Press photo of Gerald Ferguson with the Molson Award, April 1996
Press photo of Gerald Ferguson with the Molson Award, April 1996

Gerald Ferguson was only the ninth visual artist in thirty years to receive Canada’s most prestigious award in the arts—the Molson Prize of fifty thousand dollars—partly because he was an artist conspicuous in the current of his time, and partly because he was the creative force behind the emergence of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design as an internationally famous school, while he himself became a much loved teacher—in spite of a difficult personality thrust on him by the bi-polar disorder with which he wrestled for fifty years (before taking his own life in October 2009). The following tribute opened an afternoon at the college (now a university) dedicated to his memory.


I first met Jerry in 1970 at the Art Gallery of Ontario. He had come with a portfolio of lithographs from the NSCAD Lithography Workshop. The works were unique and I bought one of everything and gave Jerry a standing order for all future production—and thus a friendship began that endured for 39 years, since, a year later, the college made me an offer to create an art history department and I arrived in Halifax to discover I had taken an apartment in the Park Victoria where the Ferguson family, Jerry, Mary-Lou, Heather and Douglas were also living. Later still, we bought houses just ten minutes apart. I was therefore a frequent guest of the family, and in 1990 (when I retired from NSCAD and when Mary-Lou had begun to suffer from Parkinson’s) we sold the houses and moved into the same condominium building on Lower Water Street.

Jerry and Mary-Lou had been buying country furniture while they lived in the States and among my earliest memories are the Summer trips on which I accompanied Jerry as he began his famous collection of country furniture and folk art.

Early on, I noticed the almost hypnotic mobility of his face—so that when he tried to solicit one’s agreement with his views (which he often did) it was difficult to avoid smiling or frowning along with him even if one disagreed! On the other hand, he could also act deadpan, especially when he played poker, as he did from time to time with Garry Kennedy, me, the head janitor and other friends.

But Jerry looked for more exciting places to play, and those evenings were discontinued. In that regard, it is significant, I think, that in 1972 he had produced a very special dry-point etching—made by running the needle around a small, square copper plate while keeping it as close to the edge of the plate as possible. He called this work Close to the Edge, But not going Over the Edge—and if ever he’d had a personal crest, these words would surely have appeared upon it. (It has been shown that the drivers who take most risks in NASCAR races are those who suffer from depression—as if the excitement of going “close to the edge” lifts the dark clouds of that affliction, if only for a few hours. I have always thought that this applied to Jerry and that, in making this etching, he was saying so—whether he knew it or not).

I became aware of Jerry’s bi-polar disorder in the mid-seventies, when he broke down while telling me of his brother’s suicide. After that, it was normal for him to mention it to me, for he struggled not only with depression but also with its medications—medications that brought appalling nightmares and horrendous night-sweats. And when, much later, he and Mary-Lou bought their winter home in Florida, he wrote to me frequently, philosophising about his life, his art and his disability—though his letters were always matter-of-fact, and never self-pitying. Indeed, in a letter of year 2000, he expressed his contentment with life, in spite of his illness.

Our views on art college education, as on contemporary art, were almost identical. Jerry had studied art history as well as studio practice, and had had the integrity to travel through Europe to see the canonical works at first hand before teaching art history at the Kansas City Art Institute; so when I arrived he was already teaching a survey course and continued to do so for the next six years. But he was not only teaching courses in painting and in art history: he had already organised the start-up of the college press, and was for that year the inaugural Director of the Graduate Studies Programme as well as Director of the Lithography Workshop and also of the Anna Leonowens Gallery where, on its mezzanine level, he had also created a second and smaller project devoted to Conceptual Art and called, not surprisingly, “The Mezzanine Gallery.”

But Jerry’s personality was such that he withdrew from the directorship of these programmes once he had seen them established—and handed them to faculty recruited specially to take them over, while he developed his own art and expanded his teaching in the studio area. In all these innovations he relied of course on Garry Kennedy—who had appointed him and who, as college President, had to negotiate them through the Board of Trustees—a role for which Jerry himself had neither taste nor temperament.

Indeed, in spite of his eloquence, Jerry often seemed shy, unless in the presence of intimate friends or students. In larger groups, he was often taciturn – unless provoked to launch a diatribe by someone stepping on his toes. His self-image was one of an unassuming guy called from obscurity to serve a cause, win a battle and retire back into obscurity—like Harry Truman, for whom he had enormous admiration and whose biography he knew almost by heart; or like Peter Falk, in the role of Lieutenant Colombo – hiding his talent behind a scruffy raincoat, mock humility and a much chewed cigar (replaced in Jerry’s case by a cigarette). Jerry’s own reticence was especially notable when he had to introduce a visitor to a crowded auditorium and his voice became scarcely audible—so that when, a few years ago, at convocation, it became his lot to read the eulogy for Richard Serra’s DFA degree, I reminded him somewhat roughly about this habit and hurt his feelings; but he wrote to me a few days later saying that I was right and that he was rehearsing his speech—and in the event his delivery was clear and the occasion a success.

Just as Jerry stood for an art college education with a thorough-going knowledge of art history, so he taught introductory painting as a thorough-going knowledge of its traditional practice—and never as the research and development arm of the New York School where his own professional interests lay (though these interests would appear in his advanced courses). For instance, he would actually demonstrate how to paint a portrait—and though these demonstrations were never allowed to leave the studio, I recall seeing an exquisite portrait of his son Douglas (age ten or so) that had the lightness of touch, the flesh tones and the delicacy of an 18th century portrait by Fragonard. So he was never entirely hostile to figurative painting and we shared the same (admittedly narrow) taste for what was good about it.

In the early years of our friendship we met mostly in his college studio. As a result I wrote the essay for his first major show and, for thirty years or so, edited much of what he wrote. I also wrote the leading recommendation that in 1995 made him the 9th visual artist in 30 years to win the Canada Council Molson Prize. He was wintering in Florida when he heard that he had won this most prestigious of Canadian awards, and I would like to read a quotation from one of the letters he sent me at the time. It goes like this:

“I still can’t get over the Molson Prize. Just the visual arts might make sense, but all the arts? The writers are the royalty, followed by the composers, then the visual arts. I could see winning against actors, opera singers, dancers and musicians—that’s interpretation............”

Jerry had spotted in a flash the distinction that it took the philosopher Nelson Goodman a whole book to analyse.

As some of you know, one of Jerry’s favourite axioms was “quid pro quo,” so that over the course of our friendship he presented me with three very fine paintings – and also, I might add, with a ghastly momento mori silhouette of my head super-imposed on the stencil of a skull! The last of these wonderful gifts came just over a year ago on my 80th birthday. It is a highly complex landscape, full of ambiguous motifs that continuously morph into new images – an extraordinary work which shows a side of his genius too long suppressed. Indeed, during this last year, as his retrospective (organised by Sue Gibson Garvey) began to circulate, and as he sensed that his so-called “frottage” paintings were coming to an end, I urged him to see in this work a whole new direction. But it belonged with the improvisations he made after his left hand was crushed in a road accident three years ago, and some kind of artistic ethic stood in his way once the hand was mended. I found this sad, especially as it seemed to me that his so-called “frottage” works had truly begun to exhaust their potential (they should really have been called “roulage”, of course, though nobody seems to have been troubled by the misnomer).

Mary-Lou passed away last year about three weeks prior to my birthday – a loss from which Jerry never recovered—although he put on a bold face. In February of this year he fetched me home from hospital after an operation that he was almost certainly heading for himself and to which he was extremely averse. So I advised him to get a medication that might help—and this he did. In July he was guest of honour at a dinner given by Jayne Wark and Peter Dykhuis to celebrate the retrospective. He looked pale and unwell and was taciturn as ever. So I was surprised and encouraged when he told me a week later that he planned to buy a dog. I asked him how he would go about training it and, since he gave me one of his throw-away answers, I bought him the best book on training dogs that I could find and he was delighted with it: he showed me a kennel he had acquired for his studio and asked my advice on finding a new armchair for his apartment—and I thought that he was at last surfacing from his year of mourning. Alas, the wish was father to the thought: the dog turned out to be a puppy that was not old enough to respond to training. He e-mailed me an account of how he’d tried to cope for a fortnight of sleepless nights but had made no progress, had became depressed with his failure and, on the point of returning it, had been lucky to find Victoria Strange to take it off him.

On October 2nd he emailed me a birthday greeting and when I responded, telling him how much it meant to me, he actually sent another, this time adding “Many happy returns”. I now regard this as ominous.

I did not see him again until the night he died: I was exiting the elevator on the ground floor of our condominium building as he was about to enter it. Such an encounter usually meant that the one entering would stop and exchange a few words, and he surprised me by not stopping. So I called to him somewhat desperately “How’s it going?” and he turned and looked at me, his eyes so large and shining they seemed to be emitting light: “Fine,” he said, “Just fine.” And the doors closed.

Next morning, when I heard that he had taken his own life only three hours after we spoke, I recalled those luminescent eyes and thought they showed the kind of euphoric happiness that is said to accompany the decision finally to end a burden that has become unbearable.

Two days later, when the police took me to identify his body I found that someone had combed back the famous Napoleonic quiff of hair from his forehead. I asked the attendant to have it brushed forward again—as Jerry would have wished.

Memories of him will be indelible for everyone who knew him. I picture him as he was when I visited his studio on Sunday afternoons: my old and loyal and sometimes obstreperous friend—perhaps stretching a new canvas, one eye squinted against the smoke of the cigarette in his mouth, a wedge of paper stuffed into one nostril ----------- and his stapler clicking.

May he rest in peace.