Who Is Kim Ondaatje? The Inventive Life of a Canadian Artist

a biography by Lola Tostevin

Print: 978-1-77133-829-5
300 Pages
April 26, 2022

This book is a biography of artist, film maker, and photographer, Kim Ondaatje, née Betty Jane Kimbark. Born into a wealthy family, Kim’s story is a reverse of the rags to riches narrative. She married two highly successful writers, Douglas Jones and Michael Ondaatje, had six children, and managed to carve a career as a respected artist whose works are in all major galleries/museums in Canada. Kim Ondaatje’s life is fascinating on many fronts. She is undoubtedly talented, and has contributed significantly to the Canadian art scene. One of her paintings from the Factory series hangs in the newly opened Canadian gallery at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She continues to be creative as she approaches her nineties.

Who Is Kim Ondaatje?: The Inventive Life of a Canadian Artist

Lola Lemire Tostevin was born into a French-speaking family in Timmins Ontario. She writes mostly in English although she often incorporates French into her writing especially in her poetry. She has published eight poetry collections of which two were translated into Italian and published in Italy; three novels of which one was translated into French; and two collections of literary essays.

The years between 1967 and 1971 were remarkably productive for the couple. Michael completed his long poem, the man with sevens toes, an unsettling poem of a white woman losing her identity while adrift in unfamiliar territory. An example of how different modes of perception create different perspectives. It would be easy for a reader to draw parallels between the two main characters as representatives of the author’s own situation: one character adrift in unfamiliar territory, the other, a man with seven toes, the victim of a symbolic castration.

Michael also wrote a critical study, Leonard Cohen, during this period. He shared the 1970 Governor General Award for The Collected Works of Billy the Kid with bpNichol’s The true eventual story of Billy the Kid. The two writers had become friends through their Coach House connection, leading Michael to make a film on Nichol, Sons of Captain Poetry. He also compiled, with Tony Urquhart, an anthology of animal poems, The Broken Ark: A Book of Beasts, a plea to humans to show more compassion towards animals. Michael continued part-time editing with Quarry. When Mordecai Richler dismissed the poetry magazine as “parochial” Michael responded by echoing ideas explored in his Master’s thesis on personal, local, and regional art forms reflecting universal themes.

Kim was also attracting a fair amount of attention. The Canadian art critic, Barry Lord, referred to London artists as “global villagers” plugged into larger art worlds while being irrevocably committed to producing work from their own experience. London artists, among them Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Tony Urquhart, and Kim Ondaatje, were creating a sense of excitement around new and individual bodies of significant work.

No longer interested in pursuing pure abstraction, Kim experimented with “disposable art,” 3D paper constructions of lilies meant to be hung on a clothesline. None of these have survived, but she was about to introduce 3-dimensional sculptural effects into her work. She wanted to explore a form relevant to her life. She found it, to some extent, through a theory Jack Chambers was investigating, Perceptual Realism. It posited that reality and the perception of reality are not the same– perceived reality being but a version according to communal, cultural, social, or personal assessment. The subtext of Michael Ondaatje’s the man with seven toes is a prime example: two people from two different cultures and values are doomed to perceive the reality of their situation differently.

A few months after Kim met Jack Chambers he asked why she wasn’t painting. She told him she had thrown out her old oils, brushes, and palette knives, and the move to London had left her too broke to renew supplies. Chambers took her to Willard Green’s art supply store and explained the situation. Willard offered Kim a $1500 charge account. Jack then had Kim apply for a $1500 Canada Council grant for which he wrote a letter of recommendation. Kim received the grant allowing her to pay back Willard Green.

The house the Ondaatjes rented on Piccadilly Street in London precipitated a crucial chapter in Kim’s career:

“I came close to being a colour field artist, using two or three colours, but then I went into the Piccadilly series, a non-objective type of realism, really. I had come to the very edge, in the beginning, of non-objective painting, then I decided there were a lot of good, non-objective artists and, while I appreciated what they were doing and I understood them, I didn’t want to become one of them. I wanted to do something of my own. I started putting the object back into painting.” Not only did Kim’s “new idea” of “putting the object back into non-objective painting” lead her to presenting enigmatic views of several rooms of the London house, she constructed each painting by incorporating three-dimensional materials onto the canvas. There is little free brushwork in the Piccadilly series. “It usually appears only in a scene where there’s a window, after I’ve constructed the window using tape and painted it, using the tape as a complete discipline in that case… I would then pick up a brush and do some free brushwork in the sky.”

The shift might seem radical, yet there exists throughout the Piccadilly series a juxtaposition of non-objective abstraction with identifiable items and settings as if Kim were “negotiating a transitional space between abstraction and high realism.” She adopted forms practised by non-objective artists—vertical lines, squares, rectangles—but transformed their geometric planes into areas of a house. Bold colours, typical of non-objective art, were replaced by subdued tones creating elusive shifts from abstraction to representation and vice versa. The first painting of the series, Cuckoo Clock, depicts a repeated wallpaper background forming a flat pattern of vertical bands of yellow and grey stripes confirming a strong influence from leaders in the development of colour abstraction such as in the work of Quebec artists, Molinari and de Tonnancour. But the painting strays from the strict principle of excluding notions of time and place. A mirror reflects an opposite wall with identical wallpaper, a cuckoo clock, and what appears to be a rectangular part of a ceiling, challenging non-objective rules opposing notions of time and place. Kim added an additional component. What is being represented is not simply a room or an object but their reflections, the same concept as in Azalea. The mirrored objects summon viewers to be part of a reflective experience.

There is an amusing anecdote regarding the inspiration behind Cuckoo Clock. Kim bought the clock because it sounded every fifteen minutes. She installed it in the only bathroom in the house to remind people, especially Michael who liked to retire to the bathroom to read, that there were others who might wish to use the facility. Two other paintings from this series, Fish Mobile and Chair were also bathroom inspirations.

By the following spring, the work done to the rented house on Piccadilly so impressed the landlord he put it up for sale. Michael’s contract was extended for another year and the Ondaatjes purchased a large house at 838 Wellington Street North where Kim had the third-floor attic renovated as a studio where the rest of the Piccadilly series was produced from photographs. Kim’s hard work was being recognized, her paintings appearing in high-profile shows. Two from the Hill series were included in a 1968 Spring group Exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Gallery in Kingston. The other artists represented were Jack Chambers, Greg Curnoe, Roy Kiyooka, Bill Muysson, Kazuo Nakamura, Christiane Pflug, Christopher Pratt, Claude Tousignant. Needless to say, Kim was in excellent company. She also took part in a touring exhibition arranged by the Art Institute of Ontario, later renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario, in The Artist with Their Work program.

In April, 1969, an exhibition of fourteen paintings making up The House on Piccadilly Street opened at the McIntosh Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Western Ontario. A London Free Press review by Lenore Crawford emphasized which paintings she thought were the most successful: “…the room with the old oak server, the green lamp and the painting on the wall, a reproduction of the green and black impasto studies of landscape the artist used to do. The ‘fun’ picture of mobile fish, or another of a bedroom with print curtains which belongs to Pop, perhaps, without being enslaved by it.”

Ambiguity was never a strong facet of Kim’s personality, yet it is one of the most interesting features of the series, the strict and formal rules of non-objective art challenged by elements central to a woman’s life. People who visited various houses in which Kim lived described them as chaotically lively with children, pets, visitors. Yet the depictions of the interior of the Piccadilly house have taken a synthetic, almost claustrophobic appearance, as if the energy of her previous abstract paintings had been contained. On one hand there is perfect symmetry, everything in its place, on the other hand, the projected stasis seems unlived. Blue Bedroom, for example, is not a place where one dreams.

The geometrical forms in several paintings are charged with enigmatic allusions. Hall, a painting of a narrow hallway leading to a shut door, a small trinket in the form of a female sign above the door, projects confinement. Chair, with its curvilinear cane back, rendered against a background of rectangles and stripes, is not a particularly inviting chair in which a person would curl up to read. Furnace, bears most of the elements of non-objective art with its rectangles, vertical and symmetrical lines, but, unlike non-objective art, it projects mystery, ambiguity, in its refusal to adhere to one approach, one genre. Kim has referred to her “sterile childhood home” as explanation for the Piccadilly series. According to her journals and interviews a work of art should only be painted, or a photograph taken, if artist or photographer feels strongly about its subject: “If the feeling is strong enough, the work of art will create its own truth.”

Artists often paint a house in relation to their past. Did any house in which Kim lived ever displace the one in which she was born and in which she grew up?

Within a period of nine months, from April to December, 1969, Kim had three solo exhibitions and her work was represented in six group shows. Jack Chambers continued to support Kim’s art, showing up once at her studio with the curator of Canadian Art at the National Art Gallery, Pierre Théberge. In 1969, again at Jack’s recommendation, Kim began producing prints of the Piccadilly series. Less detailed than the paintings, the silkscreen prints were redrawn to suit the new medium. As the curator of Museum London, Melanie Townsend, would later point out, “Referencing of her paintings, Ondaatje’s prints remain nonetheless unique, extending her subject matter through experimentation with process, and the introduction of new elements and colour variations.”

In the Globe and Mail, January 9, 1971, art critic, Kay Kritzwiser, wrote a review of the Piccadilly serigraph exhibition at the Merton Gallery in Toronto: “[A] sense of spiritual waste represented in hours lost to futility… empty, impersonal rooms, cool and uninvolving… It takes time to size up the Piccadilly Street house, for what you are looking into is Everyman’s house and what you dig into (whether you dig her work or not) is yourself… these rooms are our lives.”

Kritzwiser ended her review referring to The Furnace Room serigraph: “the most riveting… a key to her next direction. The hard-edge formal arrangement in pale hues has an austere, ghostly beauty. The same quality exists in the factories lining our waterfronts and highways and she yearns to paint them.”

Lora Senechal Carney met Kim in 1973 when Carney was doing interviews for audio-visual presentations for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. She would remain a close friend of Kim’s throughout her tenure in the Fine Arts Department at the University of Toronto, and beyond. Her extensive 1973 interview relates how Kim first got into the Factory series “like a mountain climber climbs a mountain because they were there.”


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