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Wyers, Jan (1888–1973)

A self-taught artist of vernacular subjects from the village of Windthorst, Saskatchewan, Jan Gerrit Wyers’ work was championed by the generation of well-educated artists emerging in Regina around 1960, and then again by the generation emerging in the 1970s. He was born at Emmer, a farming community within the municipality of Steenderen near Arnhem, in The Netherlands. He left home in 1913 and settled near Windthorst in 1916 as a farmer, a career from which he retired in 1960. A lifelong bachelor, Wyers’ activities during the 1930s included bootlegging and patenting an animal trap. He took up painting later in the decade.

Wyers began exhibiting his work in provincial exhibitions in the 1950s, and in 1956 received an Award of Merit for the painting The First Saskatchewan Harvest in the annual exhibition of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. In 1959, the National Gallery of Canada included eight of his paintings in its exhibition Folk Painters of the Canadian West, which traveled extensively in Canada and the United States. That year, Ronald Bloore, director of the MacKenzie Art Gallery purchased his Good Old Thrashing Days from this show for the gallery’s permanent collection. In 1960, Bloore wrote an article on Wyers for the March 1960 issue of Canadian Art magazine, in which the painting was featured on the cover. Bloore and fellow artist Kenneth Lochhead shared this interest in folk art; both belonged to a group of artists who achieved national stature for their modernist abstraction in the early 1960s as the Regina Five.

Numerous articles kept the artist in the public eye during the 1960s. A few months after Wyers’ death in Regina in 1973, the National Gallery of Canada mounted the comprehensive national survey exhibition of historical and contemporary folk art People’s Art: Native Art in Canada, which included two of his works. Wyers worked from close observation, memory, and magazine or book illustrations. His subjects, which he repeated several times, were taken from everyday experience and included harvesting, horses in pasture, farmsteads, cats and dogs, and self-portraits. His strong and colourful paintings are a moving tribute to life on the prairies.

During the 1970s, the relationship intensified between folk artists and several contemporary artists from the Regina area, including Vic Cicansky, David Thauberger, and Joe Fafard. This enthusiasm for folk artists stemmed from their straightforward expression of experiences of life on the prairies, and was a catalyst for their own vernacular expression. Wyers is remembered as a pioneer artist within a community of like-minded artists, rather than an isolated folk artist.

Andrew Oko

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Further Reading

Bloore, R.L. 1960. “Jan G. Wyers,” Canadian Art 17 (2): 60–65; Oko, A. 1989. Jan Gerrit Wyers 1888–1973. Regina: MacKenzie Art Gallery.
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