Ken Danby, recognized as one of the world’s foremost realist artists and best-known in Canada for his iconic hockey painting, At The Crease, has died at the age of 67 while canoeing in Algonquin Park.
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Danby’s vast portfolio includes everything from portraits of famous Canadians to athletes in mid-play and landscape paintings so crystalline that at first glance they resemble photographs.
As an artist, Ken Danby’s work was loved more by the people than it was revered by the critics. Although his works were bought by museums, he found his best, most rewarding and lasting appeal among private collectors and purveyors of popular culture. A superb draftsman and a prodigious and prolific artist of his own time, he was a realistic painter who reflected quotidian events, natural landscapes and athletic prowess to mass audiences, rather than an abstract expressionist who created troubling, edgy canvasses for an intellectual elite.
The prolific artist was known as the school artist from the time he was very young. At 18, he enrolled in the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto, where one of his teachers was Group of Seven member J. E. H. Macdonald. Other students called him Vincent because of his goatee and the fact that he was a loner who seemed to be obsessive about drawing and painting.
“I was intense and almost fanatical about drawing and did hundreds of studies, mostly in pen, during my first year.”
OCAD’s preference in abstract expressionism was at odds with his interest in precise figurative drawing, and he left to pursue a number of design jobs before finally launching a free-lance career with Gallery Moos.
Danby’s first one-man show in 1964 sold out, an occurrence that would become commonplace as his work proved popular with private, corporate and museum collectors.
His 1972 painting of a masked ice-hockey goalie hunched in the crease is considered by many to be a Canadian national symbol. The anonymous player represents every goalie who has ever waited for a shot to test his or her mettle, but it also captures the tension of that moment when the arena goes silent and fans stop breathing as all become one with the solitary figure down on the ice. As an indication of the painting’s significance in popular culture, Mr. Danby put the image on a hockey mask as a fundraiser for spinal cord research and it raised $15,100 (U.S.) at a charity auction on NHL.com in November, 2006.
While many Canadians connect Danby with hockey images, he points out they make up only a dozen images in a long painting career. “I still love the game,” he said in a 2002 interview. “I respond to it, so there’s that appeal. That there has been such a focus on them in Canada shows that I’ve tapped into something that has to do with Canada’s soul and spirit.”
He also has done portraits of Canadian icons such as singer Gordon Lightfoot and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. And he is renowned for his landscapes, including the 1997 painting Niagara. A retrospective at the Joseph Carrier Gallery in 2004 featured 60 paintings, many capturing Canadian scenes such as Lake Louise. He received many honours, including the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.
It is tempting to imagine ironies both cruel and poetic in the death of Mr. Danby, the realist, while canoeing in the same wilderness (although at a different lake) where expressionist landscape painter Tom Thomson drowned 90 years ago. The coincidences and the metaphors may not bear serious scrutiny – they interpreted and represented nature in different ways – but both men loved the wilderness and were exploring its richness when they died suddenly and before their time, causing great shock and grief to their families, friends and admirers.