Claire’s gift: Ottawa-born artist shares her work with U.S. State Department

Claire Van Vliet is seen here with her work Flatlands at a ceremony marking the donation of the lithograph to the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. Photo courtesy U.S. Embassy.

At 85, Claire Van Vliet is a highly regarded American artist who has very deep roots in Canada.

She was born in Ottawa and was a Canadian resident until the deaths of her parents when she was a teenager. At that point young Claire was taken in by an aunt in San Diego, California and her American journey began.

It has taken her a long way and into many different forms of expression but now she is reflecting on what to do with a life’s work.

One thing she has done, and will likely continue to do, is give pieces of art to the U.S. State Department. More than 100 of her works now are in offices and embassies around the world.

Recently one of her colour lithographs called Flatlands was given to the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa where it will hang in the office of an attache.

Claire’s gifts are unusual in the number of works donated and in the fact that the people working at the State Department seem to really want them. So far, she has given more than 100 works to the State Department. It’s quite a record.

It all started in 1965, she said in an interview, when the department wanted to reframe one early work they had.

“They got in touch with me about one they must have purchased before 1965. They wanted to reframe it, but the work had been affected because of the acidic nature of the papers used.”

It was more than 50 years ago after all.

She, however, didn’t just want to reframe the piece and put it back on a wall. She wanted to replace it with a pristine one with de-acidified paper.

That started a conversation.

“Over the years, my work has been bought by many public institutions. The work that I normally do, what I make my living from since about 1980 is limited edition books purchased mainly by public institutions with about a third in private collections.

“I’m 85 now and I decided I would like to donate my work as a kind of pay back. That’s because a lot of my living has been made with public money. They (the State Department officials) seem to be very happy to receive the prints. I could die five minutes from now and what would people do with all that paper.”

Most of the work she has donated is what she calls wall work. These include lithographs and some wood cuts. She also makes painting out of pulped paper and has donated some of those as well.

Flatlands is typical, she said, and if one took a drive around the countryside south of Ottawa the view would be very familiar.

Her lithographs often feature clouds alone, she said.

“I do a lot of clouds but otherwise it’s often clouds and a field that has a curve. I call them infinities because they are looking into infinity.

“My work that goes on walls is purposefully made as public art. I would like it to be an invitation to people’s fantasies.”

She wants the viewer to dream much as one does when looking at the horizon.

“I have become a standard North American artist; the older I get, the further away the distance is.” The vastness of North America holds great appeal for Van Vliet.

“I am a great admirer of Lawren Harris and I really like Tom Tomson’s small paintings in the National Gallery.”

Claire’s father was a Canadian war hero.

Born in Winnipeg, Group Captain Wilbur Dennison Van Vliet, was a squadron leader during the Second World War. He died of what was believed to be a heart attack during the war. His grave is in the National Military Cemetery at Beechwood.

Her family left Ottawa when Claire was 11 and moved to Calgary and then back to Fort Francis, Ontario, her mother’s hometown. After her mother died, she went to California.

Those trips across Canada exposed a young girl to the landscape of the plains. The big sky and unending horizon have stayed with her.

She does get back to Ottawa every now and then. About 20 some years ago an exhibition of her work was at the Ottawa School of Art.

Van Vliet is best known as an accomplished and innovative bookbinder through her Janus Press. She is a recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius Award’ for her bookbinding.

“Janus Press is now 64 years old. It’s not a new interest,” she said Over the years, the press has worked with some pretty famous authors including Raymond Carver, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney along with artists such as Ray Metzker and  Peter Schumann.

She started Janus Press because of a love of literature.

“My imagery then was often connected with literature. I learned how to bind books and I became an apprentice compositor in Germany for two years in the 1950s.”

When she came back to the U.S. in 1957, she started working for a monotype company in Philadelphia.

“I had already made a number of books by then, it’s just one of those things. I couldn’t not make books.”

Today Van Vliet lives north of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in the countryside south of the Canadian border.

“I’m definitely Canadian. I guess I feel both Canadian and American. I feel North American,” she said.

The old jargon for art in embassies was soft power. Art is seen as a way to introduce a country to others in a non-threatening way.

Canadian art is in Canadian embassies and American art is in American embassies.

For Bob Hannum, who manages the art in U.S. Embassies around the globe and in offices at home, the State Department “tries to represent the best of the culture that we are in at the moment and represent the best of the culture that we are.

Claire Van Vliet’s work is special, though, he said.

“Very rarely does the artist reach out to us. We kind of pick and choose who we want to work with. In Claire’s case it’s rather unusual.

“I come from a team of folks in State Department that takes care of all the art in embassies and residences. We are constantly get feedback and it’s mostly negative — something doesn’t look right on walls or it’s boring or there is something controversial or something is damaged.

“We get a lot of complaints. Claire’s work is unusual in that it’s the only art work we have received requests for more of. The bulk of the work are lithographs and pulp paintings. We started with about six pieces.”

But because of demand, “we sought out Claire. We wanted to know if she was still here and if some work might be available. That’s what started this wonderful adventure.

“She recently donated more than 100 works to the U.S. State Department. It’s marvellous and she is talking about giving more.”

If interested, and you are visiting the U.S. Embassy on Sussex Drive, the staff will show Flatlands to you. Claire would want that after all.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.