In 1905, Illingworth Holey Kerr was born in Lumsden, Saskatchewan. One of four children born to William Hugh and Florence (nee Nurse) Kerr, he grew up in the small prairie town. Kerr always felt a close association to animals and began drawing them at an early age. His mother painted in watercolour and encouraged him to draw and paint and in 1919, 14 of his works were entered into the Regina Exhibition and all won awards.
In 1923, the young Kerr headed east to get an art education and after a brief session at Central Technical School in Toronto, enrolled at the Ontario College of Art. His teachers included Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley, J.E.H. MacDonald and William Beatty. Kerr knew that C.W. Jeffrey’s had painted in the Lumsden area and he enrolled in his illustration class his final year at OCA. A month after classes with Beatty in landscape painting in his final year, Kerr returned to the prairies which reminded him that despite his many travels, he would always remain a dyed-in-the-wool Westerner.
Kerr traveled home via Banff and visited the studio of Carl Rungius. Returning home to Lumsden, he rented a studio above the pool hall and operated a trapline to earn money so he could continue to paint. Working from oil sketches, Kerr created some of his most famous canvases including When Winter Comes, in the collection of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and Western Theatre, in the collection of the Glenbow Museum.
Introduced to the works of James Henderson and Augustus Kenderdine at an exhibition in Regina, Kerr also met Campbell Tinning. He continued to paint completing Flood, Lumsden Saskatchewan in 1931 and Straw Stacks, March Thaw (Glenbow Collection) in 1935. This, possibly his best-known prairie painting, symbolizes the culmination of eight years of drought, depression and frustration on the prairie. It was at this time that he burned much of his early work and set off for England.
Settling first in London in the spring of 1936, he began working on documentary films and enrolled at the Westminster School of Art. He spent time drawing the animals in the London Zoo and travelled to Scotland to visit filmmaker and friend, Jenny Gilbertson. It was at this time also that he met Mary Spice who was visiting from Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Friendship blossomed into a romance and they were married in 1938. They left for a Paris honeymoon, travelled southern France and boarded a Cunard ship bound for Montreal in 1938.
The Kerr’s settled in Montreal where he began to work with other artists on projects to represent Canada at the New York World’s Fair. This completed, Buck and Mary headed back to Saskatchewan settling in Lumsden in 1939 where Kerr was invited to have his first retrospective in 1940 at the Regina College Gallery. They gradually made their way to British Columbia, settling first in White Rock, then Cultus Lake and finally in Vancouver. He continued to paint, exhibited often, and joined the BC Society of Artists and the Federation of Canadian Artists, which, art that time, was chaired by Lawren Harris.
Kerr began to teach at the Vancouver School of Art in 1946 while Jock Macdonald had gone to Calgary to head the Art Department at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art. After one year, he announced he was leaving for the Ontario College of Art and asked Kerr to apply for the position and in August, 1947, the Kerr’s headed for Calgary.
Kerr’s twenty years as Head of the Art Department at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (later to become the Alberta College of Art) are well documented. Marion Nicoll, Stanford Perrott, Luke Lindoe and Stan Blodgett were teaching at the Institute at the time. Kerr became a director of the Calgary Zoological Society and an associate director of the Calgary Stampede as soon as they settled in Calgary. Kerr also made charcoal drawings as studies for the portraits he was commissioned to paint, portraits of such important Alberta figures as then Lieutenant Governor Grant MacEwan, Harry Strom and J.C. Bowan.
In 1959, Kerr was awarded a Canada Council Senior Fellowship to travel to the United States and Great Britain to visit schools that offered industrial design and they travelled by car to Minneapolis, New York and up the east coast to Boston.
They then went on to London where Kerr enjoyed a studio and painted regularly.
The Kerr’s travelled to Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, Barcelona and Madrid before returning to London and then back to Calgary.
Illingworth Kerr retired from the Alberta College of Art in 1967. He was now free to draw and paint full-time. He did many portraits of political figures and in 1973, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Calgary. Two years later, in 1975, a large-scale retrospective exhibition of his art was presented at the Alberta College of Art Gallery. (The Gallery was to be renamed the Illingworth Kerr Gallery in September, 1990, to commemorate the artist.) The retrospective was also shown in Regina and Saskatoon. To avoid the cold Alberta winters, the Kerrs traveled to St. Lucia, Arizona, Maui, Barbados, Jamaica and Mazatlan.
Mary Spice Kerr died in 1982 and Kerr continued to paint, perhaps even more now than before. In 1986, he and his sister, Evelyn Laverne, traveled to Fiji, New Zealand and Maui. His most recent major retrospective, Harvest of the Spirit, had already opened in Edmonton and was traveling across Canada on an extensive nine-city tour.
By 1987, Dr. Kerr was becoming concerned with his ill health and began to put his affairs in order. It was at this time that some five hundred drawings and sixteen sketchbooks were slated for donation to the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery. In the same spirit, his library went to the Alberta College of Art. He continued to travel and to paint and draw as long as he was able and, on January 6, 1989, Dr. Illingworth Holey (Buck) Kerr passed away leaving a lifelong legacy of art behind him.
Old Chilliwack Channel, Autumn, Cultus Lake - circa 1945 20 x 24 in. Oil on canvas
Spring Thaw, Foothills Alberta - 1982 16 x 20 in. Oil on canvas
Salt River, Tonto Reserve - 1982 16 x 20 in. Oil on canvas
Pritchard's Place - 1981 12 x 16 in. Oil on canvas