Printmaking legend honours students at the heart of his art
Professor emeritus Walter Jule credits former students with helping to drive evolution of print-based art.
By SALENA KITTERINGHAM
(Edmonton) He’s been featured in more than 250 international exhibitions, has artworks in more than 60 permanent collections worldwide and has been inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. But nothing delights University of Alberta printmaker Walter Jule more than recounting the career trajectories of his former students. Having taught in the Department of Art and Design for almost four decades, the professor emeritus has a great deal of material to draw from.
So when the U.S.-based Southern Graphics Council announced Jule as the recipient of its 2015 Excellence in Teaching Award, and invited him—the first artist outside of the United States to be bestowed with the honour—to exhibit a solo retrospective of his work at the council’s upcoming conference in Knoxville, Tenn., he was quick to steer the conversation about his greatest impact on the evolution of print-based art toward featuring the work of U of A printmaking alumni worldwide.
“Since 1970, over 70 per cent of all international graphics prizes that were awarded to Canadian artists have been won by artists associated with the University of Alberta as teachers or students,” Jule explains. “The primary reason I am receiving this award is because so many of our graduates from the University of Alberta printmaking program are teaching now all over the world. They pursue projects together, and now we have students who are the students of our former students.”
For the exhibition, Jule has organized a printmaking portfolio called From Time to Time, featuring artworks by 26 of the U of A’s most distinguished printmakers from 1975 to 2008.
A number of alumni have already booked an exhibition of the portfolio show at their respective university galleries for the coming year. The U of A’s Print Study Centre will also receive an edition of the show to hold in its collection for posterity.
The featured artists comprise an impressive list of who’s who in today’s printmaking sphere, including current U of A art and design professor Liz Ingram, Canada Research Chair and Centennial Professor Sean Caulfield, and other alumni who have together won more than 90 major international awards and gone on to exhibit their work and hold teaching appointments throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia.
As Jule puts the finishing touches on From Time to Time and prepares the exhibition for shipping to Knoxville this week, he recalls several past conversations with students through the decades.
He recounts with a chuckle a favourite exchange with his longtime print studio technician Robin Smith-Peck. “When Robin handed in her resignation, she said it was time for her to become a grad student because she was the only one around here who understood my critiques.”
“It was true!” laughs Smith-Peck, who worked alongside Jule as an etching technician in the 1980s. In 1981 it was Jule who encouraged Smith-Peck to establish SNAP (the Society for Northern Alberta Print Artists) with fellow U of A print shop technician Marc Siegner. Smith-Peck went on to complete her MFA at the U of A in 1989 and was recently inducted with Siegner into Edmonton’s Cultural Hall of Fame.
“Sometimes the students could be quite perplexed, asking, ‘What does he want?’” recalls Smith-Peck. “But what Walter wanted was the student to engage with him in conversation, and to come to some kind of awareness and understanding of their own work. He was never an instructor saying you should fix this or you should do that.”
“I’m not interested in dogmas,” says Jule. “I am interested in helping to create an environment that is so diverse and interconnected that students have a chance, by plan or by stumbling, to connect with an inner predilection—something that is authentic about their creative aspirations. That’s where the teaching kicks in,” says Jule.
Throughout Jule’s career and into his retirement—if that’s what his current back-to-back schedule of international engagements as exhibitor, curator, juror and guest speaker can be called—he has upheld an unwavering commitment to the act of conversation as being the source or locator of artistic genius or insight. And these conversations with Jule continue to inspire alumni years later.
“It is almost like you have Walter’s voice in your head,” says Smith-Peck, “so even when you are working in your own studio, by yourself—and in my case that’s a trailer in Yellowknife—it is often like you are having a conversation with Walter about the work.”