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At 90, Alex Colville paints a humble picture of his artistry

Alex Colville holds court as graciously as an Oxbridge don.

Offering a firm grip to well-wishers and speaking in a warm voice, the famed Canadian artist chatted amiably with waves of fans at a reception marking his 90th birthday.

He was an elegant picture - with the Order of Canada snowflake pinned to his three-piece suit and a silver-topped cane clutched in his hand - but offered a refreshingly plain-spoken analysis when asked about his current work.

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"I'm in a kind of between-things now, so I spend a lot of time doing little drawings and things ... it's a laborious process," he said.

"I've been a very slow worker and that doesn't seem to have changed very much. Three or so [works annually]would be normal, I think. Four, I think would be unusual. It's just like a cow producing milk, there's just so much there."

Arguably the best-known living Canadian painter, Colville is the subject of an exhibition currently mounted at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which hosted the recent reception. This show mines the gallery's collection for sketches and preparatory pieces that hint at the artist's creative process.

"I think a lot of people think that painting is very intuitive, you just put it down on the canvas and, voilà, it's brilliant," said Shannon Parker, the AGNS's curator of collections. "It's not. It's like everything, it's practice. And Alex is one of the best when it comes to the extensive preliminary work that he does," she added.

"With Three Girls [ on a Wharf, 1953] we had some of his preliminary sketches ... so we collected those two sketches to show, and people could walk around the corner and see what the end result looked like and the small differences that came out as he prepared the composition, editing like a writer would and figuring out the exact geometry and how everything would fit spatially."

Colville himself used a similar comparison when discussing his work.

"It's a very unspectacular business, laborious, as I think it is with writers too," he said. "Every day you do a little bit and you hope it'll all come into focus."

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Colville was born in Toronto but moved with his family to the Maritimes as a child. He went to Europe with the military as part of their war-artist program. Returning to Canada after the war, he taught at Mount Allison University and then quit in 1963 to devote himself full time to painting.

He was Canada's representative at the 1966 Venice Biennale and designed 1967 Centennial coins and the 1978 Governor-General's Medal. By then he had moved to the Nova Scotia town of Wolfville, where he still lives and works.

About a decade ago Colville went through major surgery related to cancer and heart problems. The experience is seen to have come out in poignant works such as Studio, a nude that shows the artist's ravaged body, and Living Room, in which his wife plays the piano while he sits nearby.

"It addresses the question that you will not be there forever," said Denise Leclerc, curator of modern Canadian art at the National Gallery. "You're showing yourself as an aging couple. But there's art, art will survive. She's at a piano and there's a kind of halo around her."

Gisella Giacalone, director of Toronto's Mira Godard Gallery, which has long represented Colville, said that his work had since moved away from intimations of mortality.

"Perhaps it's there as a subtext, but it's not the whole picture," she said. "It's not the entire message."

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And Colville practically snorted when asked about the effect that thoughts of mortality might be having on his work.

"I actually don't feel any different now than I did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago," he said. "I just go on. I live a very kind of bourgeois conventional life."

Colville has worked for decades in Wolfville, an hour northwest of Halifax, where he has become a local fixture. And the personal way with which so many members of the public greeted him at the gallery's reception hints at his unique standing in this province.

"I went to high school in the Annapolis Valley and one of my teachers lived in Wolfville, down the road from him," said Parker, the AGNS curator.

"His wife's greatest hope was that as she walked their dog past their house, repeatedly, day after day, that he would be inspired to paint them. Didn't happen. But it's one of those stories that ... within Nova Scotia, he's not just this amazing painter that people know about far beyond our borders, but he's also someone people know. As a person and not just an artist."

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