Eric Metcalfe lives life on a stage filled with leopard skins and dead personas, terra cotta vases and Super-8 film. It’s at the back of the Western Front—one of Canada’s most important experimental art collectives—bordering East Vancouver, at the point where Main, Broadway and Kingsway join. Metcalfe and seven other artists bought the old hall that houses the Western Front from the Knights of Pythias in 1973. You can still see the gym floor that connected to the old stage that became Metcalfe’s home and studio.
“It was a very organic thing,” says Metcalfe of the birth of the Western Front. “The ’60s and ’70s were full of possibilities for alternate lifestyles and this was one of them.”
Had you knocked at the front door in ’73 Metcalfe may have emerged from rings of jazz and a cloud of smoke wrapped in a leopard skin scarf and beret and introducing himself as Dr. Brute, his alter ego. Dr. Brute led Metcalfe through some of the most important periods of his artistic life, in which he came to epitomize avant-garde art in Canada. This includes “the Leopard Reality,” a series done in collaboration with his wife, Kate Craig (“Lady Brute”), which employs video, performance and installation to question sexuality, exotica, taboo and public taste. It’s now part of the National Gallery of Canada.
Metcalfe says he exorcised his alter ego sometime ago, but the Leopard Reality lives on. In whispers he clearly cherishes, Governor General Michaëlle Jean privately called him Dr. Brute as he walked forward in Rideau Hall to receive the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts on March 28.
The $25,000 peer-reviewed award was created in 1999 and is among the foremost distinctions for excellence in Canadian visual and media arts. Eight are given each year and, for Metcalfe, receiving it was among the biggest thrills of his life.
“It’s a great honour. It’s quite something to have something like this happen in your life,” Metcalfe says with sincerity not often encountered when artists talk about awards. “You know, I may never have made a lot of money, but I know that I have the respect of my peers. And what else do you need in life anyway?”
Although Vancouver is home, it was growing up in Victoria and his arrival at the University of Victoria in 1967 that began Metcalfe’s transformation from “just another painter” into the master of “Brutopia.”
“At the time I was working at a variety of shitty jobs,” says Metcalfe. “But I was taking drawing and painting classes with a variety of artists and I did enough to get together a decent portfolio and I started to have shows. I was in one particular three-man show at Bente Rehm‘s Pandora‘s Box on Wharf St. and, well, I guess you could say it opened things up.”
UVic History in Art Prof. Tony Emery found out about Metcalfe’s struggles and he asked if he’d considered university. Metcalfe said the cost made it impossible but when Emery helped find the funding, Metcalfe jumped.
“I said well why not? I thought, ‘Here’s my chance. If you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it.’”
Metcalfe quickly found himself fully immersed in an artistic community that he talks about with clear reverence, saying it was the turning point of his life.
“University gave me the confidence I needed. I found people who respected me for what I was. I had so many detractors before that. I was working these horrible jobs. Everybody thought I was wasting my time with art because I wasn’t making any money from it. Then all of the sudden I was in the milieu that I wanted to be in so badly.”
Even though he finished his BFA in just three years, school wasn’t at all easy. He had extreme difficulties with simple writing assignments until English Prof. Ann Saddlemyer took him under her wing. His English 200 class was taught by the poet and writer Seán Virgo, who challenged Metcalfe to create a Super-8 film about T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“It was an incredible experience because it taught me to think from words to the image,” says Metcalfe. “That set me up to think about film, video, performance. It was an extremely bright thing for him to do. The fact is I had a pretty damn good education. I went in to UVic to be a painter and I ended up coming out as Dr. Brute, performance artist.”
The Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery collection includes a number of Metcalfe’s works, which can be seen online at maltwood.uvic.ca.