Story by Theresa Furey.
Conrad Furey (1954-2008) was a self-taught artist, with his work bordering on a naïve art style. Originally from the fishing and mining town Baie Verte, Newfoundland, Furey left home when he was eighteen years old. After a brief stint studying commercial art in St. John’s, he moved to Ontario where he attended the creative art program at Sheridan College, Brampton. In 1974, Furey decided to settle in Hamilton, Ontario.
The bulk of his success has been with the visual expression of his memories of his East Coast upbringing. Furey recounted about his practice:
Living away [from Newfoundland] means that I can get to the essence of the memories more easily, there’s less distraction. The years I spent growing up in Newfoundland, that’s where all these images are from… It seems that Newfoundland defines me and my life growing up on an idyllic coast of this grudging isle. It seems I paint what I dreamt of doing with my life… My portrayals of the everyday life of Canadians, marks me as an important national artist. My works, although most definitely Canadian have a universality that makes them appreciated by peoples from all corners.
Furey considered himself to be self-taught, pulled into expression by instinct rather than learned technique. Rebelling against what little formal training he had, he decided to follow his own creative agenda. In this pursuit, he employed many artistic media, leaving nothing off limits for artistic manipulation. Painting primarily on canvas and plywood structures, Furey also experimented with bronze, resin, and stone sculpture, as well as stained-glass windows. The far-reaching effect and appeal of his art brought him outside the world of galleries and museums to display his works in schools, local churches, government buildings and hospitals, having been regularly commissioned for public paintings and murals in both Newfoundland, Ontario and Scotland.
Furey knew from an early age that he had an artistic destiny. While still in his teens in Newfoundland, he and his childhood friend John Lewis hitchhiked from Baie Verte to St. Pierre Miquelon. A priest stopped to give them a ride. Making conversation, the priest asked the pair what they wanted to do with their lives. John didn’t know, but Furey, with typical self-assurance and determination, said, “I want to leave something behind to be remembered by”. He always knew he had to make a mark in the world. Furey’s focus, determination and sense of business are what made him the successful artist he was.
In 1974, the young artist from Newfoundland arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, eager to leave his mark on the art world. Furey found work and a supportive mentor at Bill Powell’s Canvas Gallery on Augusta Street, where he was soon selecting shows and installing artwork. His first studio space was in Powell’s basement where Furey worked diligently at his craft. He also worked on the Festival of Friends for many years, serving on the judicial committee and choosing artisans to show their work at the festivals. These shows grew over the years to become travelling festivals and Furey worked as the art consultant. Festivals that he helped to assemble showed in Texas, New Orleans, Louisiana and Mexico.
These travelling festivals became so successful that he began an artist exchange program. Furey was a driving force in the creation of the Tiger Group, along with co-artists Rick Cook, Gunder Robez, Bill Powell and Wayne Allen. This group became the hub of the Hamilton art scene in the 1970s.
Furey themes focused on his memories of Newfoundland. A frequent scene he returned to throughout his career was that of the Resettlement, a time of precarious upheaval that shook up the entire province. Between 1946 and 1954, an estimated 49 communities were abandoned without government assistance. This scheme, which moved 110 communities, marked the beginning of government-assisted resettlement in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Newfoundland Resettlement Program (1967-1975), which succeeded the original Centralization Program, was a joint federal-provincial operation. This program – now abandoned – is generally viewed as a failure. Despite the superior social services of growth centres, especially in education, many new industries failed and resettled workers were displaced from their traditional livelihoods in fishery. Social dislocation and alienation arose from poor social and economic integration within new communities. Furey was deeply affected by this upsetting upheaval in his homeland, and used the emotions it stirred to create scenes that honoured traditional Newfoundland trades and settler communities.
Furey dedicated his life to honouring the community in which he grew up in Newfoundland through his art, as well as the community in Hamilton by prioritizing public access to his work. Remaining active until his death in 2008, Furey explored everyday life in expressive and personal ways.
Furey’s childhood friend John Lewis recounts, “It’s how we spend that dash. It may have been a life interrupted and a life prematurely extinguished but what was accomplished in those years and what is remembered of him is demonstrated in his art”.
Credits and further reading
Special thanks to Theresa and Leah Furey.
Fine Art Collector: Conrad Furey
Hamilton Spectator: Conrad Furey painting through his cancer
Hamilton Spectator: Conrad Furey mural comes in from the cold
Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador: Conrad Furey
Toronto: Furey’s works up for auction
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