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Return to the Land with Artist Antony John

article by Ruth Barrett, photos by Elizabeth Davidson

A familiar figure around Stratford, the multi-talented Antony John is known for his organic farming practices, and his excellent Soiled Reputations produce is a staple both on the shelves of local food shops and on the menus of many of our province’s finest restaurants. His engaging personality garnered him a TV hosting gig on the Food Network series Manic Organic, and Antony’s banter with customers at his market stall makes grabbing your week’s supply of mixed greens and mushrooms a true pleasure. A highlight at Stratford’s Slow Food Market are the times when he steps out, sidles up to a microphone and croons smooth classic standards like ‘Fly Me to the Moon’.

 

If all that wasn’t enough, the man can also paint. Beautifully.

 

A stone’s throw from the site of the Slow Food Market stands Agora – a small jewel of an art gallery deftly curated and run by Cindy Hubert – currently exhibiting Antony John’s brilliant solo show, Return.

 

Art is Antony’s first love. Inspired by his father’s talents as a draughtsman, he began with pencil drawings in high school, and moved on to work in watercolours before discovering an affinity with acrylic paints in university. Nature has always been his artistic muse. Born in the “rough and ready” South Wales mining town of Gifach Goch in 1960, he grew up exploring the countryside, scanning the fields and trees for birds and other wildlife with his binoculars.

 

Antony emigrated with his family to Canada at the tender age of 10. “It was a culture shock,” he explains with his ever-ready grin. “I said, ‘But Dad – I don’t know how to speak French or drive a snowmobile!’ I thought I was moving to a land of eternal snow.”

 

Antony found a whole new world of Canadian flora and fauna, and his love of animals prompted him to study Wildlife Biology at the University of Guelph, where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Tina VandenHeuvel. It was during university that he also discovered the work of the iconic Canadian painter, Alex Colville – his greatest influence as he developed his skills.

 

“He’s the master of realism in Canada. Far from being photographic, his work is filled with tension and ambiguity. Colville’s art is always asking us questions rather than telling us a story.”

 

Despite his passion for drawing and painting, Antony John never studied art. “The extent of my formal training was looking over the shoulder of some itinerant guy doing oil paintings in the mall!” he jokes. But this lack of formal training made him self-conscious, so he sought advice from the great man himself, and boldly sent Colville a dozen slides of his work spanning the years 1984 to 1990. Then he waited to hear the verdict: did he have the talent it takes to become a great painter?

 

“I didn’t hear anything for three weeks and was just going to leave it, but Tina prompted me to follow up. It turns out the first batch of slides got lost in the mail!”

 

Colville wrote back a detailed response full of encouragement, and the framed letter takes pride of place at the gallery show alongside Antony’s work. The words sprawled in blue fountain pen across an expanse of creamy paper are a challenge for modern eyes accustomed to typed messages, but it is worth the effort to read. His mentor remarks that he paints ‘astonishingly well’, and says to Antony John, ‘If you were a racehorse, I’d bet on you.’ The reassurance that all artists are largely self-taught resonates, as does the advice that he should ‘go out and look at good art everywhere – the greatest lesson is to see what others do’.

 

After his marriage, Antony’s life shifted focus as he and Tina moved just outside of Sebringville where he began a career as a dairy farmer alongside his father-in-law and raised a family of three. Though he hardly touched pencil to paper for years, Antony formed a close connection with the land that he worked and with the animals he nurtured. It is this connection that informs his art.

 

“A farmer measures the earth; and in painting, an artist measures out a world. Farming literally becomes fertile ground for inspiration. Landscape becomes metaphor.”

 

In contemplating the offerings of Return, the viewer appreciates that these are not mere realistic treatments of landscape and animals. Antony John has developed his own unique iconography born of 30 years as a farmer. Like Colville’s work, his images ask us questions instead of delivering a neatly packaged narrative to the viewer. We see concern, threads of uncertainty and dread – a strong feeling that things are beyond our control. “Farmers are ultimately helpless in the face of circumstance and weather conditions. And there is a constant breakdown in communication between human beings and the animals in our care: what are they trying to say to us?” The deeply personal vulnerability and mortality on display make the canvasses as startling as they are beautiful.

 

The meticulous detail of his method means that the larger pieces can take two to three months to complete. Time – or the lack of it – has long been a factor working against Antony John’s quest to produce a larger body of work, and he feels that this has really been the true barrier to getting wall space in larger galleries. “Now that I am not so worried about feeding my kids any more, I can devote myself more fully. The hope is to finally make the transition into a career in painting.”

 

Antony John pulls out a prop and suggests a more staged photo: in a tribute to one of Colville’s most recognizable paintings, Antony strikes a pose leaning on his elbows, fingers interwoven under his chin, intently regarding the viewer – but instead of a gun, his trademark birdwatcher’s binoculars rest on the table.

Antony John: Return exhibits until May 17 at Agora Gallery, 17 Market Place in Stratford, Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.