Walter J. Phillips

The Human Trace: W.J. Phillips’ View of Nature

"A landscape without a wisp of smoke above the trees, a footprint in the sand, is no less welcome when a man is lost therein and lonely, than in art."

W.J. Phillips (1884 - 1963) was an active figure within Canada's artistic community from 1913, when he arrived in Winnipeg from England, until his death 50 years later. He was an influential art critic and teacher, and worked widely - across the country, as well in the United States and abroad.

With watercolours drawn entirely from the Pavilion's permanent collection, The Human Trace explores Phillips' typical scenic and tranquil representation of human presence within the natural environment. The exhibition is organized around four overlapping expressions of human activity that appealed to Philips, and recur throughout his imagery: the physical manipulation of the land itself, building of structures, harnessing of the earth's resources through labour, and human adaptation of the natural environment for leisure pursuits. 

Many of Phillips' artistic contemporaries, most notably the Group of Seven, were interested in emphasizing human absence from their wilderness landscape paintings. In contrast, Phillips held the steadfast belief that some sign of human presence was needed for a landscape to become a work of art. Today, as we face climate change, the human trace - Phillips' "wisp of smoke" - also serves as a troubling warning for the future.

Kyle Peters - Guest Curator
Andrew Kear - Curator of Canadian Art, Winnipeg Art Gallery

Walter J. Phillips was born in England in 1884.

Walter J. PhillipsAs a young man, he moved to South Africa where he worked as a teacher, newspaper reporter, surveyor's assistant, law clerk and diamond miner. Phillips returned to England briefly before immigranting to Winnipeg in 1913. Phillips later moved to Calgary, Banff and lastly to Victoria where he died in 1963.

One of Canada's most celebrated artists, Walter J. Phillips produced hundreds of watercolours, colour woodcuts, etchings and engravings throughout his long career, depicting the Canadian landscape in Manitoba and Northwest Ontario.
Few other Canadian artists left such an enormous catalogue of Canadian art chronicling works from the eastern townships of Quebec to the west coast. Phillips is recognized internationally for his innovations in colour woodblock printing.

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