Ken HouseGo | Personal Landscapes

To stand before the work of Grande Prairie artist Ken HouseGo is a little bit like contemplating Egyptian hieroglyphs or perhaps pictographs more generally. There is clearly a language here: symbols recurring in different shapes and forms and media.

Old Stone

Old Stone

There is a small toy-like blue boat that appears, made out of wood and fastened to the frame of one work, then drawn or painted in several others. There are “x” shapes, or maybe they’re crosses or stars; simple child-like houses, lighthouses, and grain eleva- tors; trees composed of balls or cones with cylindrical trunks. There are belaying cleats and mooring rings from small boats, as well as anchors. There are Milagros, small hand- made votive objects collected on a trip to Mexico and Santa Fe. There are hearts and hands, some of which are pointing upwards. And the moon. Always the moon.

There are stories being told here, but the narratives are not linear ones; they’re more like the kinds of narratives you find in dreams. The objects, images and places in HouseGo’s art function symbolically. They are representative only in the way that words are rep- resentative; they signify or refer to things outside of themselves. They are not literal depictions of them.



HouseGo says, “Sometimes dreams and memories get mixed up, and dreams become like memory.”

His memory of the moon, for instance, is intimately connected with the time he spent when he was a child at his grandparents’ cottage in Lion’s Head, Ontario on the shores of Georgian Bay. It’s a place which still appears in both his dreams and his artwork. It was

Beacon Basillica

a place where he would get up early in the morning and go for three-hour walks along the shoreline, learning the land with his feet. For him, the daily ritual of “walking and looking was really important.”

The lighthouses, the watery landscapes, and even the upward pointing hands (from an old grave marker in a nearby cemetery) are all drawn from his memories and dreams of this place-time. Fragments are collaged and constructed to form a whole; each stroke, each image, and each object adding layers of meaning in HouseGo’s interpretation of that place and the events that happened there. These artworks are not landscapes as such, though they incorporate elements of the landscape. They don’t represent what anybody else would see looking out a window in Lion’s Head. They are what HouseGo refers to as “personal landscapes.” They are his very personal responses to what he sees.

HouseGo remembers: “As a child, making things and envisioning ideas was always an intense part of my life. The highlight of my summer holidays was making ‘stuff’ in my grandfather’s boathouse.”

It was there, he recalls, that: “At the age of 18, on December 11, 1968 at 8:00 p.m., less than twenty feet from that boathouse, I realized: I want to be an artist.”

That epiphany set HouseGo on a journey that took him first to study art at Humber College in Toronto, and later to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. Eventually he found his way here to the Peace Country, where he has spent most of his lengthy career teaching the visual arts at Grande Prairie Regional College.



One might be tempted to describe HouseGo as a folk artist but for the level of his educa- tion. He himself says, “I would have made a great folk artist! Fortunately or unfortunate- ly, I have attended art school for too many years.” Although admittedly “inspired by na- ïve expression,” the simplicity of the shapes and the clarity of the colours in HouseGo’s work belie its conceptual complexity.

Still, HouseGo says, “folk art is indigenous” – it grows naturally from a specific place or environment – and this is also true of his own art. HouseGo’s work is very rooted; a natural outgrowth of the places where he has lived, the communities he has been a part of. It is also indigenous in the sense

that it is not about “some concept coming from a big urban centre.” He has learned in spite of his education that he doesn’t need to “paraphrase other people’s aesthetics to find (his) own work.” As he puts it, “I want to do work that is indigenous to myself.”

HouseGo would also say his art fits within folk art conventions in another respect: It is functional in a way that is perhaps analogous to the way one uses a handcrafted or hand painted piece of furniture. “My art is used,” he contends, “by the very activity of making it and living with it. If it breaks, I just fix it. What could be more obvious? Would you question fixing a wooden chair? If it can’t be fixed, it might be repurposed, trashed or used as kindling. I have used all four approaches as solutions in building my construc- tions.”

In HouseGo’s view, art may be invaluable, but it isn’t untouchable. While I visited him in his studio in the basement of his home, he was still making changes to the collection of works now showing as the Alberta Foundation for the Arts’ travelling exhibit, Dreams Do Not Come With Titles. While talking to me, he casually removed a carved snowman from the frame of one work and moved it to another where he decided he liked it better. He describes this process as “cannibalizing” one work to feed another: “This is just part of [that artwork’s] life cycle.” A work isn’t finished until it is safely crated, and out of easy reach.



HouseGo contends, “Mixed media and collage are essential to my way of thinking and building.” He mixes a wide variety of media in his work – from traditional art materials to found objects to glitter. He also mixes “polarities of working modes in his construc- tions,” working at times two-dimensionally (painting and drawing) and at other times

three-dimensionally (carving, hammering, nailing, gluing). Sometimes he fabricates the objects he includes, as in the case of the upward-pointing hand cut out of sheet metal; other times he attaches objects that are pre-existing, that have had a life of their own. In some ways his work is functional, in other ways it is playful. In some ways,

his process is very controlled (as in the construction of the multi-layered frames integral to each work); in other ways, it is expressive (as in the scumbling and dribbling of paint).

HouseGo likens his art/life journey to the long walks he took as a kid on Georgian Bay. He says, “You know how you go for a walk and see something new each time? I’ve been learning how to do that through my art. I’ve been learning how to replenish my soul while on my journey.”

He sums it up: “The creative process connects me and anchors my life. For a moment in time, I am in that boathouse once again exploring my own creative vernacular temperament.”

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