Harold J. Treherne

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The late Harold J. Treherne's name isn't big - yet (1983)

David and John Treherne, Regina, 1983
Dave (left) and John Treherne view their father's work at the Dunlop Art Gallery

Though Harold J. Treherne's name isn't big, there's a dedicated fan club, made up of artists and curators, who want the world to know about this Moose Jaw folk artist.

A major retrospective exhibition of his work, on display at the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina until Sept. 18, should help. It contains 46 of the approximately 222 works Treherne completed before his death in 1975.

He captured his immediate, daily environment with refreshing directness - his back yard on a wintry night, his colorful kitchen filled with knickknacks, a still life of vases filled with wheat - by using simple materials - ballpoint pens, pencil crayons and inexpensive paper.

Like other Saskatchewan "grassroots" or folk artists, Treherne received no formal art training. Born in England, he worked as art apprentice draftsman during his teens. In 1923, he set out for Saskatchewan with a threshing crew.

Treherne didn't start drawing seriously until 1957 when his children had started to leave home and he had more time to spend on exercising his imagination.

Dunlop director Wayne Morgan said that like many Prairie folk artists, Treherne spent a great deal of time looking at the landscape from the vantage of his tractor. When he sat down to draw after years of observation, he revealed a remarkable sensitivity to color and detail.

Jack Severson, who has spent more than five years locating works for the exhibition, said Treherne's lack of formal training made his notion of perspective "way off." But it's that curious way of capturing multiple perspectives in a single work - creating a series of different vanishing points within the same drawing - that makes Treherne's work particularly intriguing.

"In some ways, this stuff was very calculated in the tradition of museum art," Severson said. "But fortunately it still has rough edges. Like any good artist, necessity was the mother of invention for Treherne. He didn't know the problem of perspective he was dealing with was 'solved' in the 1500s. So he figured it out his own way."

Treherne's work reflects the resourcefulness, as well as the sensibilities, of a Prairie farmer. Rather than adjusting the image to the size of the paper available, Treherne taped pieces together to achieve the right format. Finding oil paints "too sloppy" and that alcohol-based pens faded too quickly, Treherne used regular ballpoints.

While Treherne exhibited frequently in amateur art shows, he remains an unknown quantity to all but a few people who take a serious interest in Saskatchewan folk art. Like most grassroots artists, Treherne refused to sell his work, even when offers came from institutions such as the National Gallery in Ottawa. He gave most of it away to friends and family and few have entered public collections.

"He sold a few later in life," Morgan said. "But often, if people expressed an interest in a particular work, he'd make another version and give that away."

"A few are in the hands of private collectors. But since there aren't many in public collections, this exhibition is the first opportunity most people will have to see a large selection of his work."

For Treherne's sons Dave and John, the Dunlop exhibition is a source of quiet pride.

"We had these paintings around us for years, when we were growing up," Dave said. "When they suddenly all come together, you get a different perspective on Dad. The amazing thing to me seeing these works all together is the importance that color was to him. You can see it right there, which is something I never noticed before."

"I guess the drawings weren't something any of us thought that much about when we were growing up," John said. "It was just something he did. It became a major part of his life in later years. But it was a personal thing."

"He didn't much like it if you were critical of his work," Dave recalled. "He liked a positive response. If you questioned any details, you were in trouble."

As noted in the exhibition catalogue, Treherne was highly sensitive to criticism. In 1970, a juror made critical comments about his entry in the Watrous Art Salon, the largest amateur show in Western Canada. Treherne gave up drawing for several years feeling that "this single criticism denied and denigrated his entire life."

In 1975, he entered the Watrous show again. But he died during a visit to England, before he was told he had taken first prize.

While the public is just getting to know Treherne, Severson and Morgan, among others, are quick to call him one of Saskatchewan's finest artists.

"He's definitely among the best," Severson said. "You can stand his work up against some of the big names and he comes out ahead."

"A lot of people have been waiting for this show for a long time," Morgan said, looking around the gallery at the examples of Treherne's unique pictures of Saskatchewan. "This is exciting".

-The Leader-Post, Regina, 1983


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