Born on September 2, 1942, at Ste. Marthe, Saskatchewan, and raised on a farm in a French and Métis community, Joe Fafard was dubbed by his family “the great French Canadian artist.” One of twelve children, his talent was encouraged by his mother, Julienne, a folk artist who made papier-mâché cows and who was a descendant of a Quebec wood carver, Louis Jobin, whose church statuary was collected by the National Gallery of Canada. Supported by his family, Fafard completed a BFA at the University of Manitoba in 1966 and an MFA at Pennsylvania State University in 1968.
When in 1968 he returned to teach art at the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus, Fafard's work bore the influence of trends he had witnessed in New York, including minimalism and kinetic sculpture. However, it was an encounter with California Funk ceramicist David Gilhooly, with whom he taught from 1969 to 1971, which proved decisive. Gilhooly's irreverent attitude and rambunctious storytelling approach, epitomized by his “Frog World” sculptures, served as a catalyst for Fafard, freeing him to create work out of his own personal experience. He resumed making figurative sculpture, starting with plaster caricatures of art world colleagues. A sculpture of 107-year-old immigrant Michael Haynee marked the beginning of his clay portraiture. This work led him to embark on a series of portraits of family members as well as of neighbours from the nearby village of Pense, where he moved in 1971. Sculptures of cows formed another important subject, allowing Fafard to reconnect with his rural upbringing. The choice to work in small scale distinguishes this period of his work, marking a concern with memory and communal narratives.
It was not long before Fafard's work met with critical and popular success. In 1973, he was chosen to represent Canada, along with fellow Regina ceramicists Victor Cicansky, Gilhooly, Ann James, Marilyn Levine, and Russell Yuristy, in Canada Trajectoires '73 at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris. In the same year, he was the subject of a nationally televised National Film Board documentary, I Don't Have to Work That Big. Fafard left teaching in 1974, in part because his regionalist values and accessible work left him at odds with the modernist ideology still prevalent in the academy. Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Fafard continued to develop his portraiture. His choice of subjects reflects an expanded notion of community, encompassing self-taught Saskatchewan artists (Jan Wyers, Harvey McInnis), First Nations and Métis leaders (Big Bear, Gabriel Dumont), politicians (Sir John A. Macdonald, Tommy Douglas), and artistic luminaries (Robert Arneson, Pablo Picasso). In 1979, the Edmonton Art Gallery showed twenty of his figures in an exhibition that toured eleven Canadian cities. Cows and bulls offered Fafard subjects for formal experimentation with material, volume, and scale. In 1980, after returning from a year teaching at the University of California, Davis, he began to play with perspective - and the modernist dictum of “flatness” in painting espoused by New York critic Clement Greenberg - by foreshortening cows and producing portraits in low relief. A series of flattened portraits of Vincent van Gogh explored the intersection of painting and sculpture by treating van Gogh's famous brushwork as a sculptural surface. Fafard's continual investigation led him to work in bronze and laser-cut steel, media which allowed a greater flexibility in producing large works with thin, unsupported forms, including tables and other furniture.
In 1985, Fafard received a major commission from Cadillac Fairview for the Toronto-Dominion Centre. The Pasture, which features seven oversized bronze cows, allowed Fafard to make a statement about the importance of regional realities in the heart of Toronto's financial district. Drawing on the experience gained through this commission, Fafard built a commercial foundry in Pense, Julienne Atelier, where he produces limited-edition bronze sculptures. Other important commissions include: Oskana-Ka-Ashteki, a large plasma-cut steel buffalo in three sections for Regina Market Square in 1997; Bonnie Buchlyvie, a large work-horse installed in 1999 at the University of Saskatchewan; and Claudia, a bronze oversized cow for the grounds of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2003. Fafard has been recognized as one of Canada's leading visual artists in solo exhibitions, including: Joe Fafard: Cows and Other Luminaries 1977-1987, co-organized by the Mendel Art Gallery and Dunlop Art Gallery in 1987-88; and Joe Fafard: The Bronze Years, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1996-97.
Among many awards, Fafard was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981, given the Architectural Institute of Canada Allied Arts Award in 1987, awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Regina in 1989, and named to the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 2002. His work is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Vancouver Art Gallery, Glenbow Museum (Calgary), Edmonton Art Gallery, Winnipeg Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston), MacKenzie Art Gallery, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatchewan Arts Board, and several corporate collections.