Noted painter and long-time Nova Scotia College of Art and Design professor Gerald Ferguson died suddenly last week in Halifax at the age of 73. Ferguson joined NSCAD in 1968 and was a key figure in establishing the school as an internationally renowned centre of conceptual art through much of the 1970s. From that base, Ferguson continued to teach painting at the college until 2005 in a career that influenced generations of young Canadian artists.
Ferguson had a reputation as a demanding and inspiring teacher whose trademark Diet Coke– and cigarette-fuelled studio critiques were often a candid make-it-or-break-it point for student painters, many of whom fondly referred to themselves as “Jerry’s Kids.” He has perhaps been best described by artist and former NSCAD student Jeffrey Spalding as “one of the most loveable curmudgeons ever.”
As an artist, Ferguson was constantly pushing both formal and conceptual boundaries. His best-known sculptural piece, 1,000,000 Pennies from 1979, is a wry take on value systems that, as Ferguson suggested, can either be displayed or deposited in a bank account where it will accumulate interest.
Challenging art-object conventions using serial techniques became the definitive measure of Ferguson’s working process in the 1996 series of paintings 1,000,000 Grapes, in which he meticulously layered each of 100 canvases with 250 stencilled images of 40 grapes, adding up in the end to a million.
Through the years, Ferguson continued to perfect a related frottage technique, with painted tracings of antique fireplace fronts, street drain covers, clotheslines, fence posts and garden hoses, among other everyday objects, revealing a uniquely ornate and subtly poetic impression of the quotidian world.
Ferguson’s final series of paintings, a landscape series created in homage to American painter Marsden Hartley, was exhibited earlier this year at Wynick/Tuck Gallery in Toronto and Gallery Page and Strange in Halifax.