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Douglas Fetherling - Artistic References
by Douglas Fetherling

THERE'S ALWAYS a kind of majesty about a culture's great works of reference, like the Dictionary of Canadian Biography or Hurtig's Canadian Encyclopedia or the Historical Atlas of Canada: team efforts, all of them, well funded and well staffed and rightly so. But then one thinks of poor Colin S. MacDonald and is reminded of a different tradition: that of the independent scholar, working, alone and unheralded, on some mammoth compilation that really seems too big for one person, even in this age of hard drives and data bases.

Since 1965, when he quit his job at the National Research Council, MacDonald has been writing and publishing (from his home in Ottawa) a massive and indispensable work, A Dictionary of Canadian Artists. It's the only biographical reference of its kind in that it deals with the living as well as the dead, with the most famous as well as the most delightfully obscure. The latest instalment, volume seven of a projected eight-volume set, brings the cumulative number of closely packed pages to about 2,500, and runs from "Zoltan J. Rakos" to "Conrad Sadowski" (you see my point) while also doing justice to JeanPaul Riopelle along the way. I find myself using the Dictionary fairly often, and I never return it to its shelf without silent admiration for its maker.

From time to time, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd., as MacDonald calls his one-person company, has had scattered support from the Canada Council (for volumes three, five, six, and seven), the Ontario Arts Council, the Ontario Library Association, and even the Ontario Development Corporation, the Crown corporation that guarantees loans to certain types of entrepreneurial small businesses. Mostly, though, MacDonald has kept himself and his project going (it's his full-time job) by taking out personal loans, using his pension money, and selling three modest art collections he had amassed at different times over the years.

As much from cash flow as from caution, MacDonald believes in small initial runs, reprinting only as stock in the warehouse (also at home) declines to a certain level. Over the years, he's gone back to press a total of 37 times. In all, he's sold well over 30,000 sets, at prices ranging from $12 for volume one to $40 for the latest.

The effect of inflation has been exacerbated by the fact that the volumes are of unequal thickness. The concluding volume eight ("Safdie to Z") was first scheduled to appear in 1994. But work on its predecessor went so slowly that the target has now been moved ahead to 1996 or 1997. When it comes, though, it will contain entries on a thousand artists, a 25 per cent increase over the penultimate volume.

Still another factor in pricing is simply that the volumes appear with such splendid irregularity. Some are more work editing, while others are more work publishing. Sometimes the unpredictable intervenes. "In 1985, 1 had a heart bypass operation. That slowed me down a good bit," MacDonald says. That same year, tragedy struck the family when a neighbourhood babysitter was arrested and convicted in the murder of a MacDonald grandchild. Such traumas (there were others) kept him away from volume seven for quite a while, but the finished product finally came from the bindery in 1990. A reprint was required soon thereafter.

When he began almost 30 years ago, MacDonald had folders on only 400 Canadian artists. Now he has more than 4,000 dossiers, some of them astonishingly thick. He spends much time in the library of the National Gallery, but must turn to microfilm of big and small Canadian newspapers for facts about some of the most obscure painters and sculptors, who may have had regional reputations in their day but now, without the Dictionary, would not likely be mentioned in print anywhere. MacDonald wilt keep active working files on as many as 300 artists at a time, fitting in biographical holes, one by one, as luck and persistence allow.

Will completion of volume eight mean the end to the kind of life Colin MacDonald has made for himself? Not exactly. Before volume eight even appears, he will have gone back and revised and updated volume one for republication, to be followed, presumably, by all the others in sequence.

Any library that doesn't have a set of A Dictionary of Canadian Artists should. The lobby shops of the important public galleries sell the volumes individually. But it's probably more satisfying to order directly from MacDonald at 17 Gwynne Ave., Ottawa K1Y IX1. That way you can take some satisfaction in knowing that the compiler, writer, copy-editor, proofreader, designer, production manager, and chief financial officer is also the guy who wraps the parcels.


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