Work of Art: Nikki and Julie by John Brocke

In this painting, the late Canadian artist John Brocke pinpoints a moment in the lives of two young sisters, while also revealing a reverence for light, life and mystery.

Photograph by Jared Tiller.

Title: Nikki and Julie
Date: 1982
Artist: John Brocke (1953 to 2009)
Media: Oil on ash-veneered plywood.
Size: 48 inches high by 
42 inches wide.
Location: Gallery 1958 (lobby of TC Energy), 450 1 St. S.W.
Notes: Nikki and Julie is in the Collection of TC Energy. Another Brocke work, the masterful Epoch, is currently on temporary display on the fourth floor of Bow Valley College’s South Campus.

 

The work of the late Canadian artist John Brocke is best encapsulated by the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, American proponent of mindfulness: “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.”

In Nikki and Julie, Brocke pinpoints a moment in the lives of two young sisters, while also revealing a reverence for light, life and mystery. From the glints of reflected colour on the rungs of the spindle-back bench, to the careful perimeter spacing of tiny finishing nails that hold the wood veneer in place, his focus is meticulous.

Born in Edmonton, Brocke moved with his family to Dawson Creek, B.C., when he was eight. In 1979, the Alberta College of Art (now Alberta University of the Arts) admitted him directly into second-year studies because of his outstanding talent. As a student, he won the Province of Alberta Prize and the Talens Canadian Agencies Scholarship. Upon graduation in 1981, he wasted no time setting up his studio.

The process of creating Nikki and Julie began with a photo session, in which the titular sisters, friends of the family, posed, one at a time, on the bench. Each wore a party dress that could have come from the 1980 Sears Christmas catalogue, vaguely Victorian lace-trimmed frocks of a size they could grow into.

A grant from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation in 1982 provided Brocke with support to create several paintings, including Nikki and Julie. Using the photographs, he worked out the painting’s composition in a black and white collaged maquette, adding colour in the process of painting.

The expanse of metallic wallpaper above the girls’ heads becomes an ethereal third character. Its pattern is Brocke’s invention — squares of thin silver reveal the rippling wood grain of the ash veneer beneath. Between the squares are print-like versions of a winged lion, symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist, and a pelican feeding her young with blood from her own breast, an allegory of altruism and charity found in early Christian iconography and medieval cathedrals. References to a spiritual world became more pronounced in the enigmatic imagery of Brocke’s later work. Here, the fictive wallpaper creates an extraordinary atmosphere for an apparently ordinary moment.

In his lifetime, Brocke completed just under 30 paintings, each of them beautifully crafted and deeply thoughtful. Tragically, he died in a car accident in 2009, at the age of 55, three years after he and his wife relocated to the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. Today, Brocke’s work can be found in public, corporate and private collections across Canada, many of which Glenbow drew from for its significant retrospective exhibition in 2015.

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This article appears in the September 2022 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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