John Farr

Story by the artist.

I am happy to contribute to this important archive. It is a difficult task to recall events and call up what happened 30 or 40 years ago. It feels like constructing an artist’s statement, which I find to be the least interesting part of most art shows. Often artists are the least qualified to write about themselves, given that the unconscious nature of art is such a large part of the creative process. I also sense there is a danger, in trying to explain and describe the past, without losing part of the experience. But let’s try.

I moved to Dundas from Niagara Falls early in 1980 to take a job with the Ontario Ministry of Labour in the occupational health branch. Artistically, I was doing painting, drawing and photography, and had earlier participated in shows with the Niagara District Art Association. Living in Dundas turned out to be a good choice. I started taking courses at The Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA) in a variety of mediums: printmaking, drawing, watercolours, and photography. I also joined the Hamilton Artists’ Inc. and started to hang out with the group of artists connected through the gallery. Jewel Foster worked at the gallery and was a key figure in the group. Bryce Kanbara, Brian Kelly and Mike Cartmell were on the board I think. I was on the board too at one point. I can recall painting the gallery walls many times. I had a solo show of mixed media work and painting at the Artists’ Inc. (1982) and a two-person photo show with Alene Alexanian (1983).

John Farr. "Aluminum Man". 1982. 32x18 in. Mixed media on plywood. Courtesy of the artist. 

Filling out arts grant applications appeared to be an important part of artistic life. Landing an Ontario Arts Council Grant seemed to be very important to artists. I applied a few times and was never accepted. Having a show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton also was an important objective/achievement. It was at the DVSA during a black and white darkroom photography course, with Vitus Benusis, that my interest in photography took off. I found Vitus to be an inspiration. The group did weekly critique sessions of each student’s work. It was a formative experience when one of my images caught a lot of attention during one of these critique sessions. I started photographing industrial workers around this time, inspired by my work and past jobs at factories in Niagara Falls. I met Lynne Sharman during the course and we often photographed together around Hamilton. We had some similar interests and were both interested in the street photography approach. We lamented the lack of a local venue that focused on photographic art.

John Farr. "Grinder". 1982. 10x14 in. Black and white photo. Courtesy of the artist.

Lynne and I talked about starting a new photo based group and fantasized about a gallery dedicated to photography. The first meeting for what would become The Photographers’ Union was at my apartment in Dundas, attended by: Alene Alexanian, Margret Haupt, Peter McHugh (a friend from work), Lynne and myself. Lynne and I were both connected to the Hamilton Artists’ Inc. at this time and the “Burg with the Works” show was developed there. Lynne found the venue, the Harvey’s restaurant at the corner of Main and Dundurn. I worked on the invitation. It was a group show by local photographers under the umbrella of the Hamilton Artists’ Inc. The mayor at the time, Bob Morrow, attended the opening. My work came to the attention of my employer, who felt my images constituted a conflict of interest. I was asked to remove my photos for review, which disrupted the show. By the time the painful issue was resolved the exhibit was over.

Photo of Lynne Sharman by John Farr, c.1980s.

At this point Lynne and I left the Artists’ Inc. and formed The Photographers’ Union. I recall some animosity because of this development. The Photo Union began, based out of a convenient space on Napier Street in a daycare facility. It was a loose collection of interested photographers, but the group was ambitious and quickly connected with many other photo galleries, like Gallery 44 in Toronto. The group organized many shows and The Love Canal bus trip and show was a highlight early in the group’s history. I was President, and Lynne was the Coordinator and driving force. Early on I remember doing a lot of administration work, with invitations (Letraset anyone?), publicity, fundraising, newsletter, meetings, bake sales. Lynne could type over 100 wpm, which nicely kept up with her stream of consciousness approach to communications, highlighted by the monthly newsletter, which she compiled with passion. Social and environmental issues were a focus of the group from the beginning. Many artists now had a venue to show their work and connect with other photographers. We all participated in a half dozen or more shows in just a few years and that was both exhilarating and inspiring.

When I left the Photographers’ Union circa 1985 I was heart broken. I was one of the founders of the group. I cannot recall exactly why I left. The group was certainly evolving. Anne Milne has written a few essays and a book on the Photo Union.

John Farr. "Farm Bike". 1985. 10x14 in. Black and white photograph. Courtesy of the artist.

I continued to photograph and do mixed media art. I had my own darkroom. I eventually changed careers to graphic design and advertising. I continued to show occasionally. I participated in two Photo Reunion shows of sorts, at the Carnegie Gallery in Dundas: “Photographic Evidence” 1988, and “Drastically Reduced” in 1990. I have become more active artistically over the past 15 years and still fondly look back at that early formative and influential period with affection.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Official Website: John Farr Design