IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Canada’s RENAISSANCE Man
By Marie Tremblay
The time was set to get back to in-person interviews and off I went to Sackville, New Brunswick; a town known mostly for Mount Allison University. It was 4pm on the dot and I arrived at a home, a grand residence designed by the preeminent architect Edmund Burke. Large and manicured front gardens met me with a glow; everything was in full bloom, bright and cheery.
I stepped around the front of the verandah in what seemed to be in final stages of renovations. I took it all in. As I stepped up and under the front entranceway, under what must be the most flowery clematis I had ever seen, I looked up and tilted my head in amazement then heard a voice “Isn’t that vine a real show-off! I’ve counted well over 300 blooms.” I turned to pull up my mask and get a full glimpse of one of Canada’s most celebrated artists, Christian Corbet. “Welcome to Braevale” he said gesturing his hands in an open arms motion. He was inviting. He suggested we sit outside and so we did in large old antique chairs; this was comfortable. A man known for his vast artistic versatility he was for me a chameleon just then as I had not seen him wearing a beard in any photos I gleamed off the internet and reference books. Gone was the boyish look and before me a wonderfully handsome man befitting the titles and honours government institutions have bestowed upon him. I could tell instantly that Corbet was seasoned in interviews for he put me at ease quickly. He was most interested in my career and life which I found flattering and his questions to me were thoughtful, meaningful and above all else authentic. But this was supposed to be my interview and he allowed me to take over quickly!
Following about half an hour relaxing on the verandah we ventured into his residence. Once in the lobby I could immediately sense this was the home of not only an artist but also someone who was interested in history and with a fine taste for quality antiquities. We ventured into the main parlor where not a single drapery hung, the light radiating in brilliantly casting twinkles of light through crystals and mirrors. In there the room was graced with not one single painting but instead several impressive portrait busts in bronze and marble. From every corner of the room staring back at me in frozen glares were famous faces; his now famous portrait of the late Prince Philip, with editions in the Royal Collection as well as the Crown Collection in Canada was the most compelling. Immediately I was reminded that this is an artist who had royalty sit for him and not the other way around!
A walk back through the lobby resulted in Corbet showing me several framed photos, many famous faces and too a portrait of an old family friend, the coveted French author Victor Hugo. Yes, THE writer of “Les Miserables”. “Hugo was a friend to my great grandparents in Guernsey, Channel Islands and this is the oldest known intimate portrait of Hugo. Two museums have asked for it but I’m not dead yet.” he laughed. Corbet’s youthful look, voice and quick pace doesn’t at all remind me of someone five decades plus into their life.
As I spoke to Corbet about his life I found that he was quite open about his past. His responses often detailed and almost always laced with humour; he's actually quite funny! He was quick to talk of art and other artists crediting other Canadian women artists, men too, but to a lesser degree, on their influence on his work. Names of preeminent artists rolled of his tongue as if they were family and old friends and in all reality many were just that to him. Corbet has known, met and been befriended by some of our nation’s most revered artists and not only visual artists either. From ballet legend Celia Franca to author Margaret Atwood to war hero “Smokey” Smith and the designer of the Canadian flag Colonel George Stanley to name just a few. He has walked and dined with the greats.
HRH The Prince Philip with Christian Corbet in Buckingham Palace.
The tour continued into the the dining hall, aptly called the “Blue Room”, and there Corbet showed me paintings by several Canadian women artists which left me in awe. I could see a visual homage being played out and most effectively to the honour of early Canadian modernists, women who forged a brilliant new path in the fine arts. In his collection many Isabel McLaughlin’s, Bobs Coghill Haworth’s, Prudence Heward and even an Emily Carr. Canadian gold. As well sculptures of many sizes were spotted about from Eugenia Berlin’s to Emanuel Hahn’s and also a few of Corbet’s own medallions; the little hand-held jewels of his which made him highly collected by art galleries and museums around the world.
By this point in my visit I felt a flood of information coming in at me, so much I felt I should know but didn’t and much centered around art history – Canadian art history. I had to admit I felt more than lacking in knowledge but I was quickly and graciously filled in. A spin on perhaps only a small portion of the main floor eventually led us into the former library, now a gallery space. More coffered ceilings and dark wood but this time I was engulfed in Corbet’s ceramic work. This space is all him, sound forms with a burst of vibrant energy all by the artist’s hand. I wasn’t aware of him as a “potter” and was this new? Couldn’t be! But it was. “Fours years now. Decided to take up some pottery in a chance meeting when sculpting a portrait of Alexander Graham Bell in Cape Breton. Met a potter, they were good but there was little decoration on their work so I made a pitch if they were to teach me how to throw I could teach them to decorate. It was an interesting collaboration but I gave weeks of instruction and then gave me one 45 minute lesson.” He was apparently a quick study!
I was introduced to porcelain and black clay works, the latter being Corbet’s favourites. Brown clay pots as well stood out, their subject matter intimate, sexual and spoke to a narrative. The series though small in numbers depict forms; men, women and non-binary, this is his “One World Series” where all subjects are one, unified and full of joy. Corbet’s energy is drenched into these with a brilliant brush of colours generating absolute life. Tiny tea bowls adorned with portraits are of drag queens giving off a stupendous flavor of character and pride. As small as some of these earthy jewels are their prices reflect a unique demand for few of the more discerning collectors; prices since escalating in a short time to four figures.
"One Life", hand-painted stoneware, 2001. Priv. Coll.
The next visit was a jaunt up to Corbet’s sculpting studio which granted an opportunity to view the artist in his full scope and measure as a creator. The route there was a maze of doors, twists and turns at one point I caught a glimpse of an original Salvador Dali. Finally, Corbet opened the door where immediately one witnessed a wall filled with accolades and awards of all sorts attesting to his many unique accomplishments. Letters from royalty to appointments and titles left me impressed but Corbet didn’t want to focus on that “These are all end product bits?” Asked to expand on more Corbet said “ It’s what may come after a work of art has been put out for public consumption. Where if people appreciate it they may reward you a bit more. To me once the project is complete and the art delivered it can be a down time especially if the project was so enjoyable while creating it. These are appreciated, a sign of gratitude.”
The tour went up and into his space, a most private place for most artists, who like Corbet, work in near isolation. Has the pandemic affected him “ Why would it?” he quipped “I’ve been in training for this for nearly three decades” he laughed. It’s in this space I obtained a better understanding of his brain and process so I stood and stared for awhile. Looking around from station to station I could grasp general mechanics of stages. In one corner large busts of prominent figures that looked complete and scattered around them medallions in clay, large and small, most decorated with the choppy and impressionistic finish he’s known for in his sculpture. These intrigued me the most, a discipline that Corbet has received a lot of attention for. I then pointed out a bust in excitement then blurted out “This is ………!” there was no holding back my joy. Corbet joked he could see my growing anticipation but added “Most people get excited to see this portrait.” Asking where it was going he further explained in his playful way “Oh an elf never tells their secrets.” I’ve been asked to keep the name of the subject quiet for now but I can say this may become his masterpiece.
Next to these visages was some of his forensic work created for institutions such as the Department of National Defense, University of Western Ontario and even the Government of Ireland. Putting a face to missing soldiers and Egyptian mummies is a side practice he is most passionate about. “Helping identify the remains of a soldier for their family and friends is closure and important part of life and for the eternal peace of the subject. This has been satisfying for many.” Corbet is the first artist globally to have sculpted a forensic facial reconstruction based on CT and laser scans. “We avoided having to desecrate the remains of a 2,200 plus year old mummy and leave them totally intact.” He enthusiastically added “We also found that the subject was a she, not a he and was Nubian.” The Discovery Channel loved that!”
Scotland's King Robert the Bruce. A definitive identification proving the famous king didn't have leprosy. Coll. Sterling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, UK.
As I looked around I saw finely executed drawings, masterful in fact, framed, pinned up and even a few on the floor. His fine use of gentle lines and soft approach to layering colour make them works to contemplate. All of his work generates a level of deeper thinking if one is wishing to take the time to study them. They are not just your average portrait and from his list of world famous sitters who sat for them well, that speaks for itself. Staring back was Farley Mowat, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, Dr. Brenda Milner and even his friend Dr. Jane Goodall the latter of which was simply beautiful.
My eyes then landed on his other works in mixed media. This one station was a kaleidoscope of colour, pattern and designs. They immediately lifted my spirits. Hundreds and even thousands came to light as I looked at piles of works on paper all neatly categorized and sleeved. High piles of works! To the right was a stark sign of reality, there ripped and torn seemingly hundreds of sketches, paintings and as the artist spoke to me “These are all thoughts and concepts and when I’m done they get retired to the fire.”
"Pond Life", mixed media on paper.
My thoughts during this time were that I was in the space of a thinker, where intelligence meets reason and with a plan, he even destroys his concepts which is fascinating. Corbet makes things happen, certainly not a person who sits idle. “Do you have down time? Time to relax?” I asked. He answered as if asked this many times before “Sure, when I sleep. I can relax completely when I’m dead.” he laughed, his unique fun voice matching his devilish eyes. In there is a childlike personality that I felt comfortable getting to know; most people do. This made me ask “What about your nay-sayers? Have you many?” Corbet smiled and said “Don’t we all.” He paused for a bit and then continued “Most people don’t understand the role of an artist in society. Many just think we play all day with little direction and while that may be the case with some people that certainly isn’t the case with me. I’m here to create a response to my time on earth, to document and interpret what effects me in my own unique way. This can cause confusion, a fear even and what people don’t understand they can fear. Fear can create a negative response.” I pressed further asking “How do you deal with this negativity?” He replied confidently “I ignore it of course. Often people’s intent to generating negativity is for attention and so I can empathize they’re just looking to fit in, to be heard.” Corbet’s compassion and benevolence can be seen here in his words adding “Shouldn’t we all try and understand people and give them respect even if it is negative and they seemingly dislike us. After all they too are just looking for love; we all are.”
At over half a century Corbet flows with the fountain of youth and with great optimism and energy.
All what I saw and heard in this one studio was duplicated in what I witnessed in his summer studio; an Edwardian former guest house at the back of the property. Painted a lively yellow with a cottage feel, were a myriad of paintings, mostly corporate size and tools and paints as well as mixed media materials everywhere. In this unique space it brought back memories of the cabin and homes of Tom Thomson and Maud Lewis. Intimate and overly personal but was I intruding? I stood in the doorway with sun on my back as he seemed to move into a different mindset.
As I sat down in a little old chair I could see Corbet running his hands over many materials on a large old table; crayons, charcoal, wires, screws and staples. He spoke of his process “I tend to come out here during the summer months to work up to principle canvases either smaller sketches done away or on the third story. It’s a airier space one where I can have a smoke or maybe a drink and free my mind just a bit more and get looser in my application.” I had to ask what was his favourite drink “Scotch of course and before you ask, yes, I enjoy my weed.” I laughed. He then fanned his hands over some colourful pastels landing on a vibrant pink and picking it up he stepped back then forward to the canvas and danced the colour ever so lightly around the surface of the massive stretcher. I sat taking brief notes ensuring I didn’t lose sight of his posture and his timing as he gave life to the artwork. There is such great value when watching a creator at work, so much to learn. But to the work of Christian Corbet one is quick to realize that this is not just your average painter, sculptor, artist rather he is unique. He adds to his curriculum vitae poetry, textile arts, metal work and designer and more. He doesn’t waste his days and is building a true and valuable legacy. He himself is a worthy subject and it’s easy to understand why he’s come to the acclaim as he has.
Corbet at work in his summer studio also called the "Playhouse Studio".
Following our time in the summer studio we walked the parkette; an intimate path winding the sides and back of Braevale Manor complete with tiny pods. There, Corbet showed me his work-in-progress on an amazing plan that is scheduled to open in 2023. While confidentiality on the plan must be upheld I can assure the reader this will be a great opportunity for his Atlantic Canadian community. Few artists are always thinking about their community, most live within their minds. Corbet doesn’t he is known for his foresight and even activism, for helping be a voice of todays top social and political concerns and bringing people to a greater awareness even if it’s a message they don’t fully understand. He is responsible for saving the atrium space in the Bank of Canada in Ottawa as well as ten sculptures by his late mentor and sculptor Dr. Elizabeth Bradford Holbrook, CM in Ontario. He has a voice and a presence and he is using it well.
Corbet's portrait he sculpted from life of the late Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. Corbet is the frist North American to have sculpted a Royal from life. Coll. Royal Coll.
Come the end of the interview I felt I was leaving having found a new friend. I was fueled up with new knowledge of the arts and it coming from a most interesting human. A man who is known to be giving to many of moral support, to business advice, to supplies to emerging and struggling artists and much more. I can see this as a man with one foot firmly placed in the past and one far stepping into the future; his constant vision for tomorrow, what can be done and should be done is seen in his open and active voice supporting social issues such as the LGBTQ+, Jewish and Indigenous communities. His ability to pack much into his day, his humour and reason, his colourful life he happily shares with everyone. All this and more in the life of Christian Corbet, a true modern day Renaissance man.