Alex Janvier CM, RCA, LLD (Hon)
Alex Janvier is a ground-breaking and celebrated artist who has made lasting contributions as a muralist, painter, community leader and educator. Alex has also facilitated positive changes through his involvement in environmental and political issues. His works are included in many public collections, such as those at the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Klienburg, Ontario. Many private collectors and corporations also showcase Alex’s work as part of their art collections.
Alex was born in 1935 on the LeGoff Reserve of Cold Lake First Nations, not far from the banks of Cold Lake near the Alberta Saskatchewan border. Alex traces his Denesuline and Saulteaux heritage to his mother and to his father, who was the last hereditary chief of Cold Lake First Nation. Alex spoke the Dene language until the age of eight when he was taken away from his family and sent to Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. There, Alex had to deal with culture shock, confusion, loneliness and abuse. However, there was one consolation offered to Alex throughout the experience. The principal of the school recognized that Alex was endowed with strong artistic skills and encouraged him to explore and develop that talent by arranging private tutoring with art professor Carlo Altenberg during Alex’s teenage years.
In his early twenties Alex decided to pursue formal training at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary and graduated in 1960 with a Fine Arts Diploma with honours. Over time, Alex went on to develop his own unique artistic voice and was often heralded as the first Canadian Native modernist. Alex’s own unique creative style was inspired by cultural and spiritual elements from his Dene heritage, including the traditional beading and basketry created by his mother and other relatives. Also influencing Alex’s abstract technique were European modernists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Joan Miro.
In addition to developing his own signature style, Alex also began to emerge as a pioneer among First Nations artists. In 1966 he was commissioned by the Federal government to produce eighty paintings for the Department of Indian Affairs. As a cultural advisor for the Indian Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal, Alex brought together fellow Native artists from across Canada, to form an aboriginal advisory group. Alex was one of five artists commissioned to create circular murals, over nine feet in diameter, for the Indian Pavilion.
After returning to Alberta, Alex met and married his wife, Jacqueline. In 1971 he decided to become a full time artist and, with Jacqueline’s support and partnership, started Janvier Murals and Fine Arts. By 1973, he had become a founding member of the Professional Native Indian Artists Association. Widely known as “The Indian Group of Seven”, the members Daphne Odjig, Alex Janiver, Norval Morisseau, Eddy Cobiness, Jackson Beardy, Carl Ray and Joseph Sanchez began actively encouraging the art world to recognize the merits of Native art. Along with Bill Reid as an unofficial eighth member, they forged a new path for future generations of Native artists. In 1974 and 1975 Alex’s paintings were also included in an Alberta Art Foundation exhibition that traveled to London, Brussels, Paris, New York and Montreal.
Alex returned to Cold Lake First Nations in 1976, after spending the first half of the ’70s enhancing his creative style and painting many murals across Canada. A few of these include the Explorer Hotel Mural, in Yellowknife and Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton. Of significant mention is the Beaver Hills Mural, covering three tiers and an immense central spiral staircase, in Strathcona County Hall in Sherwood Park, Alberta. Alex’s decision to return home to the Cold Lake First Nation was for peace and privacy. In his words “open spaces are essential for both a healthy family and good art.” The move proved to be highly beneficial. A renewed Alex Janvier launched into the next chapter of his career starting with his first international solo exhibition in Linkoping, Sweden in 1977. In 1985, his international exposure widened when he was chosen to represent the country in a Canadian-Chinese Cultural exchange. The 1992 exhibition Land, Spirit, Power, the National Gallery of Canada’s first major international exhibition of contemporary First Nations art, featured his works up to twenty feet in length. In 1998 Alex designed a $200 coin, White Buffalo, for the Royal Canadian Mint. Another memorable experience in Alex’s career was painting and showing his unique creative style for two exhibitions as an international guest artist of France in 2009. In 2010, he returned to Sherwood Park to complete two new balcony murals for the Strathcona County Hall.
Alex’s list of honours includes membership in the Order of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts. He was given the Governor General Award in Visual and Media Arts and the Alberta Centennial Medal, as well as Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, Tribal Chiefs Institute, and Cold Lake First Nations. In 2008, Alex was honoured to receive the first Marion Nicoll Visual Art Award from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, an award named after one of Alex’s teachers from the Alberta College of Art. Alex holds Honourary Doctor of Laws Degrees from the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization is the permanent home to a work that can easily be described as Alex Janvier’s most noted and widely-enjoyed piece to date. Unveiled in 1993, Morning Star is a spectacular mural that stretches across 4500 square feet of the Museum’s domed ceiling. The title alludes to the Denesuline people setting out on a journey, guided through the dim winter light by an early morning star. It serves as both a powerful example of the Janvier style and a moving tribute to spirit, traditions and endurance of Aboriginal peoples. It also reflects the service Alex has performed as a beacon for generations of artists and as a guide for all those who wish to explore the great depth, beauty and power of Canadian Aboriginal art. His unique voice and vision are permanently woven into the fabric of Canadian art and his work will continue to illuminate the Aboriginal experience and inspire audiences for generations to come.