Songs from Chaos

Dave Carlin

April 24 - May 22, 2004

History of Dave by Dennis Geden

One of my favourite stories that Dave Carlin tells takes place when he is in his first year at the Ontario College of Art in 1963 and Karl Schaeffer, his drawing instructor, is peering over his shoulder. Dave had signed up for Industrial Design at OCA because his Scottish father, a builder of marine engines, wanted him to qualify in a field that promised eventual employment. But Dave had managed to fit in this one Fine Art Course. He remembers he was drawing a seedpod and Schaeffer, a very highly regarded artist, had edged up and harrumphed a couple of times in a way he was known to, and grunted "Bosch", and walked off. Dave, deep into autosport, could only relate Bosch to a brand of sparkplug. When he finally realized that Schaeffer had been comparing his seedpod drawing to the work of an artist named Bosch, Dave ran to the library, looked him up, and had his head thoroughly and completely turned to fine art.

Looking at Dave Carlin's artwork today, it is still possible to see a trace of Karl Schaeffer's influence. In fact, when you get familiar with Dave and his work, and then learn a bit about his life to date, you see a meshing together of everything, from his early childhood on through to now. You can see it in his art and in all he is - you can see how intertwined his life and art are. Bosch is still there in it too.

It doesn't show behind his gregarious demeanour but a large part of Dave Carlin was shaped by hardship, pain and grief. As a child he was subjected to numerous operations on his feet to correct their shape. This disrupted school, he spent a lot of time at home, and he became very good at entertaining himself. His doctors told him to walk for exercise, as much as he could tolerate. Living at an isolated part of Oakview Beach at the time, in a cottage-become-house that his father built, Dave frequently walked along the shores of Georgian Bay at night, looking out at the water and up at the stars, and listening to a portable short-wave radio - between stations. He says the quiet howling of the radio and the grand blanket of stars worked together to create a surreal atmosphere that to this day remains the strongest, most evocative memory he has of that time.

Dave's pre-teen life was full of creative expression. He drew fantasy maps and invented games particularly designed for him and his chums. He loved boats and cars and drew countless versions of both. He was a regular at the Edenvale Race Track. And motor vehicles filled his world - his friend living up at Wasaga Beach would phone to tip him that the local motorcycle club was on the cruise on their big hogs, and Dave would run out to the road in time to watch them roar by. By then however, he was as entertained with the bikers' lifestyle as with their bikes. He became an Air Cadet, and wanted to become a pilot - attended Ground School, and wanted to become a professional marksman. Bad eyesight and glasses eventually doused both dreams.

Karl Schaeffer revealed the world of art to him and he eagerly dove right in. Other inspiring teachers and fellow students included Fred Hagan, Tom LaPierre, Eric Freifeld, Walter Bachinski, Gustav Weisman, Ron Eccles, Jim Paget, Bill Danard and Sheila McRae.

He married Sheila McRae after art school and they were to have three daughters. They began a life of trying various things that included surveying and teaching crafts at Camp Onawaw in northern Ontario. In 1968 he and Sheila went to Mexico. This six-month period was to have a lasting effect on Dave and his art. Mexico was the birthplace of a revival of mural art and social commentary. They lived in Taxco, and he visited Siqueiros' studio in Cuernavaca when Siqueiros was working on the largest mural in the world. Dave remembers the many Mexican and international artists and artisans working there together.

Back in Northern Ontario after Mexico, a darker period began. Dave and Sheila's first daughter, Mead, died as a baby in 1969. Sarah was born in 1970 and Rebecca in 1971. Sheila, suffering from major depression, took her own life in 1972. Dave began a period, lasting twelve years, where he created very little art and worked to maintain his family, sustained with the emotional, loving support of two beautiful young girls.

Throughout this period, Dave was employed most of the time as an art teacher at Widdifield Secondary School in North Bay and, true to his upbringing and the teachings of his father, he lived in houses he built and renovated himself. In 1985 he began to make art again and this initiated a long period of creation that continues to this day.

In 1990 David Carlin and Judith Saunders married, moved to the south shore of Lake Nipissing and began to renovate an old cabin perched on bedrock by the water's edge. The lore of Lake Nipissing, the Manitous, the winds, waves, and the majestic sunsets, all permeate Dave Carlin's work from that point forward. He immersed himself in the ancient legends, the history, charts and maps that are so much a part of the lake and this area.

His iconic relief print titled Island Woman, a personification of Gaia (and the Manitou Islands), is a classic example of work from this period. And his lifelong interest in science shows in Infinity Stream, a large infinity symbol encompassing, he says, "scalar fields and energy building in plates, with Gaia forming, and exploding into different dimensions!!!"

The entire history of Dave appears, and reappears, in his art. Work completed a few minutes ago has roots and direct ties to everything that went on before. Indeed, some of the assemblages created for this exhibition may actually include work begun in art school. Works dated 2004 may be artworks begun years, even decades earlier. He never feels a work is finished and as long as it stays within reach it will continue to evolve. Parade, first 'completed' in 1968, will now reappear in a different form in 2004 with clay, and red fluorescent additions.

For Dave, even art prints, which by their very nature are meant to form an edition of like images, have now become hopping off points for as many unique artworks as there are prints. He will begin by adding watercolour, crayon and acrylic until the original 'print' disappears almost entirely. When seen together, these divergent, singular works that began from the same print have an eerie sameness, like siblings raised in separate homes.

Dave works with ceramic, fibreglass, wood, linoleum and other building materials to create vessels, sculpture, relief prints, paintings and assemblages. He spiritualises the acts of forming, cutting and gouging. He feels craft brings him closer to Siqueiros and socialism.

Although the traces of Dave Carlin's past and the hints of many people are still there, he clearly makes something that is his own when he creates art. Some of his inspiration comes from strange recesses of his soul and can be dark, foreboding, and hard to look at. He shows a heart-felt social responsibility that is stirred turbulently by current political events. He speaks of Paul Wolfowitz as the epitome of "the right-wing driving force behind the Bush Administration" and of fighter-bombers as "nasties". All of this is in Assassination of the Dark Figure and the Senatorium series, with heads on poles. When he was describing his plans to lay out this exhibition, he said he would begin with the "nice motherlies" at the front, leading to "the heavy duties, the nasties" at the back - from "the birth of children to the imminent death of civilization". He agreed he is not mellowing with age.

Today, David and Judith live in town and spend ever longer periods in Cuba in winter. Since his retirement from teaching, Dave devotes more time to forming, cutting and gouging - expressing his highly idiosyncratic ideas and emphatically stating his egalitarian philosophies.

Closing on a personal note, Dave Carlin has been a friend for many years. I am always intrigued by his work, although I will walk into this exhibition with strong trepidation. His powerful imagery strikes me to the quick - I squirm inwardly when I see his heart and beliefs exposed so blatantly. I don't willingly go in the directions some of his work leads my mind. But I wouldn't miss it.

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