Alex Janvier

“What I love about art is that it is what I am. It makes my spirit and my spiritual life complete.  There isn’t any other reason.” 2001

Alex Janvier is one of Canada’s most acclaimed contemporary painters.  His work is informed by his cultural and spiritual heritage as well as the history of modernist abstract painting. 

Janvier was one of ten children born to Mary and Alex Janvier on the Le Goff Reserve of the Cold Lake First Nations, in northern Alberta. Janvier credits the beadwork and birch bark basketry of his mother and other relatives as having major influence on his painting style. 

Janvier spoke the Dene language until the age of eight, until he was sent to the Blue Quill Residential Indian School. About this experience he has stated “Fortunately, I had a good foundation in my language.  I learned from the old people, the elders and old ladies, and they made sure I was well instructed in my language, in my culture and in my livelihood.”  He would go on to receive formal art training at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (now the Alberta College of Art in Calgary), graduating with honors in 1960. There he was taught by Marion Nicoll, who encouraged her students to explore automatic painting as influenced by Jock Macdonald. 

Post graduation he worked as an instructor for the University of Alberta.  In the spring of 1965 he travelled to New York to further his artistic career. During a stop over in Ottawa, Ontario he was offered a position as an Arts and Crafts Consultant with the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA).  In 1966 he became involved with the organization of the Indians of Canada Pavilion for Expo ’67. This pavilion marked an important moment in the history of Indigenous cultural production and is credited for creating a sense of cultural autonomy amongst the artists who took part. These artists included Norval Morrisseau, George Clutesi, Tom Hill and Bill Reid.

In 1968 Janvier returned to teaching in Alberta.  Three years later he devoted himself full-time to his painting practice.  By the mid 1970’s he was exhibiting regularly across Canada. Also during this time he became involved with Professional Native Artist Inc. Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba the organization’s unofficial leader was artist Daphne Odjig, its goal, to support and promote the work of contemporary emerging artists.   

While Janvier recognizes artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Hans Hoffman as influences, his unique style is infused with the iconography of his Dene heritage and culture.   Coming of the Opposite /  L'arrivée du contraire .  The “Dome” series, Dome No. 4  / Dôme n° 4 , relates to Janvier’s Morning Star, 1993 mural painted on the vaulted ceiling of the Canadian Museum of History’s Grand Hall. The mural chronicles the clash of cultures that took place in Canada between European settlers and Indigenous Peoples. He considers the 4,500 square foot work a major career highlight.

Janvier was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts in 1992. In 2007 he was made a member of the Order of Canada.  The following year he received the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts.

A major retrospective dedicated to Alex Janvier was on view at the Gallery from 25 November 2016 to 17 April 2017.



Alex Janvier: Full interview

Photo: Martin Lipman

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