René Gagnon : Yes, artists can be successful by John Pohl

Conference coaches those needing business skills to boost their careers.

Persistence has always been a key to an artist’s success in making a living. 

For René Gagnon, coming into Montréal from the country with his paintings in the 1950s, it took the form of sleeping on park benches and making cold calls to doctors’ and lawyers’ offices.

Persistence is still vital, along with hard work, networking and having a sociable personality, all of which Gagnon employed in maintaining a painting career spanning more than 60 years.

But today, there is help for artists trying to live off their art. It’s called YES Montreal, with the YES standing for Youth Employment Services, although most of the non-profit agency’s services, including those aimed at artists, are for people of all ages.

Yes Montreal is holding a conference – Business Skills for Creative Souls – on March 20 in Old Montreal, with Nadia Myre, winner of the Sobey Art Award in 2014, as keynote speaker.

« Mastering the business of art is no easy feat, even where talent and creative vision abound », according to the conference program. « That’s why artists must develop entrepreneurial skills, a dynamic promotional presence, strong professional networks and a cohesive action plan. »

« This conference will help you develop the business skills you need to succeed, » the program promises.

Claire Desjardins, who now sells her art through galleries in Montreal and Toronto, her own website, the Saatchi online gallery ( and Anthropologie stores, went to YES Montreal after she was laid off from her job as a graphic artist in 2011.

She attended workshops and started meeting a coach every week or two.

« I’d tell him what I was doing, he would give me advice as I was talking – « Have you thought of this ? » Desjardins said in an interview. « YES kept me focused. I had to be prepared. »

Her first sale to a tranger came through Facebook.

« A guy saw my work and bought it , » Desjardins said. « Then he invented me to hang the painting during a dinner party in his Old Montreal condo. One of the guests purchased several works. » That’s how it works, she added. « You need people to talk about your work. You must update your blogs and social media sites on a regular basis. »

People talked about Gagnon’s work too, in the region along the Saguenay River between Lac St-Jean and the St- Lawrence River where he was born near Chicoutimi in 1928 and has spent much of his life. He grew up on a farm, but his uncle was an art dealer and he met René Richard, Stanley Gosgrove, Jean-Paul Lemieux and even the elderly Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Côté as a child.

Gagnon’s first sales were to the village priest and the local doctor.

Cosgrove, though almost 20 years older, was like a brother, Gagnon said in an interview. There is a photo in De rêve et de paysages, Gagnon’s self-published book, of himself, Cosgrove and Jean-Paul Riopelle on a fishing trip in the Saguenay in 1974.

Gagnon uses a palette knife to paint, in oil on Masonite, the sharply delineated landscapes and fjords of te Saguenay. He owns a 700-acre property with 15 kilometres of trails and a house and museum he designed and built himself.

Woodworking and mechanics were part of farm life, and so were animals.

« I shared emotions with the animals, » he said. « Living with animals makes you very human. »

Gagnon’s first exhibitions was in 1958 in Arvida, near his home. He came to Montreal, slept on park benches until he could afford an empty apartment with a phone on St-Joseph Blvd. He stole a phone book and made his  calls.

« I am René Gagnon and I have paintings to sell, » he said he told prospective clients.

He sold a few paintings at $30, he said, and got an exhibition at the Walter Klinkhoff gallery in 1959.

In 1964, he went to New York to try his luck. He met a Brazilian countess who opened doors to New York galleries, where he had shows in 1967 and 1968, which led to a commission to paint four murals for a restaurant in Place Ville-Marie.

But Gagnon left New York in debt and penniless, he said. « When I returned a few years later, all my paintings had been seized. »

Gagnon tried everything. During Hydro-Québec’s construction of Manic-5 (now the Daniel-Johnson Dam) in the 1960’s he hung paintings in trees near the airport runway to entice arriving engineers. He sold two.

Claire-Hélène Hovington, who has organized exhibitions and promoted his work since he hired her in 1970, was a factor in Gagnon’s eventual success. The couple married in 2002, after many years of reflecting on the possibility, as Gagnon writes in his book.

Gagnon had nine exhibitions in France between 1977 and 1990, an exhibition toured through Asia in 1995-96 and one in Morocco in 1997. The tours led to being invited to paint in Malaysia and Morocco, and he spent several months in each country. His work is in many collections, including those of Power Corp., Air Canada, Jarislowsky-Fraser and Co., Quebecor and the Musée d’art contemporain.

Gagnon’s winter scenes, in which the subtle use of colour brings out the forms created by the play of knife-edges and textures, best demonstrate his mastery at evoking the north he loves.

« I’ve never been rich, » he said in explanation of his approach to life, « but I always act like I’m on top of the world. »

Joy is also a hallmark of Desjardins’s abstract canvases full of bright and airy colours that she paints in acrylic.

« As artists, we like to enhance life, » Desjardins said.

« I like to make things that are beautiful. »

So it hurt when two artists had a conversation « about how bad my art was » on

« A lot of what motivates me is the fear that the success I’ve enjoyed will go away. » she said. « I work hard and I feel that my work has some intrinsic value. »

Business Skills for Creative Souls : YES Montreal artists’ conference takes place March 20 at Théâtre St-James, 265 St-Jacques St. W. For more information about the conference and YES Montreal’s workshops for artists, go to

For information about the artists, go to and

John Pohl

© John Pohl – The Gazette 2015

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