From the brewery to the gallery.
Paul Cvetich (b. 1947) is a Hamilton artist through and through. At age 35, he quit the Amstel Brewery on Burlington Street (now closed) where he worked as he put himself through courses at the Dundas Valley School of Art as well as the Fine Arts program at McMaster University in order to become a full time artist. He quickly gained recognition in his city and was selected to create the Day of Mourning memorial, which is located at the corner of Bay and Main Streets.
In 1989, the Hamilton & District Labour Council sent out a call for proposals for a public work to encapsulate themes of labour in the city. Cvetich submitted and was unanimously accepted by the jury to create the Day of Mourning memorial. This work explores his attention to making art accessible to the wider community through both the represented themes of working class labour as well as through public display practices in a central downtown location. In a 1990 Arts Beat interview, Cvetich states, “I wanted to speak to the ordinary guy… I felt a closeness with the Day of Mourning concept because I was one of them. What better way to express my feelings than with this opportunity”.
While a widely accepted and iconic image today, at the time of commision, Day of Mourning stirred controversy. The 15 ft bronze and steel sculpture depicts a headless man dangling from a wall, a testament to the struggle that dead and injured workers in Hamilton have endured. Unveiled on April 28, 1990, the date recognized by the Canadian Labour Congress as the National Day of Mourning, many members of the public made comparisons of the image to the crucifiction of Christ, were concerned about the high cost of the commission, or were turned off by the fact that the figure appeared to have no head. Cvetich originally planned to keep the reasoning behind the decision up for interpretation, but explained to the Hamilton Spectator that the public response made him change his mind:
He said the missing head represents two things. First, it would be very difficult to choose a face, so he decided to let people imagine their own head. And, it also represents the mental stress of the job. ‘The way I hoped it would be read… not all jobs are a physical risk, but a mental risk’ (Hamilton Spectator, April 25/90).
In 1996, Cvetich evolved his interest in the laborer to explore one’s relationship to the body in times of increasing uncertainty in the face of technology. These themes were the subject of the Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibition ‘Paul Cvetich/Gender Infractions: Images of the Body in the Late 20th Century’, curated by Carol Podedworny. Featuring 80 individual works collectively titled Assembly, Cvetich uses industrial materials such as concrete and plywood to fracture photographic images of human bodies to combine, separate and neutralize gender. Implying “either liberation or confusion… Cvetich refers to the borders between ourselves and others – our physical body in relation to that of someone else’s, as well as our division at a surface level – of external skin to internal self” (Exhibition brochure essay, AGH).
Cvetich’s early focus on themes such as class, community and individuality have evolved and transformed into an exploration with colour, shape and form, becoming increasingly abstract in his style. Upon his career change to the arts in the mid 1980s, he has appeared in many public exhibitions nationally and internationally, taught at the University of Guelph, the Burlington Art Centre and abroad in Japan, and has extensively travelled. He was a member of the Young Contemporaries in Hamilton and has always remained tied to his roots in the city.
Credits and further reading
Hamilton Arts & Letters: Paul Cvetich: Ichikoo Park
Hamilton Spectator: It’s all too beautiful
Railway City: New exhibition at Art Centre
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