Corbett Grey

Artist and Teacher

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Published, EAC Communiqué, June 1985

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ince 1974, when an apartment on Mill Street overlooking the river became his home, Corbett Gray has been a familiar and well loved figure in Elora. “He is a totally dedicated artist, a gentle flower,” says gallery owner Colleen Fogarty, “he should be feted and honoured as one of our great living Canadian painters.” Using oil on canvas, Corbett is best known for his figurative painting: fragile and delicate, with overtones of impressionism. But he is also a teacher and a man of vision. Throughout his working life he was regarded as the “guiding angel” of art teaching in schools of Wellington County. In Elora his studio is known as a centre of life drawing and painting.

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Born in Winnipeg, Corbett first attended the Winnipeg School of Art, studying under L. Lemoine Fitzgerald. He developed a unique drawing ability. But it was overseas with the R.C.A.F. during the war that his fantasies were stimulated by original masterpieces. As a veteran he came to the Ontario College of Art, where John Alfson strongly influenced his formative years. He received a gold medal in sculpture, and a scholarship to the Art Student’s League (A.S.L) of New York, of which he remains a life member. One day he woke to the realization that his real love was not sculpture, but painting. A strong vein of impressionism in the A.S.L., combined with his natural tendencies, led him to a close examination of the works of Degas, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Boudin and Walter Sickert. Later in Toronto, the paintings of a British contemporary, Edward Seaga, had a lasting influence.

Corbett Gray came to Guelph in the mid 50s. He was engaged as the Art Supervisor for the Board of Education. Over the next twenty years, until his retirement, he had a remarkable impact on the schools by initiating enlightened art teaching and inspiring many students, now artists themselves. At this time, despite heavy commitments at work, he completed up to a hundred canvases a year. Summers and weekends Corbett and his mother spent in Arkell. Here, in the peace of the countryside, he painted many of his large works.

As the school board territory expanded to cover all of Wellington County, Corbett frequently travelled through Elora. The village caught his imagination; renovations of Mill Street had just begun. In 1974 he bought a studio here, among the first of an influx of artists, artisans and musicians. He came to love this environment, which valued him in turn. In 1975, a studio group first started by P. Wolfond in Guelph and later including many Elora artists, found new quarters in Corbett’s hospitable studio. Meeting twice weekly, they sketched and painted local models, talking of new influences and developments when the work was done.

In the late 70s Corbett Gray’s paintings acquired a new harmony and intensity. His art leapt forward. Retirement provided the luxury of uninterrupted time, the freedom to make deeply nourishing trips to Europe and to teach in summer at the Southampton Art School, Goderich. In 1978, Corbett formed a special association with Studio Colleen, Ottawa. The encouragement and support he has found there speaks positively of the future. “His paintings have a marvellous emotional effect. He’s not just a signature,” says Colleen Fogarty. “Corbett communicates his art to people of all ages and walks of life.”

by Beverley Cairns and Judy Fredricks, June 1985

…best known for his figurative painting: fragile and delicate, with overtones of impressionism.

IN MEMORIAM Summer, 1991-2

In the summer of 1991, just as a retrospective exhibition of his paintings was being planned at the Wellington County Museum and Archives, Corbett Gray died. In November 1992, paintings in private collections dating from 1956 to the ‘80s were gathered for the exhibit “Corbett Gray In Elora”. Complementing this retrospective were works by four fine artists, representative of the many people who shared sessions at Corbett’s studio: Karin Bach, George Todd, Rosalinde Baumgartner and Jim Reed.

In the words of tribute by George Todd “Corbett’s expertise as a master painter was a resource to all. He had a way of making even the most dubious person feel that he or she just might be able to make art. Whatever the outcome, Corbett would unerringly find goodness in it”.