William MacElcheran – What’s happening?


Che fa (What’s happening?) William MacElcheran (top photo)
Kinsman Robinson gallery, 108 Cumberland, still offering his work

Born in Hamilton in 1927, William Hodd MacElcheran was accepted directly into second year at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) at the age of 16, where he studied carpentry and design, won a painting scholarship and awards and graduated at the very top of his class.

In his early years working as a carpenter, he hand-carved lovely church furniture and pews. Later, he became the chief designer for a firm of architects specializing in church and university buildings (Bruce Brown and Brisley). Thanks to his years of work there, his artistic imprint is still visible in stations of the cross, stained glass windows and fine bas-relief work in churches across Hamilton, Guelph and Toronto.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s (his mid-thirties) that he began to shift his focus from functional and religious work to pure art sculpture, at first experimenting with wood, but ultimately becoming a master of bronze work, so relentless about perfection that he actually moved to Italy in 1975 (Pietrasanta), so he could be nearer to the dedicated bronze casters still working in the long classical tradition.

There are several public sculptors in Canada that we see all the time, but don’t always discuss, or even identify – I mentioned Sorel Etrog recently – not only the creator of many magnificent large works, but also the “Genie.”

Michael Snow is another local notable about whom I will soon post – and he has the distinct advantage of a recognizable “thing” from one of his working periods (walking women, legal persons, etc) though the full scope of his work is almost dizzyingly broader than what most know him for.

The Businessman

MacElcheran did a famous series statue also – “The Brucie” a cadet figurine for the Royal Military college.

But I think the very strange, subtle and ironic businessman character which he seemed to first discover, and then become happily obsessed with, has done outsize service to art itself – because not only is his whole iconic series of ‘businessmen’ a sly thoughtful critique about the futility of capitalism and the obscurity of the individual within it, they are also kid-facing – playful, accessible and funny as can be!

10 Bay – Detail

Art absolutely does not have to be accessible, in order to be good – but there are some circles within art which act like silly music-snob club kids – who will reliably decide that they hate something they’ve loved for years – simply because it is now far too popular to make them cool for knowing about it!

Anyhow – the point about art which is playfully accessible (I count people like Cassat, Magritte, Escher, Hopper and Frazetta, too), is that it gets kids thinking about art as something in which they are included. We think about these forms, year after year, we watch their meaning change, and we learn!

10 Bay – Panel one

While living in Italy, steeped in old world art, the Italian Community of Guelph raised money to commission an extraordinarily beautiful sculpture of a family, for the centre of a fountain – mother and father holding their baby aloft – love and family in every inch and pound of the work.

But as soon as it was installed in the park in 1985 “Controversy” erupted, and many angry letters were penned about the destruction of public morals and the inappropriateness of the (again, absolutely superb and loving, albeit nude) portrayal.

Happy to say the sculpture is still there today – and now generally beloved (indeed, recently spruced up, along with several other Guelphian public art pieces).

I was also intrigued to learn that he had done a mounted version of his businessman, as a hilarious dissection of the classic mounted warrior hero. Sadly, Calgary is a bit out of my budget for a photo – but I did find a link.

Water Park Place (10 Bay St)

To me, after encountering and enjoying his work all over town for decades, I have to say I consider Water Park Place to be his masterwork. Not only two giant marble pieces in one building, but two states of inner being also.

The sketch for this exquisite panel – still available from his gallery, is itself a master-class of clear and beautiful artistic thinking and planning.

Next time you are walking from Union station to the lake – have a peek in at 10 Bay St. The man created many temples to faith. These are for humanity.

Water Park Place Detail

Now I think I’ve made clear that I love his work anyhow, but I must note that I was made especially fond of MacElcheran by the sympathetic final sentence of one short biographical summary: “He slept very little, preferring to devote as much time as possible to his art.”

10 Bay St – Detail

William MacElcheran died in 1999 – leaving gifts that still live for all of us.

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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