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Remember This? Ken Danby — The beginning of a Canadian legend

Danby's At the Crease was displayed in the Washington National Portraie Gallery, winning him an audience with President Ronald Reagan
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A picture of artist Ken Danby hangs in the Art Gallery of Guelph, depicting the Sault-born artist working on his iconic painting of Wayne Gretzky entitled 'The Great Farewell' Rob O'Flanagan/Village Media

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

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Remember This . . . Ken Danby the Beginning of a Canadian Legend

Born on March 6, 1940 in Sault Ste. Marie Ontario, Ken Danby is considered one of Canada’s foremost painters, who became well-known for his realistic images. 

Ken Danby’s paternal great, great grandfather, John Danby arrived in Canada in 1833.  He settled on a 100-acre farm near Toronto in 1837 which he had purchased for one hundred pounds, (since British currency was in use at this time).  

\This property is now located in North York on the east side of Keele Street just south of Steeles Ave.  John continued to build on his property holdings by purchasing property in Huron County in 1857.  James Danby, son of John Danby purchased half of his father’s property holdings in Huron County in 1875.  Edison Danby, Ken’s father was born to (Thomas) Milton Danby and Clara Danby in Sault Ste. Marie on July 9, 1909.  Edison married Gertrude Buckley in 1934 and had their first son, Marvin in 1936 and four years later Ken was born at the General Hospital. 

Their mother, Clara, always encouraged her sons to have an appreciation for wildlife and would often accompany them on hikes to local wooded areas.  Even in his childhood Ken drew and painted a great deal.  At the age of 11 he entered his work in a local hobby show with encouragement from one of his teachers at Cody Public School. 

From that point on he decided that art would be his career.   

Ken Danby attended both the local Sault Tech and Sault Collegiate High Schools until his parents finally allowed him to enroll at the Ontario College of Arts in September 1958. 

His first year was spent acclimatizing to his new school and to living in Toronto.  His second year of school was more of a struggle since his classes dealt more with abstract design when his interests leaned more towards representational art.  After completing his second year of college he left and over the next few years worked as a set designer at the Sault Ste. Marie television studio as well as at CFTO studios in Toronto.  He also worked for a women’s wear chain setting up window displays and designing labels for a packaging company.  Danby worked at the Toronto Telegram (newspaper) creating illustrations and layouts from 1961 to 1962. 

When he wasn’t working Danby continued to paint abstract art.  By 1961 he had created enough pieces for an exhibit at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto.  Of the nine large oil paintings he displayed, five were sold.  The next year he won the Four Seasons Hotel outdoor show prize for painting, increasing his prestige.  

Danby was a huge fan of folk music and was friends with many in the music scene including, Pete Seeger and Gordon Lightfoot.  His love of folk music led him to become the art director of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia in 1962 and 1963. 

In 1963 he painted Fur and Bricks, an egg tempera painting of his cat Kimbo.  He was awarded the Jessie Dow Award for this painting when it was on display at the Annual Spring Exhibition of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1964.  This prestigious award had previously been awarded to J.W. Morrice, Clarence Gagnon, Maurice Cullen and A.Y. Jackson.  

In 1964 Danby held his first one man show of representational art at the Toronto Gallery Moos.  Walter Moos had become Danby’s art dealer in February of 1963 and this relationship would continue for over 40 years.  The subject matter of many of Danby’s early work was found on St. Joseph Island and it was there that he met his wife Judy Harcourt and the two were married in 1965.  Together they purchased a home at Armstrong Mill near Guelph, Ontario, which provided Danby with no end of subject matter from which to gain inspiration.

The couple had three sons who have appeared in Danby’s work.  The couple separated in 1980 and divorced in 1984.  

As a painter, his prominence rose over the decades with his works winning him prizes both nationally and internationally including the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. 

He has so many well-known paintings but perhaps his most recognizable painting titled, At the Crease, is a tempera painting of a hockey goalie painted in 1972.  This painting was displayed in the Washington National Portrait Gallery in 1981, resulting in an invitation to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan. 

In 1984, he made a trip to Sarajevo to record the Winter Olympics.  

Ken Danby died September 23, 2007, at the age of 67, while canoeing with his second wife Gillian in Algonquin Provincial Park.  His death was viewed as a major loss to the Canadian art community who saw him as one of the greats. 

In a 1975 Sault Star article, Danby stated “I’d like to do paintings which will be respected and responded to as great stuff a century from now . . . Paintings which will be looked upon 200 or 300 years from now as good works.” 

Time will tell how history will view his work but today his works are viewed as some of the greatest not just in Canada but throughout the world.  

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Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at www.ssmpl.ca and look for more Remember This? columns here