of the bush in B.C. to build two to three million homes,” he said. “Why is it I have to work all of my life just to own one of them? Growing up I was angry in the way that things are set up: rich versus poor, the haves and the have-nots. Some people are born with a silver spoon and some people are born with a shovel.

“It’s great to be an artist, they can’t control you. You can say whatever you want.”

Another theme of his work is the dialectic between Catholicism and Communism. For instance, he drilled holes in a tree and threaded a rope through to see which was stronger, the tree or the rope? God or Communism?

“When someone said I was being unfair to the tree, I cut the rope,” he said. “I didn’t want to hurt the tree.” In the end he came to see more similarities between Christianity and Communism than differences. “When I look at the way Marx and Engels wrote it up, and I look at the Christian way of life – I see a lot of balance there.”

In his pieces he is able to combine storytelling, philosophy and his abilities with materials into beautiful forms. As he said: “A man who works with his hands is a labourer. A man who works with his hands and heart is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, heart and mind is an artist.”

One area of the forest Mr. Sawchuk labelled with signs – “Walden’s Way” and “Walden’s Pond” – another area was “Ville Duchamp.” Sawhcuk’s introduction to the life of the mind was from a librarian in North Vancouver, who opened up the world to curious George. “Before then, I never knew who Picasso was.”

In fact, the first time Sawchuk was in an art gallery was for his show at the UBC Gallery in 1970. But once he was “discovered,” he was often asked to give talks at art schools and universities. “I always leave them with this,” he said. “Now that I’ve filled you with my BS, put aside your brush and your chisel. Put all that aside and go into the real world for the next 10, 15, 20 years. However long it takes. Now that you’ve crawled out of one womb, don’t make the same mistake as a lot of people and go crawling into another.”

In December of 2006 a powerful southeaster brought 100-kilometre winds that battered much of the West Coast, most notably Stanley Park. In Sawchuk’s little pocket of the world, trees were uprooted and some of his works were damaged or made inaccessible.

“You could hear the loud crack of the trees as they snapped like toothpicks,” he recalled. But was also typically philosophical: “Everything must change.”

There has been no shortage of offers to buy what he called his “portable” works. But he was never interested in selling. “I’ve sold my back and prostituted my muscle most of my life, but there comes a time in a person’s life when they have to decide they won’t do another thing for a dollar.”

Sawchuk died at home on Feb. 2. His wife Pat, daughters Susan and Debbie, sons Nicolas and Calvin, and grandchildren Niki, George, Ryan, Michael, Chad and Courtney survive him.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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