Dates: 1935 – present
Production Dates: 1967 – present
Location: Regina Saskatchewan
Types of Work: Sculptural, Architectural
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: Electric,
Preferred Clay: Terracotta
One of the things I admire about Victor Cicansky and his work is that the work is the man. What you see in his art is who Cicansky is, and was. His subjects, his humour– often self-deprecating — his love of people, province, life and nature display a lifelong honesty and self-confidence. Also, I never cease to be amazed at how some people can overcome societal pressures and prejudices to become more than the rest of us. Each generation throws up its barriers to success against “others.” Victor Cicansky overcame them to become one of Canada’s internationally recognized artists.
In conversation Cicansky is quite frank about his experiences while growing up in “Garlic Flats”, Regina’s east end enclave for eastern European immigrant in the early and mid-20th century: he was a somewhat questioning student,9 and therefore problematic. He endured ethnic slights at a young school age including a damaged “puppy-love” romance; and suffered a school’s guidance counsellor branding him as suitable only for a manual work-life.¹ Perhaps the best thing that could and did happen was that he chose to drop out of school and live his life on his own terms. Yet later he was a university educated high school teacher, soon to become a university teacher and ultimately an internationally recognized, award winning ceramic artist. Throughout, his anchor and home has been Regina, Saskatchewan. His success as an artist is a testament to the boy and the man.
Let’s look at these early formative times in more detail.
As a young boy he felt “less treated”.¹ A grade seven puppy love experience where the girl’s mother told her “He’s not one of us” led him to the conclusion “People think they are better than me.” ¹ Such experiences led to
“A passion to develop my own identity in a profound way.” ¹
By grade eight he felt the school system was not showing any interest in what he was interested in. So, in grade nine he dropped out to seek his own path. ¹
“This led me to develop my own identity. … I enjoyed making things. I came from a family of makers.” ¹
“My father was a blacksmith, wheelwright and carpenter. He came from a culture where they made everything. There was no Canadian Tire store. He was a generalist, relied on his own imagination to solve problems. He was an original thinker. Our hands we always busy designing and making things and fixing things. From him I learned the pleasure of working with my hands and creating something useful.” ¹
By the age of sixteen he had built his own house, a house that still stands in Regina.¹ He worked in construction on such projects as the Regina Natural Museum of History, the steeple of All Saints Anglican Church and the Simpson’s warehouse. This phase lasted five years.7 He eventually tired of this work and sought other options. During a visit to his sister in Edmonton he met university students for the first time, the first of career-changing moments. Societal expectations from his Romanian origins would normally lead to a life of manual labour. But something was still missing for him, for his future. A further nudge from construction work and house building to clay was triggered by a trip to Vancouver, BC. Victor was taking two summer classes: an arts foundation class and a history class, British Imperial History. His brother-in-law, Joe, was working on an arts education degree and was the ceramic technician for Stan Clarke. When Victor finished his classes he would go to the pottery studio where Joe would be loading or unloading kilns. Waiting for Joe he would play around with clay and threw pots on the wheel. ¹ Victor enjoyed the experience.
Back in Regina he followed up with functional pottery classes from Beth Hone and then Jack Sures.9
“I was seriously thinking of becoming a potter. I thought there was something romantic about pottery, something basic, close to nature.” 9
“[I] was the son of a wheelwright / blacksmith / carpenter, ‘so I grew up making things, and clay was easy.” ³
The construction life was beginning to tell on Cicansky. Always an avid reader, even when in construction work, an advertisement in Regina for adult entrance to university at Regina College caught his attention and led to major changes in his life:
Ironically one chosen avenues was teaching. He acquired further academic credentials: a first year at University Regina College in1958-59, then Fundamentals of Education Regina College in 1959-60.¹ After six years, Cicansky returned to school to become the “maker of things of his world”. He completed a Bachelor of Education degree in 1965.¹ Art education has been a major and continuing direction in his life since. He enjoys still the ”intensity of kids” when he teaches in schools. ¹
“After working in construction for 5-6 years I read an add in the leader post placed by Regina College advertising senior matriculation class for high school dropouts. I had entertained the idea of going back to school eventually. The brutal winter working outdoors I had just endured, placing my frozen sandwich on a burn barrel encouraged me to phone the Registrar, Cliff Blight. Serendipity! His response was I’ll see you at 4:00. I was smart to quit school and to enrol in the school of hard knocks. My two years at Regina College 1956 -1957: taking senior matriculation and first year university, were the most exciting learning experiences of my life. University education opened my mind to the creative world of ideas, most notably the humanities. Contact with the arts, sculpture, ceramics, music and literature satisfied my innate itch to be a creator.” ¹
Cicansky continued his studies, now focusing on clay, receiving in 1967 a Bachelor of Art in English and Fine Arts degree at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus.¹ He studied under Jack Sures who was only a year or two older than Victor himself. ¹
Ceramic life in Regina was exciting at the time but not quite what Cicansky wanted. Sandra Alfoldy notes:
“According to… Cicansky, the ceramics program focused on “mugs and pots and teapots,” and he found himself thinking, “Why am I doing this?” When he began taking ceramics courses, Cicansky was a history teacher, and as a mature student he was willing to challenge the Leach aesthetic: ‘I made casseroles, but then I filled them with clay veggies and things, painted them red and yellow, and put on zippered tops to make them non-functional. [Jack] Sures’ interest in the Asian tradition of ceramics and his dedication to utilitarian forms did not suit Cicansky’s desire to push the boundaries of clay.” ³
Cicansky found himself in something of an aesthetic conundrum as graduation approached.
“I had a lot of making skills but didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I wanted to make things about me and my world.” ¹
He found pottery teaching and the look of functional pottery of the time, across Canada, to be self-limiting:
“…[it had] a ’Kodak Effect’. It all looked the same.” ¹
He had always admired and collected functional pottery (and still does) but he never saw himself as a functional potter.
“I like and collect functional pottery but it was never something that met my needs. … Early on I decided I didn’t want to make functional pottery, rather something about my experience in the world. …I was not interested in using pottery. I was interested in using clay.” ¹
His teacher, Sures, would make him throw fifty pots but Cicansky, a mature student, around thirty years old, would heap them all in a mound and fire them together.¹ A workshop by visiting functional potter, Jack Herman, inspired him to go and work with Herman in Kleinburg , Ontario. Cicansky started throwing pots at 7:30 in the morning, until the 9:30 coffee break. Unimpressed with the routine Cicansky told Herman:
“ I’m glad I’ve had this experience but I’m leaving. …I was a studio potter for two and a half hours.” 9
The experience confirmed his eventual and final direction:
“After learning the basic skills of making pots and working as a production potter for two solid hours, my interest in functional pots evaporated, and my interest in clay as a sculptural medium ignited my hankering to express ideas.” ¹
With graduation imminent and after discussions with Sures about the directions clay was taking in Canada Cicansky had to consider his future direction. He started to apply to Master’s programs in the U.S.³ but was coming to a dead end. The schools all wanted him to take further undergraduate courses.¹
“The whole notion of function didn’t appeal to me. I made sure functional became non-functional. … Schools wanted to reprogramme me.” ¹
Even though over the years he had taken several Fine Arts courses he never enrolled in a full Fine Arts programme, resisting the elitism of art programmes, be they studio or art history. Later as a teacher he encouraged his students to go beyond the Fine Arts “programme”, to not be interested in theory but to express themselves.¹ He generally knew what he wanted. He felt himself lucky but didn’t know where he wanted to go.¹
“I was not interested in theory based programmes. I wanted to make work that if people saw it they would say ‘That’s a Cicansky.’” ¹
Canada’s Centennial year, 1967, was pivotal for Cicansky. On a family trip to Expo 67 in Montreal, and to take a summer class at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Island, Maine, he met Bob Arneson who was teaching ceramic sculpture at the University of California at Davis. Victor’s world was to change, to find direction. He had slides of his work with him.
“I showed Bob sides of my non-functional functions ceramic sculptures and his excited response was that I had to apply to the graduate school at Davis – a graduate school that encouraged complete freedom to create! Right up my alley. talk about serendipity! Haystack and Davis and the rest is history. ” ¹
Within a year Cicansky was at Davis. The Davis philosophy appealed to Cicansky:
“They were interested in your finding your own responses to the world and showing it in clay.” ¹
As Don Kerr writes:
“In Regina Vic’s style made him marginal. At Davis it put him at the centre of the world.“ 9
The Funk artist, David Gilhooly, was the first person he met. Gilhooly was carrying a tray of frogs and assorted animal sculptures.¹ They became good friends. Cicansky would later help bring Gilhooly to Regina, recommending him for the ceramics programme when Jack Sures went on sabbatical.
At Davis, along with the freedom to explore themes and approaches that interested him Cicansky was now introduced to colour, bright commercial colours. ³
But even in California Cicansky found memories of home. Sandra Alfoldy writes:
“However, even as he took in his new environment, he found echoes of home. Ramshackle cabins in the Russian River area of Northern California reminded him of the small houses and backyard sheds of his old neighborhood in Regina.” ³
Like other students at Davis for his first quarter Victor was on probation and had to develop an exhibition of his work.¹ For his Davis final graduating showin 1970, he created a “Disneyesque” landscape of trees and fountains, including a seventeen foot tree, called “Last Supper”. Unfortunately after it was purchased it was destroyed in a windstorm. ¹
Cicansky studied for two years at Davis, 1968-70, graduating with and MFA. He achieved quite the success even as a student, winning The Kingsley Annual Sculpture Award in 1969. Allan Stone, of the Allan Stone Gallery was the judge and offered him a show in his gallery that fall in New York.¹
Victor has fond memories of his time at Davis, memories that he continues to apply in his art and teachings:
”Total freedom of materials, ideas, and attitudes were accepted and encouraged … [you] just work out whatever ideas you had.” 9
But it was time to come home. He had successfully exhibited and sold in the U.S but with a now pregnant wife, Fran, and an uncomfortable political climate around the Vietnam war, they both returned to Regina.³ Back in Regina Cicansky could now further explore his two interests, teaching, and creating an art that that spoke of his roots. Regina was not Davis. He had to rebuild his reputation anew. A position teaching Art Education in the university Education Department secured a steady income.
Soon, other Saskatchewan artists were also returning home from the U.S. Joe Fafard and he were” buddies” and shared a studio together. By then Fafard was doing half clay, half bronze works.¹1 Russell Yuristy, another close colleague, was also back in Saskatchewan. The Regina Clay Movement had started. The “Movement” carried through Pop Art and Funk themes and treatments. Cicansky, along with Joe Fafard, Marilyn Levine, and the imported David Gilhooly were to bring Saskatchewan ceramics, to an internationally recognized level.
The early 1970s were a time of the “Back To The Land” movement. Cicansky, moved, in 1974, to the town of Craven, thirty kilometres north-west of Regina, converting an old school into a studio.4 He and his wife grew and canned their own vegetables and had squab as a major protein source. Also, for a time Victor served as a town councillor.
“Fran and I renovated it into a house and studio. Life was great. Worked and gardened their for 17 years.” ¹
Life changed suddenly. Tragedy struck with the loss of Fran.
“Fran died suddenly in 1987. I lost interest in the place. Our two kids were attending French Immersion school in Regina. Sold Craven and moved to Regina where I had family help with the kids.” ¹
He has and has lived, worked and created in Regina since, as one of Canada’s most famous artists and as a respected art educator.
The recognition and respect have increased over the years including:
- 1987 Victoria and Albert Award for Ceramic Sculpture (London UK)
- 1997 Saskatchewan Order of Merit
- 2007 Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Regina
- 2009 Order of Canada in 2009
- 2012 The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal
- 2012 Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts
- And acceptance into to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
From a “he’s not one of us” to a recipient of the order of Canada Victor Cicansky’s life and art bridge the cultural landscape that is Canada. His art speaks of life, cultural and personal experience, observation, and frequently humour. There is an essence in Cicanky’s art that expresses a joy in life, with life. On looking at his art you are looking at the man himself, honest and at one with himself. But perhaps Victor Cicansky says it best:
“It’s about play. It’s about joy. It’s about wonder. It’s about awe. It’s about humour.” ¹
An initial note: considering he is not a production potter the volume of Cicansky’s output is amazing. The following is just a small, hopefully representative, selection of his output.
There are three key constants in Cicansky’s art: his Romanian heritage, his love of Saskatchewan, and especially, his love of gardening.
“It’s a rough and wild place where ideas grow and hybridize. It’s a garden that provides me with a rich source of ideas that I fashion into a universe of personal expression.” ²
Although his works can be attractive, even, dare I say, beautiful, whether they be outhouses or shovels full of compost, Cicansky shows that he goes beyond the obvious, beyond the superficial. Just as Baroque Vanitas still-life paintings had depths, meanings beyond the superficially visual, Cicansky observes and delves into his subjects with a passion for life, culture and growth. He works beyond the romance and nostalgia of his subjects, suffusing them with his constant optimism and confidence.
Although his work is the result of new technologies, of gases and kilns, many subjects are innately old, even ancient: of people, farming/gardening and books. Not functional in the traditional sense of pottery they are signs for faux functions, of preservation and sustenance, of life and living. These resonate on a deeper human subconscious level.
The following are several further general points about Victor Cicansky’s work:
- His work is mostly low-fired earthenware, terracotta, because of its “earthiness.”
- Firing is to cone 04-06, although he had done earlier cone 10. He uses an electric kiln: 04 for bisque, 06 for glaze.¹
- He uses commercial glazes, applying colour straight out of the bottles, layering them to get the colour he wants ¹
- He didn’t know about or exploit colour until he went to Davis.¹
- A work can go into the kiln a “half dozen times” until he gets the colour he wants.¹
- He will reuse themes over the years e.g. pantries.
- His website homepage lists the various categories that are important to him.
Soup Tureen, 1967. The garden/food theme is already evident in the mushroom handle. This is one of his more functional-looking pots, yet the foot is small, creating a potential for imbalance if liquid contents were to be added. The exterior is unglazed hinting at a porosity. Already Cicansky is playing with assumptions and expectations of a form versus the ceramic reality. While the surface is roughly finished, the mushrooms are the most refined elements. Cicansky at this time was working in stoneware.
Zippered Casserole, 1967. Cicansky was exposed and open to new techniques. Jack Sures brought in Ricardo (Ric) Gomez in 1964 who gave demonstrations in clay and fibreglass. For Cicansky, “It was like working with canvas or leather.” ¹ The realism of such works plays in a surreal fashion, teasing the viewer with faux leather, zipper, and fruit. He is also using acrylic paint to add realistic colour. Already Cicansky is showing his skill in working with clay and not pot-making
Dow Jones Bag, 1968. Cicansky was creating leather bags as a model four or five years before Marilyn Levine’s leather works.¹ The original inspiration was one of his wife’s thrown out bags. More interested in the idea of a bag and how far he could push it he was not interested in just fooling the eye to look like leather.¹ As a young boy Cicansky had collected and recycled junk. This activity carried over especially into some of his early works”
“Everyone wanted to make beautiful objects. I wanted to make use of the junk, the banal, the throway stuff, like that bag.” 9
But here we see that Cicansky humour, and commentary, as cadaverous, grimy hands grope out of the bulging interior, one clutching money, lettuce leaves, a hidden,symbolic bag-man of the financial world. The “Dow Jones” label reinforces the message.
Shirt for Matisse, 1969. Such early Davis-influenced works show that although Victor was never a formal art history student he picked up enough on his travels and studies to acknowledge, for example, the Fauvism of Matisse, the Surrealism of Magritte, perhaps even a hint of Pop Art. The subject itself is ordinary but art-wise, extraordinary. The shirts pinks and browns are overlain by a gold tie. The colours are familiar, perhaps too familiar with what many of us wore in the ’70s – or perhaps I am revealing too much about myself. Beyond the folds and creases of the hanging shirt, the key feature though, is the colour, deliberately and joyously garish. The influence of California has arrived. Cicansky’s work would never be the same.
“Wow! Real Groovy Country Saskatchewan” Plate. Cicansky is obviously back home and enjoying the experience. Susan Surette further describes the plate:
“In the twentieth century during the 1960s and 1970s several California ceramicists such as Robert Arneson and Viola Frey adopted the plate form to comment on contemporary social issues through glazed, incised, and sculpted images. Twentieth-century, industrially produced souvenir plates served as a source for ceramic critique by the Funk ceramic movement, a form that Cicansky adopted. As a student in 1969 he exploited the souvenir plate as a carrier for Saskatchewan images contextualized within his own prairie experience, sculpting its surface and rim and imprinting words on its painterly glazed surface. … The image on the plate is a view of a road cutting through the prairie fields from the viewpoint of a driver looking through the front window of a car. It includes the car’s dashboard and steering wheel, and impressed in clay on the rim is: Wow! Real Groovy Country Saskatchewan.” ¹¹
Roots and Origins: Garlic Flats and Back-To-The-Land
Perhaps I cannot say it enough, Victor Cicansky was not a detached observer. His art is his life.
“All stuff is part of my experience.” ¹
Cicansky made subjects no one else had done. During his early “school dropout” days he worked on many construction projects, on exteriors and interiors.¹ Hence the series of outhouses are part fantasy, part reality but always engaging in their social commentary.
Singing the Joys of an Agrarian Society, 1973. Victor recounts how the people on Garlic Flats built dog houses, chicken coops outhouses: recycling everything they would get tin and headlights from the dump.¹
“People made outhouses interesting rather than just half-moons on the door. People were creative in their designs. ¹
The sculptural structures generally seem to be in some imminent state of collapse and inevitably in need of repair Many teeter on a mound of rocks and debris, and as here, on elements of a compost heap and vegetable garden. Hardly a line seems vertical or straight, yet it all balances. Some are cut-away to show an interior. The details add to the “exotic” nature of so humble a structure: a cheeky, naked cherub in the doorway and gilt decorations; recycled remnants of lumber coloured in a pale blue wash. In such works there is humour but not of the mocking kind. Rather, they speak to the humour of the general human condition, here of days long past. Cicansky is chuckling, not at, but with his roots, and thus himself.
A related personal theme, would continue in his Volkswagen Bus series.
VW Bus with Pig, 1974. Fully three dimensional, such works are to be seen from many angles, viewpoints. The outhouse designs have spilled over to other interests. Travelling in a converted Volkswagen bus was a part of the lives of many in the 1970s. Cicansky, here more farmer than gardener, has converted the bus into part bus, part ramshackle pig-sty, including fecal rear end of a pig! Three crows sit like some unholy trinity atop the ridgeline of the “holey” roof: the tires are almost flat; the thin, red paint barely covers the rusty body; wooden logs serve as fenders; a lightning-rod-like car aerial reaches to the sky. In this series Cicansky, long-haired and moustached, inserts himself into the work, leaning out of the driver’s window, perhaps to escape the smell of the sty, or to get a better view than available through the windshield. Back-to-the-land was not an easy lifestyle but typically Cicansky inserts his own sense of humour. Such sculptural works display a small-scale architectural element, here on wheels, with the interplay of solid masses and open voids.
From the Garden and About the Gardens
The garden, however, would be the dominant subject of his art. As he said in 1998:
“The source of my work is the garden of the mind. It’s a place that goes beyond soil, plants and insects. It’s a rough and wild place where ideas grow and hybridize. It’s a garden that provides me with a rich source of ideas that I fashion into a universe of personal expression.” ²
His garden works are of place but not a distinct, geographically named place; rather, his place, an intimate place nurtured and cared for by him. They are domestically designed as chairs or jars or pantries. There has been a shift from the exterior to the interior. Yet there are subtle references to the exterior. To show the depth of his love for the gardens he recalls an inspiration from his grandmother:
“The most profound garden image I carry is of my grandmother in spring, bending down to gather a handful of soil in her hand. She squeezed it, smelled it, opened her hand and let it fall back to the ground. Was it moist enough? Did she smell the life force of the compost? Was it ready for planting? There was something magical about her connection to the garden and the bountiful flowers and vegetables she would produce. It is that connection that inspires every bite in my edible landscape exhibition.” ²
Inspiration also came from garden-related activities and Cicansky’s love of reading.
Left: The Book of Compost, 1981. All aspects of gardening. Right: Control of Insect Pests. 2005. Some twenty fours years separate these two works. Like a good gardener rotating his crops Cicansky recycles themes over the years, occasionally adding a new variety in size and complexity. His “self-published” books are part history of his life — Stephanie Raudsepp sees him “sculpt[ing] an anthology of his life.” 6 — displayed by both the titles, and their condition, whether whole, tattered, eaten or splattered. Always an avid reader,¹ here he self-publishes in clay. But these are not just neat, informative tomes. Their pages ooze garden products, their covers spotted with dirt or chewed by insects. They speak not only to the love of gardening but also to the frustrations familiar to gardeners. Such books can be seen as surface pieces to be viewed as though laying on a table, or they can be stacked, in library fashion, on the shelves of his pantries. Either way they tease with their play, with reality: the books are in a condition that most of us would not let our books come to. Yet the cover titles are consistent with their condition. And we can smile at Cicansky’s word and visual play. Dr, Eva Seidner adds a further book-lover’s insight:
“By fashioning his books out of clay, Cicansky seems to underline their fragility and their connection to the earth, from which all things come and to which all eventually return, to come again as new forms in a new season.” 10
Food as Memories and Laughter
His food works take many forms from small to large sculptures to architectural murals. The jar series come from one of those artistic “aha” moments.
“… For some years, I had been making individual jars of preserves. We were living in Craven and we had a big garden, and if you have a big garden you either eat a lot, or you eat and you can things. Well, we canned a lot. We canned most of the things you see here: corn, pickles, peas, carrots, peppers, beans, and, of course, sauerkraut. We also stored a lot of vegetables. One Christmas we were stuffing the Christmas goose with sauerkraut, which is an old country recipe for Christmas dinner, and, as I was holding up a jar of sauerkraut, I remarked to Fran what a wonderful looking thing this was in itself, the beautiful colour of the sauerkraut, the little bits of red, the seeds that one could see, and wondered what it would look like if I tried to make something like this in clay.” ¹²
Such “aha” moments are typical of Cicansky but there is more underlying Victor’s works. Jack Anderson writes:
“Cicansky also understands his sculptures as metaphors representing not only nature’s processes but human processes – cultivated, harvested and canned, these unique objects infer seasonal human labour as much as nature’s rhythmic cycles.” 15
Mixed Pickles. 2010. The many jars of various preserves are some of his best known and most popular works. Their size, colour, realistic detail and food associations appeal to a broad spectrum of collectors. They are the result of experimentation. Originally Victor tried full casting, throwing and carving the jars but was not satisfied with the results. He now makes two half moulds for a jar, then fashions 3D vegetables, fruit, etc., cuts them in half, lays them in the moulds and then reworks the surface until he is satisfied with the result.1 Therefore, even though cast as a series the works would not be exact replicas but have individual touches and features. Cicansky had used casting in Davis and has now developed a mould that fits his clay body. Although his selection of jar contents is wide Victor confesses to a fascination with the Pre-Columbian crops we use today especially corn.1 But overall he is reinforcing his love of gardening:
“Nature creates its own, like magic. That’s what inspires me.” ¹
Left. Delectable Dish of strawberries, 1988. Right. Fish Jar, 2010. Originally Victor had tried zinc lids but didn’t like the resulting look. Gold was more attractive.¹ As an aside, a two gram bottle of gold now costs about $35.¹ Taking the jar concept as far as he could resulted in jars with spoons, forks and food pouring, oozing or leaping out of the lid. ¹ Beyond the vegetables and fruit he also made jars of pickled eggs, pigs feet and fish.
Cicansky can and does produce a goodly number of jar works. One practical way to display them is to make life-size storage, pantry and shelving units.
“The pantry was a way of using a lot of jars and making a large sculpture.” ¹
An early pre-cursor to the pantries was the Root Cellar.
Root Cellar, 1982. The elements are different sizes in this large floor piece, essentially a floor mural made of 3D tiles and food with a central figure-torso. Crates, baskets and jars of cabbages, squash, apples, tomatoes potatoes, carrots and pickles, lay ready to be taken down into (or brought up from?) the root cellar by the central figure. It was Cicansky’s job as a boy to descend into the root cellar. Cicansky says of this annual ritual:
“As a kid I always fascinated by the root cellar. In the Fall things would be going down. … Going into the root cellar with a candle was like going into a treasure cave.” ¹
Nowadays, with our refrigerators, freezers, and pre-packaged and preserved foods most of us cannot relate to the annual cycle of food collection, preparation and preservation of earlier years. In our current days of supermarkets, food take-out, or home-delivery via cell-phone the connection between food as a perishable necessity and survival is lost. For many today food and eating is more a marketed, dietary science or art form than a social and survival need. Cicansky’s art continually reminds us of these latter needs.
An evolution from the Root Cellar is the series of pantries. These life-size works have multiple elements and are either free-standing or wall-attached. Aesthetically these are a tidying up of the Root Cellar sprawl. Here the items are lined up neatly upon shelves, one layer deep, immediately visible and accessible. The shelves themselves are wood, usually painted, sometimes natural wood. The items on the shelves are not arranged according to food groups but with artistic arrangements in mind:
“I love colour. The pantry idea gives me shelves of opportunity to play with dazzling coloured glazes. I want the colours to be zany and aggressively exuberant. Wild. Once I decide on the colour for the pantry, I paint it. The shelves then become the field on which I can play with colour. I begin by filling each shelf with finished jars. Colours are set side by side in a random fashion. Once the shelves are filled I begin to remove one here and there, and either leave a space or fill it with another colour. I am never really sure. This process can go on for weeks until I achieve a balance of colour and shape that settles over the whole.” 2
The Pink Pantry, 1979-81. Apart from the frame and shelves all the items are ceramic including such items as the baskets.1 But for practicality’s sake the items are all glued down: parts of the works would go missing in exhibitions.¹ So neatly, tidily arranged, they are sculptural still-lifes. What is notable about these works is that he has incorporated normally three-dimensional works into a generally frontal, two-dimensional arrangement, not quite murals but to be placed against a wall. Cicansky has now transformed smaller, perhaps more intimate works, into larger assemblages, with minimal humour. The total effect has a domestic matter-of-factness about it, something that could be seen in a country home. Yet they are cleaner, tidier. The top three shelves here are an arrangement of canning jars, increasing in size down through medium to lower large jars of preserves. The bottom two shelves are of a row of five perfectly formed cabbages and four baskets of perfectly formed vegetables. Separating these two fields of preserved and fresh foods is the middle shelf, a mélange of jars and books framing a pile of compost: central to all the neat busyness of the other shelves this one delves into the reality of fore-planning and post-harvesting. The central shelf adds a provocative thoughtfulness to the work. Amidst the bounty of nature the human hand is portrayed, all set within the simple rectangular geometry of the pink and purple pantry unit.
Colour Fields Pantry, 2000. Note the prairie landscape: in the smaller shelf works there is often a background ceramic landscape, usually in tondo form. The smaller scale removes much of the nostalgic pantry effect of the larger works. Here the effect is one of tidier intimacy with a more decorative effect.
Cauliflower in Repose, 1988. Inspiration for Victor comes many sources. The armchair gardens were initially inspired by an aunt who had placed a cabbage in a chair. He had started such works in Davis, saw it as an opportunity for humour, and started to put vegetables in them. ¹
Sometimes the works would be erotic. Who would have thought of randy vegetables
The First Time. 1994. Sometimes the message is direct. As in a humourous link between human pro-creation and vegetable harvesting. Cicansky here plays with the viewer’s sense of humour and propriety, and perhaps hinting at ancient agricultural fertility rituals.
He brings a human element into his works too when he incorporated figures into the chair-vegetable composition.
left: Armchair Man, 1985. right: Armchair Woman with Vegetables, 1985. Such works are a bit of an optical illusion. The figure is the chair itself, the illusion is cunningly helped by the placement of the vegetables and the adjustment of the backrest. Look more closely. The figures have no legs. Interestingly the figures themselves are middle aged to seniors, a contrast with the young, fresh vegetables. Some chairs were portraits , some a blend of multiple people.¹ The chairs themselves are ceramic.
Larger Works: Murals and Wall Pieces
The works above, apart from the pantries, are generally of a “smaller” scale. However, he also worked on larger scales, involving either wall-mounted works or full-scale murals. These latter are larger scale works that do not show up in the art market or private collections. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he created several large government and corporate commissions. For Cicansky they are an extension of his love of garden, of land, to a broader “Love of Land” and its people. On his website Cicansky writes:
“Public art in contemporary society is a reminder of our values and who we are. It should be meaningful and accessible. It should enhance the visual landscape and stimulate the imagination of people in the communities where art is placed.” ²
“The purpose of public art installations should be to enrich the human spirit. ²
Murals: The Working Classes, Old and New
The Old Working Class, 1978. The best, most extensive description of this Cicansky multi-mural work is Susan Surette’s PhD Thesis on the Sturdy-Stone Centre murals in Saskatoon, ¹¹ (especially pages 278 to 346. The link is below in the endnotes). A few words will suffice here from Surette quoting Cicansky, and also from Cicansky himself.¹¹
“The people who lived in the Garlic Flats were working class people who lived by the sweat of their labours. Necessity and exuberant inventiveness taught them how to adapt to a new country and culture. They planted huge gardens, harvested, canned and stored vegetables for the winter months. They had a passion for living, loved good food, bread and wine…We were not rich but we made big fires in small ovens.” ¹¹
“Much of what I experienced in Garlic Flats was beautiful and inspiring. And some of what I saw was pretty ugly. The Old Working Class is a narrative series of collages of that time and place and the characters I encountered as a young boy.” ²
The Old Working Class terra cottas are in the entrance lobby, situated above the elevator doors. Five murals depict the life of immigrants that would have been famiiiar to Cicansky in his early years. They are not portraits. The subject is partly a result of his time at Davis where he was encouraged to draw his art from within himself with less emphasis on art history and art movements.¹ ¹ The high relief, mononochrome sculptures are are literally packed with the stuff of life: people (two to five per piece), foodstuffs and crates, and animals – dogs, pigs, rabbits ducks. The foodstuffs burst from the walls in their abundance. The figures are blocky, sturdy, certainly not idealized or “pretty”, but also not mocked or caricatured. They are tough, solid men and women, survivors. Some figures sit in close, physical contact, some isolation. One pair seemed to talk to each other, the others cast their gazes as though looking around the lobby or at the building’s visitors and workers. The building spotlights bounce of projections and cast deep shadows on a jumble of human, geometric, and organic forms. Of iron-rich cone 03 terra cotta clay the works are fitted together like sculptural bricks, created in his Craven studio.¹¹ Cicansky used terra cotta because:
“… it was friendly, honest and direct. It could be worked freely and easily and I was able to bring to it my knowledge of the cycle of nature, how things grow from the earth and how they decay. We all come from clay and return to clay. It has the stuff of life and death about it.” ¹¹
Terra cotta itself has a deep, personal connection. Cicansky explained:
“Each spring I would observe my Romanian grandmother, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, practice an ancient pagan (Dacian) ritual honoring the fertility of the earth. She would dig up a couple of grassy clods of earth, place them on her gate posts and plant three branches of budding pussy willows in the middle of each. Then she would bend down and pick up a handful of soil, squeeze it, smell it and rub it through her fingers and let it drift down. It was as if she was working some magic on this bare patch of earth. Bare, unglazed terra cotta clay seemed like the best medium to represent these people who were so close to the land.“ 7
The setting for the narrative of The Old Working Class is clearly one attached to a domestic space. The figures are posed around a table within the home, or against homemade picket fences where it is not clear if we are looking at its exterior or interior. The fence sets up an important bounded space in terms of restricted access – it recognizes separateness.¹¹
The New Working Class
The New Working Class – Bakers 1981. Although there is a linkage in their’ titles the series, after only three years, look like they are a generation apart: a move from the “historical” to the contemporary. Several things are immediately and noticeably different: there is colour; the works are contained within in a tondo form, a circular perimeter; and the subjects are not like the ethnic-based earlier series but focused on particular occupations, “The Bakers,” ”The Secretaries,” “The Supermarket Clerk,” The Builders,” and “The Waitress.” There is no longer an ambiguous location: the earlier series could have been at home or in a street-market. Now the subjects are grounded in the actual workplace. The tondos are populated by only two people. Four of the five figure pairs communicate, sometimes as co-workers, sometimes as worker to customer. The tondo borders are cleanly segmented with minimal overlap from the central composition. They give the impression of an ancient sun-dial, the occupational symbols covering the surfaces in an almost hieroglyphic effect. Although he was never a formal art history student Cicansky has used his studies and travels well, seeking inspiration in different cultures, styles and periods. The colours, are laid mostly in large “flat” washes except for occupational details such as vegetables, pastries and desk items, and a subtle modelling in the faces. The colours are a combination of glaze and acrylic paints, a carryover from his Davis days. As in his “Old Working Class” exposure to the elements was not an issue. Surette also notices the preponderance of yellows in the works, particularly the borders, tying the works to Saskatchewan wheat fields and prairie living.¹¹ Cicansky describes some of the influences on this series:
”It was in Italy I first encountered della Robbia’s ceramic tondos. These aesthetic and architectural inventions became an important influence in the early years of my clay work. The tondo form, a central theme surrounded by an organic border of fruits, nuts and leaves, influenced my own garden series of tondos.” ¹¹
Cicansky’s Landscape Murals
The Garden Fence, 1984. Here Cicansky brings the outside inside in a large commission. Installed in the cafeteria of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation building in Regina, the work reminds me of an extended Garden of Livia, the Roman wall painting in Tivoli, familiar to students of Classical art history. Typically, Cicansky, who studied art history on his own terms, frequently refers to art historical works seen on his European travels. The commission is large, 1829 cm (60 feet) long and over 274 cm (9 feet) high. There is a symbolic reference in its 540 tiles: this was the radio dial frequency for CBC Regina. ¹¹ Along its length the relief sculptures of vegetables, flowers and insects rise above the top of the fence. They proudly assert their presence rather than remaining hidden behind the fence’s lattice work.
“There is something comforting about a garden fence. It excludes the hurry scurry of everyday life and encloses a quiet and private place to relax and to reconnect with the natural world of growing things.” ²
Regina My World, 1979. Created in the years between the Old and New Working Class installations, Cicansky develops the tondo format and colour of the New Working Class. The effect is one of an ancient town map with house and buildings depicted “realistically” rather than as symbolic blocks and icons. There is also an effect of a clock with the flying geese on the border placed almost like the numbers on a clock face, and the course of the river flowing across the border like a clock’s arms. Cicansky describes the importance of the park and river for him:
“Wascana Park was a special place, a picturesque Victorian landscape built to surround the Legislative buildings. The park and its lake were a make-work project during the Great Depression, providing income for unemployed immigrant workers like my dad. I spent many magical hours biking and walking paths through the shrubbery and trees. Back then, we swam in the water and caught fish under the Albert Street Bridge. In the wintertime, we cleared the snow off the ice and skated late into the night, carrying torches made of dried cattails and water grasses. The streets, the back alleys, the buildings, the park, the lake and the open prairie around our house sparked my curiosity and gave me my first sense of place.” ²
More Recent Cicansky Creations
The Creation of the Potato, 1993. In the Creation Series, a series of wall mounted works, Cicansky plays with iconic images of an iconic artist, Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco, “The Creation of Adam”, in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Here instead of the hand of God energizing a limp Adam, a cadaverous, severed hand gives being and life to a lowly potato. Cheeky, blasphemous? No, just Cicansky being himself. The series is a bit of a technical outlier for Cicansky not only in their wall mounting but also in their quasi-religious reference. The compositions are essentially the same, a hand reaching from the upper right corner to the potato, corn cob, tomato, or onion to the lower left. In other words not his usual centralised balance of form and colour but strikingly asymmetric in their diagonal thrust. Cicansky says of the origin of the series:
“Back in the 60’s, when I was working and travelling in Europe, [Michelangelo’s depiction of God’s hand reaching out to touch Adam] struck me as a memorable image. As a young boy I remember my grandmother standing in her spring garden, bending over and picking up a handful of garden dirt. The idea of hands in the garden and [the Michelangelo work] connected in my imagination and I produced the Creation series.” 16
Turning Compost, 2013. In the Shovel Series Cicansky continued his containers, supports and tools for his vegetables. He has used armchairs, jars, and pantry shelves. More recently has used shovel heads to explore a variety of garden food stuffs and other items. Such works explore purposeful decomposition, a source of future soil fertility in an almost fresh, edible presentation on a shovel head, a paradoxical image typical of Cicansky. Earlier series’ works from around 2008 started out in patinated bronze, a medium that Cicansky has explored more fully in recent years with such works as his tables, benches, laser-cuts and bonsai sculptures.
Pile O’ Bones, 2016. Another theme that has recently attracted Cicansky and is central to Saskatchewan is the history of the bison. There is a subtle link here in the shovelful of pre-prepared phosphate fertilizer, bison bones. Although Cicansky could appreciate the garden benefits there is an understated sadness in his describing the slaughter:
“The prairie grasslands that fed the millions of bison for 10,000 or so years now feeds and inspires me. The bison bodies and manure fed the grasslands. Kept the grassland soil healthy. Within a decade of settler immigration the bison were almost wiped out. The first crop the settlers harvested were bison bones that littered the landscape. Trainloads and trainloads of bison bones were shipped to eastern factories from Moose Jaw and turned into fertilizer, used to refine sugar and make bone china. As a kid growing up on short grass prairie, I now call the Garlic Flats, I collected bones that later inspired an exhibition of bone flowers – in a Pile-O-Bones exhibition at the Susan Whitney Gallery.
Meantime we’ve wasted the health of the earth we occupy, pouring tons and tons of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers which have denuded the natural good of the prairie grassland – and why I am a passionate promoter of organic gardening, organic farming, and restoring the health of the soil, the air we breath, the water we drink and food we eat.
What drives me is hope. Hope that if enough of us with green thumbs can leave a healthier garden earth to our grand children.“ ¹
The Bison Are Back, 2016. Four colours of the indigenous medicine wheel: red, yellow, white and black. The work is a fractal arrangement, a lattice structure of miniature skulls morphing into a larger multi-coloured skull. Interestingly it is a wall piece, although he also created three-dimensional bison-themed sculptural works. Here, there is a thematic exploration that more directly reaches back to his young roots when he collected such bones for the garden.
Red Corn Bison, 2003. Works along the same bison theme, rest on a flat surface. Here the sculptural details are typical of Cicansky’s attention to physical, realistic detail but with a Cicansky twist of startling red and black colouring plus an inspired use of perfect, yellow corn cobs as horns. The work is a mix of reality, substitution and allusion. Here we have not only a reference to a “recent” environmental and indigenous tragedy in the black and red weather-worn skull but also a reference to Cicansky’s garden interest in the importance of Pre-Columbian crops, such as corn, to the modern world.¹
“There were between 50 and 60 million bison on the prairies when the railroad and European settlers arrived. Within a couple of decades, their numbers were reduced to about 2000. Grant McEwan, author and historian, has called this “the most spectacular slaughter of wild animals in world history.” The prairies were covered with bison skeleton bones. Gathering the bones became a lucrative cash “crop” for the first settlers. The bones were shipped east where they were processed into phosphate fertilizer, used in the sugar refining industry and in making bone china. Carloads of bones shipped from Moose Jaw and Regina represented well over several million bison. Today, bison herds, large and small, are distributed all over North America from Alaska to Texas, and throughout the Canadian prairies. The bison are back! Enjoy your bison burger!” ²
Recently Victor Cicansky has moved beyond ceramics to working in bronze, creating not only garden related, and garden-placed, sculptures but also integrating them into realistic but practical, furniture items such as tables.
Summer Dance of Apples, 2011. True to himself Victor Cicansky has created an amazing variety of works within what could have been a limiting number of themes, his life and his gardens. He always surprises with a freshness, even in repetition. He is never boring. To look at Cicansky’s work is to look at the man himself.
- Meet Victor Cicansky. Art Gallery of Swift Current
- Tristram Lansdowne and Victor Cicansky at Winchester Gallery. A short video. With no narration. The section on Cicansky’s “Hot Garlic Pickles” starts at the 2:08 minute mark.
Endnotes & Bibliography
1. Victor Cicansky. Interview and correspondence with Barry Morrison. August 4, 2016ff
5. University Of Regina Archives And Special Collections. The Dr John Archer Library. 91-68. Vic Cicansky.January 12, 1998. By Shelley Sweeney,Assisted By Judy Kobsar, Biographical Sketch By Fay Hutchinson, Revised May 2009 By Elizabeth Seitz.
6. Stephanie Raudsepp. Representations Of Inanimate Objects In Contemporary Canadian Portraiture: Anna Williams, Victor Cicansky And Jason De Haan.
7. Zack, David. Vie des Arts. (1972). Arts-actualités. Vie des arts, (67), 69-74. An interesting article on pages 70-71 on Cicansky’s early life and the importance of his family and Cicansky’s birth,
9. Don Kerr. The Garden of Art: Vic Cicansky, Sculptor. University of Calgary Press; 1 edition (Oct. 20 2004). Paperback
10. Dr. Eva Seidner. Self-Portrait: A Small Library 2011. Part of The Self-Portrait Show, the 50th Anniversary Exhibition at the Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto. Excerpts from an essay by Dr. Seidner on Cicansky’s blog.
11. Susan Surette. Canadian Ceramic Relief Muralsl: Studio Craft and Architecture – A Case Study of the Sturdy-Stone Centre Murals, 1975-1983. Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Art History) at Concordia University Montreal, Quebec, Canada.2014. Especially pages 278-346.
12. Victor Cicansky. Interview. Regina Clay: World in the Making .
13. Julia Krueger. Prairie Pots And Beyond: An Examination Of Saskatchewan Ceramics From The 1960s To Present. A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts In Canadian Art History. .
14.. Bruce; Ferguson, Carol Phillips. Victor Cicansky : Clay Sculpture. Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery; First Edition edition (1983). Paperback
15. Jack Anderson. Victor cicansky gallerieswest. August 31, 2004.
16. Glenbow Museum. Collections Search Results.