A tribute to Artist Bob Kell, 1944-2015
By James Clancy
Ottawa (16 June 2015) — Bob Kell was one of ours. He died on May 31, 2015. He was a soldier in our army—the army of all big-hearted, open-handed, generous and kind fighters for the dignity and value of all working people everywhere.
Bob was an artist. He fought the good fight with his art. He asked no quarter and gave none. He did not use his art to merely mirror reality. He used it as a hammer to shape reality. Bob hammered away at it all his life. In paint, sculpture and fabric he worked to capture and depict the worth of all who labour and the worth of our ideals of solidarity and fraternity. He did it well.
Winnipeg General Strike series
His greatest success came with a long series of works on the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The series was 10 years in the making. It debuted in a union-sponsored showing in Winnipeg in 1985.
In 1990 the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) commissioned a major mural from Bob for the main foyer in the union’s headquarters.
A number of Bob’s works from his Winnipeg General Strike collection are also featured in the Canadian Museum of History.
Bob worked fulltime at his art all his life. But his art was always considered “too political” to sell well. He always had to work at other jobs to get by. However, he never gave up his campaign to free “high art” from the grip of the ruling class. He believed that grip meant we were all being deprived of a great part of the “history that belongs to us.”
It’s safe to say Bob Kell was the greatest artist working people in Canada have ever had on their side.
The value of his work is undeniable. There is no better proof of that than the recent decision by the Canadian Museum of History to dismantle the exhibit on the Winnipeg General Strike. This is just one more example of how working class history, “the history that belongs to us”, can be erased or discarded. So long as Bob’s paintings exist a part of that history—the history that belongs to us—will exist.
There can be no better epitaph for Bob than the last words of another great union man, Joe Hill, who said: “Don’t mourn. Organize.”
Bob didn’t have to say it. His paintings always will.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 360,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE