The Grandfathers showing at two locations
By Anne Jardine
Invermere photographer Jim McElroy currently has two exhibits around town.
The display at Pynelogs Cultural Centre through Saturday, September 12, part of a show by a group of regional artists, includes a variety of Jim’s subjects and a few impressionistic photos of rock formations along the shores of Galiano Island on B.C.’s west coast. These Galiano landscapes have special meaning for the artist.
At the Blue Dog Café, a more extensive collection of pictures from this Galiano series sweeps dramatically along the feature wall. In the COVID era, a new sparse arrangement of tables opens up the sightlines and transforms the space into the elegant Blue Dog Gallery. (Fear not, the Café is still serving its amazing food and coffee.)
In these images, rhythms of the sea are captured in rock shapes that have been honed by the endless movement of tides. The photos call one’s fingers to touch the rough, yet smooth surfaces, to trace the curves, to feel the sun’s heat absorbed within the granular bodies of the stones. Sensual rhythms of flow are somehow caught for the viewer in a warm breath of longing that releases itself in a sigh of remembered sea air. There is history here.
In 1975, young photographer Jim McElroy received a Canada Council grant to develop a body of work for his first serious solo exhibition. He rented a tiny cabin on Galiano, set up his darkroom, and spent the winter taking black and white photos of the sandstone tidal zones of the island. He was intrigued by the soft, foggy winter light, the grainy textures, and the sea-smoothed shapes.
The resulting black and white images convey the beauty of loneliness and longing. These photos were exhibited far from the coast in galleries in Banff, Canmore and Lethbridge.
After the showings of these early works, Jim decided he could not survive on photography, and in a gesture of surrender to the demands of an economy inhospitable to young artists, he hung up his camera, and spent the next three decades of his life working in various jobs to make a living.
He didn’t give any of this much thought until he found himself wrestling with lingering philosophical ideas about the role of creativity in our wellbeing. Around the same time, he had an experience in a sweat lodge.
The elder leading the ceremony urged everyone to be still and listen for the voices of the Grandfathers in the glowing rocks at the centre of the dark circle. The Grandfathers seemed to call Jim to go back to his creative life, to his true work as an artist. As Jim thought about this message, he recalled the Galiano Rocks and his abandoned camera. He began to think of those early images as “The Grandfather Series.” He knew also that he was being called to return to the island where this journey began.
He returned twice more, most recently to visit an old friend who lived on Galiano Island. This time the summer days were long and full of light and rich colour. Jim noticed how people of all ages joined their children, climbing over the rocks, reclining, playing in the tidepools, touching and caressing every surface, joyfully interacting with the landscape. Jim felt the rocks were inviting the people into their world.
Jim’s most recent images in The Grandfather Series evoke a different kind of longing, a beckoning, welcoming warmth, a quiet celebration of generations. These are kindly Grandfathers. They will keep calling to Jim as long as he honours their wisdom, their urgings to explore and express the beauty he finds.