Exploring notions of place and human relationships to nature, Neil McClelland’s tondos intrigue, inspire and alarm.
NEIL McCLELLAND IS A MAN OF MANY TALENTS. He can play saxophone, guitar and piano, in a variety of genres. He’s an experienced school teacher—who favours grade four. For many years he taught high school band, taking teenagers on school trips to sharpen their skills. Now he teaches other artists at the Vancouver Island School of Art (VISA) and is a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria (UVic). McClelland is also a gifted writer, both creative and academic, penning catalogues and proposals with ease.
This versatile artist also knows how to cook. On a hot plate, in the cavernous space of his Chinatown studio, he prepares traditional gesso for his wooden panels. This mixture is as old as the history of oil painting. “Jan Van Ekye [1390-1441] probably used this method 600 years ago,” says the artist. Into the double boiler go water, chalk dust, powdered white pigment and pre-soaked pellets of rabbit-skin glue. Cook carefully, stir often, don’t boil the mixture. When as thick as single cream, strain through a nylon stocking. Apply several coats to a wooden panel or stretched canvas while still warm.
Why bother, I ask, when commercial gesso is readily available?
Traditional gesso absorbs the oil paint and quickens the drying time, he explains. The ground provides a workable surface and gives fluidity to his brushwork. The artist became familiar with this material in 2014 while completing his MFA at UVic. He used encaustics for the paintings in his MFA thesis. The preferred ground for encaustics (a hot wax and pigment medium) is traditional gesso. “Now I favour it,” he says, “it works better and costs less.”
McClelland’s many talents are evident on the white walls of his studio. His series of eight circular paintings (called tondos) are titled “Our Glass Paradise Revisited.” They show at the Chapel Gallery at St Matthias Anglican Church, March 13-April 5. Serene and meditative, the panels are each 30 inches in diameter. They are usually arranged as pairs, side by side. One of the tondos features a mounded oval shape made from broken wine bottles, glued together with polymer resin.
Neil McClelland with “If the World is Like the World,” oil on birch panel
The tondos offer glimpses of natural scenes, with and without human activity, across a body of water. The watery scenes are deftly articulated with a blue/green palette. The low-light settings imply dawn or dusk adding a touch of mystery to the just-out-of-reach scenarios.
These are “no places,” explains the artist, “that reflect both a yearning for perfect happiness and the fragility of the paradises we seek.” The tensions and contradictions in his tondos signal both utopian and dystopian environs. His process of layering and amalgamating images becomes a distillation of place and time, seen through the foggy lens of memory and imagination.
The Chapel Gallery is a perfect venue for this thoughtful body of work. “Neil’s tondos are absolutely gorgeous,” says Nicky Rendell, coordinator. “They will illuminate the tranquil space of the gallery.” The Chapel Gallery presents original artwork from both established and emerging artists. The not-for-profit gallery is designed to be a place for community engagement, presenting a wide range of topics and themes.
McClelland first picked up a paint brush in the mid-1990s. He began taking classes at the Saidye Bronfman School of Fine Arts in Montreal. “That was my aha! moment,” he says, “when I realized this is what I should have been doing all along.” With excellent instructors, his skill level soared and he became commercially successful. Shows in Quebec, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton followed. After ten years, he moved into working with artist-run centres and public galleries as an art educator, juror, and journal editor.
“I like having shows at public art galleries,” he says. The City of Victoria featured his artwork “Waterline 1” as part of its 2019 bus shelter art exhibition called “Commute.” The artist is represented by Winchester Galleries in Victoria, the Wallack Galleries in Ottawa, and the Collectors’ Gallery in Calgary.
McClelland’s career includes several awards, artist residencies and scholarships. In 2016, he received a generous grant from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation. In January 2020, the delighted artist received a second grant. The Greenshields Foundation supports emerging artists from around the world, who are dedicated to a long-term career in the visual arts. Fellow artist and UVic colleague Todd Lambeth agrees that McClelland is someone totally committed to his painting practice. “Neil has a long-term relationship with his media and methods,” he says. “I admire his work ethic, curiosity and ability to experiment.”
McClelland’s supports for his paintings include metal plates, stretched canvas, rectangular wood panels, and now circular tondos. Lambeth sees the tondos, placed side by side, as representing binocular vision. “This invites an interesting discussion about human visual perception,” he says.
Circular paintings originated in Ancient Greece, to augment drinking vessels called kylikes. The circle in many cultures represents completion, wholeness, and mystery. In the Renaissance, artists like Botticelli and Raphael used the circle motif for religious and mythological images. Creating perspective using figures in a circular composition proved challenging. Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo” is one of the most successful examples of this unique format, and greatly admired by McClelland. The artist describes the mood of his tondos series as quiet, slow and contemplative. “We are viewing landscapes,” he says, “but from a distance we are trying to overcome.”
“A Moment and Everything” oil on birch panel, each painting 30 inches in diameter
“Separate Entity, A World” oil on birch panel, each painting 30 inches in diameter
McClelland was raised on a small farm in the heart of Gatineau Hills parkland. “As a child, I walked out the door and across fields into forest,” he says; “there was a lake nearby.” Thoughts of his idyllic childhood conjure up mixed emotions. Soon the farm will be absorbed back into the parkland as his parents age.
McClelland notes that Canadians have a strong bond to themes of wilderness and survival. Canadian icon Margaret Atwood elaborates on these themes in works like Surfacing, Survival and Wilderness Tips. He’s read them all. “My work explores notions of place,” he says, “the search for paradise on Earth, and human relationships to nature.” The artist creates a fictional environment with narrative content that intrigues, inspires and alarms. In this world, there are glimmers, a chance to discover something personal or profound about our relationships to time and place.
Our Glass Paradise Revisited runs from March 13 to April 5 at The Chapel Gallery, St Matthias, 600 Richmond Ave, with an opening reception on March 13, 6-9 pm (artist talk at 6:30 pm). Other hours: Sat and Thurs 10-2 pm; Sun 12-3 pm. Winchester Galleries also carries Neil McClelland’s work. neilmcclelland.com.
Kate Cino holds a History in Art degree from University of Victoria. Her writing about the arts can also be found at www.artopenings.ca.