Life is a highlight

Profile: Donald Andrus by Julie Bull

Don Andrus
Photo by Julie Bull

A natural storyteller, Donald Andrus has lived and breathed art for decades. We sat together with hot beverages on a chilly winter day, and I felt like I was sitting with a living library as he shared stories from his life, as far back as the 1940s. 

“I remember when I was six years old and was introduced to art by a schoolteacher. I loved the specific colour of blue so much that I painted entirely outside the box of the assignment.” 

This experimentation and curiosity of outside-the-box thinking has been an integral part of Donald’s life and art. His dedication and commitment to the arts is evidenced by decades of contributions. He shared so many stories from different periods of his life, spanning decades and provinces. From publishing to curating to teaching to painting, he describes himself as a mixed media artist who explores interconnectedness. “My works often resemble paintings.” Because of his multi-disciplinary practice, particular series or pieces of art have different looks and feels to them. “Though the connections may not be immediately obvious or evident to the observer, they are all connected because they were all created by me.”

“I am the missing link, and my art evolves as I do.”

With generations of engineers in this family, Donald chose a different educational path and found himself drawn to the arts. Earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in art history from the University of Toronto, Donald went on to pre-doctoral studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. During his time there, he engaged with a variety of artistic undertakings, including music. “I was in a band of five people, and we couldn’t decide what to play, on or off stage. I think we were a punk band before punk was really a thing.”

He didn’t pursue music or doctoral studies. However, he went on to have a prolific academic art career. “I didn’t set out to do all the things that I did, and I didn’t plan for specific things to happen. I just went with the flow.” He credited his work in construction and other jobs as a young person as giving him confidence to feel comfortable in the discomfort of the unknown. 

In the 1960s, Donald became the curator at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. He started working there the same year that Lord Beaverbrook died (see what I mean about living library?). “I was a lecturer at the University of New Brunswick while I was working at Beaverbrook. Eventually I made my way to Concordia University [then Sir George Williams University] where I taught for more than 25 years.” 

During his early days at Concordia University, Donald and his colleagues identified a gap in the literature for Canadian art history. “We wanted another avenue for people to publish aside from conventional books.” So, they co-founded and co-edited the Journal of Canadian Art History/Annales d’histoire de l’art canadien in 1974. He was actively involved in its production for 15 years.

Throughout our conversation, Donald often reiterated the importance of connection and how his life and career in the arts were heavily influenced by the connections and relationships he has. “The same person who hired me for the curator job at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery also hired me at Concordia University.”

Donald retired early from his professorship at Concordia University and decided to make his way to PEI in the late 90s. His connection to PEI came several decades earlier when he first visited in 1964 during the grand opening of the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Coming full circle, Donald has an exhibition at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in February and March. Donald Andrus: A Retrospective highlights Andrus’ works spanning more than 30 years.

Along with the exhibition, Donald’s book, The Shape of Desire, is currently available. Published by Goose Lane Editions, the book includes essays about Donald’s work alongside more than 80 full color reproductions of his art. “The process, more so than the product, of completing this book is a major highlight for me. I have learned so much.”

Intrigued by all his stories, I asked Donald if there were other highlights he wanted to share. After a moment of thought and without hesitation, he said: “Even with all the challenging parts, my whole life is a highlight.”

Julie Bull, an Inuk (NunatuKavut) researcher and educator, has extensive experience in community-based participatory action research, emphasizing Indigenous perspectives. A champion of social justice, Julie envisions collaborative efforts between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities worldwide. With a focus on research governance and ethics, her work with NunatuKavut has yielded notable publications and presentations.