A Tribute to a Colourful Artist

In the last 53 years of making artwork, the Yukon’s beloved artist Jim Robb has steered pretty clear of doing art shows.

It’s a curious situation, since he has a deep love of sharing the colourful history of the Yukon, and in return, his pen, ink, and watercolour drawings are well-loved in the Yukon and beyond.

Over in Ottawa, for example, Governor General Adrienne Clarks appointed him to the Order of Canada in 2003 in recognition of his artwork.

Back home in the Yukon, his art is so well-loved, that before he has even completed a new piece, there is a buyer waiting. That’s part of the reason he hasn’t done a show in more than 20 years – there’s no surplus to hang.

“I used to shy away from shows,” Robb says. “It was never my thing to put stuff on exhibition.

“In recent years I’ve had a good demand for my work, so I didn’t have to hang anything.”

However, Jessica Vellenga figures now is a good time to showcase his work. She is heading an initiative through the Yukon Arts Centre to hang a retrospective exhibition, and she is asking the public for loaners.

Robb is on board with the idea.

“I’m not uncomfortable, it’d be nice,” he says.

Still, he’ll feel more comfortable if enough people come forward to loan artwork for the show – especially artwork from his favourite era: 1970s.

“That was a prolific time for me,” he says. “I hope some of those pictures show up.”

His career as an artist in the Yukon began in the 1950s. Robb was 22 years old when left Montreal in 1955 and moved to Whitehorse. His early artwork featured pastel and charcoal drawings on raw moose hide.

His first sale was three 8×4 foot murals for the bar in the Taku Hotel in Whitehorse in 1957.

In 1961 he began to focus on photography, and pen, ink, and watercolour drawings. He would find interesting people and cabins to sketch across the territory – including in Carcross, Carmacks, and Dawson City. He would also follow tips from people working for the mining companies who advised him about interesting shacks they had seen out in the backcountry.

His style took shape, and he began to focus on “the colourful five per cent.” It’s a term he created and that has become woven into the fabric of life in the Yukon.

“I’m not interested in 95 per cent of the population,” he says. “I’m interested in the interesting and unique people who set themselves apart at what they work at, and their philosophy in life.”

The retrospective exhibit of his work, which will run from May 22 to August 23, will showcase the people and buildings that have captured Robb’s interest since his early days in the Yukon. Jessica Vellenga’s hope is that people in possession of original pieces will loan them to the show, and that they’ll be able to exhibit artwork from his early days to present.

“I’m doing it to honour him, I think he deserves it,” says Vellenga, who is the community engagement visual arts coordinator for the Yukon Arts Centre. “He has engaged with so many people and recorded their history through his drawings – and he’s recorded the way Whitehorse has changed, too, like Moccasin Flats and Whiskey Flats – places that don’t exist anymore.

“He’s really well-loved and I think it’s time he had a retrospective so that people can see the progress of his career.”

Vellenga’s plan is to meet with people who have original pieces of Jim Robb’s artwork by mid-April, then meet with Robb and together to select the pieces that will actually go into the show.

The retrospective show was Vellenga’s idea.

“It took a little convincing,” she says. “He thought it’d be a real challenge to find the work – and it’s hasn’t. People have been very generous, opening their doors to me and letting me see their work and telling me about their connections to Jim. And loaning their work – people have been very, very generous.”

Vellenga hopes to connect with more people who own Jim Robb originals.

The Yukon Arts Centre will arrange for all the transportation of the artwork from the lender to the gallery and back after the exhibition.

For more information contact Jessica Vellenga at (867) 393-7109 or [email protected].

The retrospective show of Jim Robb’s artwork will run May 22 to August 23.

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