Alex Colville: A gracious giant of the art world

Wendy Elliott
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WOLFVILLE - Alex Colville was a world-renowned artist and teacher, but he was also a husband, father and prominent and respected Wolfville resident.

The 92-year-old died peacefully at his home July 16.

Alex's oldest son, Graham, says the Colville family is touched by the public response to his father’s death.

“Our father could have been very pleased. He was a man who like being appreciated.”

His father would always feel some trepidation when he completed a painting, Graham recalled, wondering how it would be received.

Graham arrived in Wolfville from his home in Cyprus on June 20 to be with his father. He said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but father and son had three weeks of good visits.

“His short term memory was affected, but he was sitting up in the living room. His overall mood was placid and quite cheerful.”

Both Graham and his daughter, Liz, are grateful for the quality time they had with their father and grandfather.

The artist began to decline in health July 12 and died four days later. Graham said his father did not need to go to hospital and received fantastic support from his two regular caregivers and visiting nurses.

Graham paid tribute to his sister, Ann, for the structure that she set up and maintained to keep their parents in their own home.

“She was the lynch pin and we’re grateful,” he said.

Artistic giant

Born in Toronto, Colville moved to Amherst as a child before attending Mount Allison University, where he met his wife, Rhoda.

A Canadian war artist during the Second World War, Colville documented the horror of the Bergen-Belsen death camp. After experiencing war first hand, he once said, “you were grateful at the end of the day to have sheets.”

Later, he returned to teach at Mount A. in Sackville, N.B., where the couple raised four children.  Colville said he finished his first good painting in 1950. Thirteen years later, he decided to stop teaching and paint full time.

Colville’s work was exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1962 and he was commissioned to design commemorative coins for the centennial of Confederation in 1967.

In the early 1970s, the family moved to Rhoda’s hometown of Wolfville, where she cared for her elderly mother and Alex continued his work.

His prints and paintings are included in major art collections at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que.

He was a member of the Order of Canada. In 2003, Colville was awarded the Governor General’s Visual Arts Award for lifetime achievement.

In 2010, his painting Man on Verandah sold at auction for over $1.1 million - the highest price one of his works has received to date.

View the gallery

Alex served as chancellor of Acadia University for 10 years.

“I met the Colvilles shortly after they moved to Wolfville in 1973 and ended up forming a lifelong friendship with these two remarkable people,” James Perkin, a past university president and author of 1995 book on Colville - Ordinary Magic, said after Alex’s death last week.

“Alex was very generous with his time while Chancellor and often met with students who sought him out for his wisdom and guidance. He was a very straightforward speaker with an ability to say very little, but to cut directly to the heart of any matter."

Read more memories of Alex Colville here and here.

An extraordinary couple

Alex and Rhoda, who died late last year, are remembered fondly by many in Wolfville. 

She was his muse for seven decades and often his model – Rhoda is depicted in a canoe, walking dogs, riding a bike and peeking into an oven. There is even an image of her loading groceries into a car in front of the Wolfville post office.

Rhoda was known for her kindness, as well as her good humour. Once, amidst a neighbourhood furor, she spoke out in favour of a L’Arche Homefires group home across from her home. In a letter to this newspaper, she wrote, “people have been nice to me all my life and I think we should be nice to each other.”

The tragic deaths of her father, Charles Wright, brother, Graham, sister Jean, a grandfather and an aunt that occurred when she was nine, was a watershed in her life. The family group was killed when a train hit their car at a level crossing in Falmouth.

Rhoda was a gifted artist in her own right. Her witty poetry was popular with family and friends and, in 2005, she published a booklet of poems - Rhymes for Alex.

When asked how she felt about being a nude model for her husband, she would speak of going into the grocery store in Wolfville, knowing that everyone there had seen her naked on magazine covers or on TV. Rhoda admitted to a streak of jealousy, telling Gregg, that maybe she wouldn't have been altogether happy if her husband had spent so much time with another nude model.

Alex and Rhoda were predeceased by their son John. They are survived by three children: Graham, Charles and Ann.

Alex Colville’s funeral will be held at 10:30 a.m., July 24 in Acadia’s Manning Memorial Chapel.


Organizations: Mount Allison University, Museum of Modern Art, Centre National Canadian Museum of Civilization Acadia University

Geographic location: Wolfville, Cyprus, Toronto Amherst Sackville New York Paris Gatineau, Que Canada Colvilles Falmouth

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