Gathie Falk – Retrospective of a Canadian Art Visionary

Retrospective of a Canadian Art Visionary

Story by Katherine Fawcett

Photo Joern Rohde - Gathie Falk: Revelations
Shiny ceramic apples, grapefruit, oranges, stacked in neat pyramids, green-grocer style. A long, rather eerie row of well-worn, cherry-red glazed shoes. Glossy, pale green cabbages floating disobediently in the air. Painted flowers growing beside concrete. Parrots spinning on record players. Random videotaped picnic performances. Cloudy, painted night skies.

In more than 60 years as an artist, Gathie Falk has produced an astounding body of work. Her sculptures, paintings, ceramics, installations and performances shook the art world decades ago, and they continue to awe and inspire today. Falk’s playful way of exalting the ordinary and examining the everyday is both whimsical and serious, as she invites viewers to see the world through a lens of curiosity and wonder.

The current Audain Art Museum exhibition, Gathie Falk: Revelations, is a tribute to the artist’s prolific imagination as it has manifested in her long, courageous and influential career. It features more than 90 of Falk’s works and asks the viewer: What is beauty? What is interesting? What is art?

Although many of her pieces have a joyful flair, Falk’s early years were riddled with hardship. She was born in 1928 in Brandon, Man., to a Mennonite family that escaped persecution by fleeing Russia for Canada after the 1917 revolution. The family was dirt poor and often relied on the kindness of their community to get by. Falk left high school in her teens to support her family as a factory worker. She later worked as a teacher — one of few careers open to women then — but firmly decided that she did not enjoy the company of children.


Gathie Falk, 14 Rotten Apples, 1970
earthenware - 19.1 x 28.0 x 25.0 cm
Vancouver Art Gallery
© Gathie Falk


Gathie Falk, 14 Grapefruits, 1970
ceramic - 34.3 x 34.3 x 26.7 cm
Tim Kerr
© Gathie Falk


Gathie Falk, Night Sky #3, 1979
oil on canvas - 198.1 x 167.6 cm
Private Collection
© Gathie Falk

Photo Joern Rohde - Gathie Falk: Revelations

In the 1960s, Falk was drawn to the University of British Columbia art community, taking some courses in painting and ceramics. As she became increasingly immersed in the art world, she quickly developed a reputation for her risk-taking and expansive view of what was possible. An example of such pioneering work is the 1972 performance art piece “Red Angel.” Captured on film in 1977, it was a cutting-edge creation with a strong feminist message that heralded Vancouver’s avant-garde art scene.

Falk was married once — to a convict she met when she wrote letters to prisoners. The upshot of that disastrous liaison was the iconic piece “The Problem with Wedding Veils.” This stunning, larger-than-life papier mâché wedding veil (minus a bride) appears to be made of heavy corrugated metal with a crown that looks like a bear trap.


Gathie Falk, The Problem with Wedding Veils, 2010-11
papier-mâché, rocks - 162.6 x 180.3 cm
Collection of the artist © Gathie Falk
Bottom: Gathie Falk Installation view of Revelations

Boulders on the train of the veil suggest the cumbersome burden of matrimony, or perhaps the entrapment of females in wedlock. But according to curator Sarah Milroy, Falk refused to go down the philosophical path, saying merely that the rocks “keep the bride from falling over.”

During my tour, I was particularly enthralled by the room filled with cabbages, hanging by strings of various lengths from the ceiling, in a gallery with walls adorned with garden-themed paintings. Dirt cheap, versatile and commonplace, the cabbage is nothing if not a grounded vegetable. Yet the sight of dozens of green orbs floating in space is both disconcerting and hilarious. Each cabbage, individually hand-built and glazed, seems to have a personality, like the planets in a strange galaxy.

Photo Joern Rohde - Gathie Falk: Revelations

Curated by Milroy, executive director and chief curator of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gathie Falk: Revelations comprises works from public, corporate and private collections across Canada. Milroy has a personal connection to Falk. Milroy’s mother, Elizabeth Nichol, founded the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver in 1972 and acted as Falk’s agent. When she passed away in December 2000, Falk created “Lizzie,” a breathtaking, cobalt-black dress that appears to have an invisible body inside, as a tribute to her dear friend.

Milroy conceived of the Falk exhibit during the Covid pandemic, with no access to research opportunities, studio visits or library time. “It had to be something I could just pull out of my brain because I knew it well enough,” said Milroy, who was in Whistler in late November for the opening. “And Gathie [Falk] was someone I knew by heart. It’s been fantastic to do the show and see people respond to it across the country.”

Falk, now in her 90s, continues to work as an artist in Vancouver. Her pieces have been widely collected and are featured in the holdings of the Audain Art Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, National Gallery of Canada and Winnipeg Art Gallery. She has received numerous visual arts honours, including the Audain Prize (2013), Order of Canada (1997), Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2003), and the Gershon Iskowitz Prize (1990).

Gathie Falk: Revelations is on display at the Audain Art Museum until May 6, 2024.

Featured Image for this story:
Gathie Falk: Revelations
Photo Joern Rohde