The Big Picture: Tree of Life

Jack Shadbolt, Tree of Life, 1987, acrylic on wood, 28.5 x 17.5 ft. Photo: Yuri Akuney
Jack Shadbolt, Tree of Life, 1987, acrylic on wood, 28.5 x 17.5 ft.
Photo: Yuri Akuney

A monumental mural by Jack Shadbolt, one of British Columbia’s most important artists, faced an uncertain future when the Vancouver movie theatre where it had been displayed for more than two decades was slated for sale – and possibly even demolition.

But when art lover Pauline Boyle and Stew Turcotte, owner of Hambleton Galleries in Kelowna, got wind of the problem, they enlisted UBC, along with alumnus Luigi Rossi, a doctor from Smithers who graduated in 1981. Together, they were able to plant Tree of Life, an exuberant work composed of multiple facets of energetic colour, in a new home in the Reichwald Health Sciences Centre on UBC’s Okanagan campus.

Rossi donated funds to purchase the piece (at a price skilfully negotiated by Boyle), while Susan Belton, the curator of the campus art collection, worked behind the scenes to find a wall large enough to accommodate it – no small feat, considering the piece is some 28 feet tall. Turcotte believes Tree of Life escaped a near‑death experience. “If this had gone into storage for 10 or 15 years, it would have been ruined,” says Turcotte, who studied fine arts at UBC. “It just wouldn’t have been looked after. So this way, we saved it.”

Originally commissioned for the Cineplex Odeon art collection, Tree of Life is a surreal jungle of organic forms built in a series of layers, some up to four inches thick. Shadbolt, in choosing a title that alludes to foundational stories of myth and religion, said he was representing the “irrepressible force of natural growth.”

Unveiled in 1987 by Toronto entertainment producer Garth Drabinsky, it was an impressive accomplishment for Shadbolt, then 78. “It is just so massive,” says Belton. “Your response is demanded. But it is also so lively and colourful, one must fall in love. Art often draws opinions and criticism, but this work seems to touch everyone who sees it.”

Shadbolt, who died in 1998, was one of the province’s earliest abstract artists. He had some 70 solo exhibitions, including retrospectives at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1972 and his other laurels include an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from UBC in 1978.


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