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Alex Colville had gift to communicate love and folly, memorial service hears

Alex Colville, To Prince Edward Island, 1965.

National Gallery of Canada

No moment was too small or trifling for Alex Colville to capture in one of his paintings.

The ordinary, he once said, is important.

But it was Mr. Colville's extraordinary talent for reflecting the tenderness of love and ravage of war in his artwork that was remembered at his memorial service Wednesday in Nova Scotia.

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Family, friends and admirers of Mr. Colville paid their respects at the Manning Memorial Chapel at Acadia University in Wolfville, where he once served as chancellor.

A casket draped in the Canadian flag led a procession of mourners inside the chapel, where longtime friend James Perkin recalled how Mr. Colville's experiences as an official war artist during the Second World War occasionally haunted him decades later.

"A man of profound resilience, he never took an easy, optimistic view of human affairs, having seen the depth of cruelty to which humanity can sink," Mr. Perkin told the small, packed chapel while some 300 mourners watched the service in an adjacent hall.

Mr. Perkin said while the pain of Colville's death last week was particularly felt by his relatives, it was also shared to some degree by people from across Canada and around the world.

"He has left behind a grieving family, a saddened circle of friends, a town that has lost a beloved citizen. But what a legacy he has left," Mr. Perkin said.

"Works of art that will last forever, paintings that reveal the tenderness of human love, the faithfulness of animals, the nobility of everyday work, all co-existing with the folly and destruction of wars and the uncertainty of life itself."

Rev. Timothy McFarland, Acadia University's chaplain, said Mr. Colville will be remembered for his honesty, passion and compassion.

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"We remember a man who had an instinct for keen observation and a gift to communicate in his art and in his life that which he observed," Rev. McFarland said.

"Let it be that we will feel our loss, but so too will we continue to be inspired to follow his example of adding, co-creating in this world and all of creation in ways that will leave it a little better than we found it."

Mr. Colville died July 16 at his home in Wolfville from a heart condition. He was 92.

His body of work, which spanned decades, was memorable and accessible. Mr. Colville's art reached millions of Canadians and admirers beyond through art galleries, magazines, book covers, posters, television and even the cover of Bruce Cockburn's 1973 album "Night Vision."

For the 1967 centennial, Mr. Colville designed a series of coins that put a mackerel on the dime, a hare on the nickel and a dove with outstretched wings on the penny.

As Mr. Perkin recalled, Mr. Colville wanted "to put his art into the purses and pockets of the nation."

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A renowned painter, sketch artist, muralist and engraver, Mr. Colville was admired for illustrating the simplicity and tranquillity of everyday life on canvas.

His work, though entrancing, could also be puzzling, said Nova Scotia artist Tom Forrestall.

"There's a great saying: 'You'll enjoy the poem more if you don't fully understand it,"' Mr. Forrestall said following the memorial service.

"You don't fully understand Alex's paintings. And I don't think that Alex fully understood them either. But that's what drags us back to them again and again."

Mr. Forrestall said Mr. Colville's art is timeless.

"In 200 years' time, when most of us are forgotten, Alex's work will still be here."

Mr. Colville was born in Toronto on Aug. 24, 1920. He moved to Amherst, N.S., as a boy with his family and studied fine arts at Mount Allison University in nearby Sackville, N.B., where he later created some of his most significant works, including "Nude and Dummy" and "Horse and Train."

It was also there that Mr. Colville met his wife and muse, Rhoda. The couple married in 1942 in Wolfville, a quaint university town in the Annapolis Valley that became their home.

When Mrs. Colville died last December, it left a gaping hole in Mr. Colville's life, Perkin said.

"Conversation began to lose its sparkle and soon, only his unfailing courtesies were left," he said.

"You got the sense that Alex was marking time."

Though Mr. Colville's alma mater remained close to his heart, his ties to Acadia University also ran deep.

The university awarded Mr. Colville an honorary degree in 1975 and named him chancellor six years later. Mr. Colville held the post until 1991 and later served as an honorary member of Acadia's board of governors.

Mr. Colville is survived by daughter Ann and his two sons, Graham and Charles. Another son, John, died in February 2012.

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