Artwork by Lillian Sarafinchan,  Untitled #36

Lillian Sarafinchan
Untitled #36

oil on canvas
titled and dated 1969 to the stretcher and twice on the reverse, titled to a label on the reverse
30 x 30 ins ( 76.2 x 76.2 cms )

Auction Estimate: $800.00$600.00 - $800.00

Price Realized $660.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2022

Private Collection, Toronto

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Lillian Sarafinchan

Lillian Sarafinchan is an artist, art teacher and art director for film.

Although her work has been reviewed by art critics, the best description of her work is by the writer and environmental activist Margaret Atwood: “For me, Sarafinchan’s work is vivid, vital and organic, with a profound sense of connection to the currents that run beneath the earth and the self.”

Although living in an eccentric Arts & Crafts style house in Toronto for all of her professional career, Sarafinchan’s art is rooted in the environment of her upbringing on a farm three miles south-east of Vegreville, Alberta. Born during the Great Depression in 1935, her parents provided a caring home while buffeted by one of the greatest economic crises in history. In her early teens, her art was discovered and encouraged by Vegreville artist Laura Evans Reid (1883 – 1951). On Saturday afternoons starting in the late 1940s, Reid taught watercolours to the young Lillian in an attic studio up a steep flight of stairs in her elegant home.

As a grade 10 student in 1950, Sarafinchan won a poster contest for the Vegreville Chamber of Commerce leading to a $100 scholarship. As her parents were struggling to feed their family and were unable to finance her art career, she competed for and won scholarships to enable her art education through the 1950s. When her parents drove her to the Banff School of Fine Arts in the summer of 1951, it was the furthest they had ever been away from Vegreville. Although it was a culture shock at first, Sarafinchan thrived in Banff where she had access to first rate art teachers and exposure to other art forms. In her last year at Banff in 1955, she was the president of the Banff School of Fine Arts student body.

Naturally, her mentor, Laura Evans Reid, played a role in her breakthrough scholarship win as a judge of the contest. But, tragically, Reid suddenly died in 1951 when she had a bad fall down her attic staircase. This was devastating to the sixteen year-old artist and the art community of Alberta.

In Banff, during her five summers there, Sarafinchan found a new artistic mentor in the dapper British born artist Walter J. Phillips (1884 – 1963). A mainstay at Banff since 1940, Phillips maintained a sartorial elegance in dark suits with a vest and tie even in summer. Coming of age in the art nouveau era, his art was equally sophisticated as an expert printmaker who created colour woodcuts based on his fascination with and study of Japanese art.

When the teenage artist met Phillips in 1951, he was moving away from printmaking into being exclusively a watercolorist. Phillips would take his students for watercolour excursions around scenic Banff. Unlike most of her classmates, the independent minded Sarafinchan refused to sketch the standard mountain scenes. She preferred offbeat subject matter like rusty car parts behind a service station, log piles and graveyards. Her rejection of the Banff environment didn’t faze Phillips one bit. He continually encouraged her to experiment in form and technique to find her own unique artistic vision.

As much as she tried for the five summers in Banff to block out the natural wonder of what she saw, its impressions would seep into her subconscious mind. Two decades later, her greatest achievement on canvas would later emerge with her unique three band paintings. Although abstract, the three bands are roughly analogous to a mountain scene.

Before graduating high school and while still at Banff, Jock Macdonald (1897 – 1960), one of her instructors, encouraged her to attend the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Macdonald was a modernist who was then the éminence grise of the recently formed abstract art group Painters Eleven. As a drawing and painting major in the mid-to-late 1950s at OCA under Macdonald, Sarafinchan often created still lifes and human figure studies from live models in what could be described as a mid-century modern style. Representational works were heavily abstracted and the colour palette was influenced by the push-and-pull style of Hans Hofmann. Graduating in May 1958 as a top student, she won the prestigious OCA Medal for Proficiency in Drawing and Painting.

After her graduation, she worked for her third mentor Jock Macdonald by teaching art at his small private art school. As her father was in the middle of a summer season on the family farm, Macdonald gave away the bride at her first marriage in the summer of 1958. Naturally, the ever creative Sarafinchan designed her own wedding dress, the maid of honour’s dress and the married couple’s matching motor racing style coveralls worn as going away outfits for a North American honeymoon tour in a Triumph T3 sports car. Her work for and connection to Jock Macdonald continued until his sudden death of a heart attack on December 3, 1960.

Sarafinchan became involved in film production which was then largely focused on commercials and serials. Film work solved for her the existential problem that almost all Canadian artists face in their careers. She became a member of IATSE in 1961 and would remain in the union for over fifty years. Her career in film would peak with her 1987 Genie Award win for best art direction for the film Dancing in the Dark. Her art direction in this film is visually quite unlike her painting for the most part but there are subtle hues that relate to her usual palette.

With a regular income, she was able to purchase a Toronto home in the early 1960s that was large enough to have an upstairs art studio. She set aside three hours daily studio time in spite of a busy schedule of work and personal life. The early works created at this time have been described as cellular in form which a term also has been used to describe the late paintings of Jock Macdonald. These early efforts as an abstract painter paid off with sixteen of her paintings being chosen for Habitat at EXPO ’67 in Montreal. Her breakthrough into the Toronto commercial gallery scene occurred in late 1967 with two shows at Adam and Yves Gallery and Penell Gallery.

Kay Kritzwiser’s Globe and Mail review of the Penell Gallery show in November 1967 noted that “Though the work has its central pressures exploding from each canvas, the art appears to have a cerebral rather than physical source.” The work “has distinct feeling of cellular life”. However, these works were among her last to have Jock Macdonald influenced abstract cellular forms. Kritzwiser’s critique of her palette was of her early to mid 1960s style noted for its “blazing yellows” and “wonderful luminous effects”.

The Penell Gallery show was actually two shows in one. There was a second, newer series shown at Penell Gallery which was the beginning of Sarafinchan’s mature style. Kritzwiser describes this new style as “darker forces, at war with flickers of scarlet”. A second unsigned review describes this work as “more lyric” with “moves into deep blues and allows her paint to bleed in intricate patterns”. In this second series, the artist was able to grow out of her mentor Jock Macdonald’s influence for the first time into a unique abstract style of her own.

With her increasing public profile and artistic growth, Sarafinchan was offered a show in February 1969 in the new, high profile Dunkelman Gallery located at 15 Bedford Road in Toronto. Dunkelman Gallery was founded by the former president of Tip Top Tailors, Ben Dunkelman, and his wife Yael in 1967. The couple had the Canadian rights to Picasso’s work and represented major Canadian artists such as William Ronald, Kenneth Lochhead and Sorel Etrog. With the Dunkelman’s clout, the Sarafinchan debut show was very well attended even by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Dunkelman Gallery biography of Lillian Sarafinchan describes her work as “non-figurative” and having “explorations in form”.

The Globe and Mail review of the first Dunkelman show observes that she is a “theorist in paints”. Given her extensive training, this observation is not surprising. In fact, Sarafinchan controlled every aspect of her artistic production from stretching canvas to extensively preparing it. Her attention to technical details is shown by the fact that her paintings over fifty years later have not cracked and are still technically perfect.

The paintings were created in many stages with coats of impasto covered with turpentine washes to create the flowing, textured effect that she is known for. There are many chance elements and split second decisions with the washes that lend a lyrical, poetic quality to her paintings. The review aptly described them as “landscapes of color, often serene, sometimes lyrically falling curtains of color.”

In her opinion, the three band paintings of the early 1970s are part of her artistic evolution and came through continual experimentation until she found something unique in the broader art world. These works appeal to environmentalists like Margaret Atwood who see them as a statement on the fragility of the earth. Although Sarafinchan refused to paint mountain scenes in Banff, the three band paintings are analogous to mountain scenes with each band roughly comparable to sky, mountains and lakes. Sarafinchan explains that this form evolved intuitively and was never a conscious intention.

The Dunkelman Gallery show was a critical and commercial success. A 1971 article said that the gallery grossed $12,000 from the 1969 show with the artist netting $3,000. While these amounts sound tiny by today’s standard, by comparison, the most popular imported car in 1969 was the Volkswagen deluxe Beetle which sold for $2,139 in Canada.

A second successful show at the gallery took place in 1971. In 1972, there was a retrospective show of the thirty-seven year-old artist’s career at York University’s art gallery in Toronto. After the Dunkelman Gallery closed after an impactful run in the summer of 1973, Sarafinchan became a gallery artist of Toronto’s legendary Roberts Gallery.

The mid-1970s were a career high in many ways for Lillian Sarafinchan. As a showing gallery artist, now well reviewed, respected by her peers, working at York University, lecturing for the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Ontario Arts Council, plus having developed her own unique three band painting style, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, at this point in time, she became very ill with what was believed to be poisoning by turpentine. On her doctor’s advice as well as following her instinct, she made a very difficult decision. She would never make another painting on canvas again for the rest of her long life.

While he was her teacher around 1952, Sarafinchan’s second mentor Walter J. Phillips gave up the woodcut prints that made his reputation and returned to the watercolour medium. There are parallels between the teacher and the student’s career. When she gave up painting on canvas, Sarafinchan also turned towards watercolours for the remainder of her fine art career. Although the three band paintings had been the focus of her artistic output until the mid-1970s, she had also developed a unique watercolour style by 1970.

William Ronald, the Painters Eleven founder, wrote that “The impact, energy and scale of Sarafinchan’s powerful watercolour paintings have added a new dimension to this medium!” By the time of her March 1983 show at AAO Gallery in Buffalo, followed by another the following month at Tatay Gallery in Toronto, Sarafinchan had created the flowing, textured style that so impressed William Ronald. Using special paper rolls imported from the UK that can withstand layers of application without bending, she called these works “Orchestrations”.

While 18 x 24 inches is a common watercolour size for artists, Sarafinchan’s Orchestrations could get as large as 48 x 72 inches (three times greater in surface area). The Orchestrations were created on a large, directionally twistable drafting table using brushes as well as a squirting technique. Unlike her three band oils, the Orchestrations are freer in form with bleeding, textured and directionally flowing works. The colour palette favours organic earth tones with rusty oranges and reds.

The Orchestrations are visually complex. Although usually completed in one day, the end result is dense with permutations of visual stimulus. Like all her mature work, the effect of the work upon the viewer is one of contemplative, lyrical, visual poetry. While these watercolours are pure abstraction, it does seem to make a statement on the environment. However, Sarafinchan says that her work has no social narrative. In her opinion, it is merely an aesthetic statement created through experimentation. But, although others see it, she says she is uncertain if her oeuvre was influenced by subconscious images impressed on her mind in rural Alberta.

After the best art direction Genie Award in 1987, Sarafinchan was in demand for film work. As this success occupied all her time, she retired as a visual artist around 1990. As she has largely been out of the public eye over the past thirty years, her work rarely comes to auction in the fine art market. But, her technically gifted and original artistic vision is starting to gain a deserved re-appraisal. An artist’s artist, mentored by three legendary Canadian artists, who created two unique organic abstract styles praised by Margaret Atwood and William Ronald, Lillian Sarafinchan is an important figure in the history of abstract painting in Canada.

- By Lawrence Brissenden, reviewed by Lillian Sarafinchan on October 10, 2021