Arts community mourns death of Winnipeg's Cliff Eyland, known for transforming libraries with tiny paintings

A prominent artist from Winnipeg who transformed libraries across Canada with thousands of pieces of tiny artwork has died.

Prominent painter who taught at University of Manitoba's school of art died Saturday in Winnipeg hospital

Cliff Eyland explains the images and meaning behind some of his paintings that are part of a collection in the foyer of Winnipeg's Millennium Library. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

A prominent artist from Winnipeg who transformed public spaces across Canada with thousands of pieces of tiny artwork has died.

Cliff Eyland's family announced the 65-year-old teacher, son, brother, uncle, painter and writer had died on Saturday.

He may be best known for works of art containing hundreds of index card-sized paintings and drawings dotting the walls of Winnipeg's downtown Millennium Library and the Halifax Central Library, which welcome visitors to common areas in those spaces.

Untitled, his work at the Millennium Library, was originally made up of 1,000 three inch by five inch paintings, but he continually added to the work, according to the Winnipeg Arts Council.

He spent nearly two years creating the 6,000 paintings for the Halifax library work.

While his artwork has been showcased across the country, from the National Gallery of Canada to the art galleries of Ontario and Nova Scotia, his wife said he was most proud of his work at the two Canadian libraries.

"He just really liked working with libraries," Pam Perkins, 56, said in a phone interview on Saturday afternoon.

"He developed a love of libraries as a child, it's a story he always told," she said.

Cliff Eyland, 65, is being remembered for his tiny art, which filled the walls of the Halifax Central Library and Winnipeg's Millennium Library, shown here. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Eyland grew up with a close-knit family in Dartmouth, N.S., where he turned to libraries "for information, for reading, for pleasure," she said, before he later moved with Perkins to the Prairies in the mid-90s.

In art school he became fascinated with library file cards — soon to be obsolete technology, she said, which he found inspiring.

"So he conceived of his paintings, which were all, you know, file card-sized, as sort of little disparate pieces of information, like you'd find in a library file card," she said.

Lung transplant survivor

Eyland and Perkins would have celebrated 30 years together next year.

Perkins, who teaches literature at the University of Manitoba, said her husband lived with sarcoidosis that "basically damaged and destroyed" his lungs. As a survivor of a lung transplant in 2016, he was spending increasing amounts of time in and out of the hospital due to infections that kept developing, especially over the last two years.

He had a long hospitalization from August until December 2019.

He had been home since then, and "not able to do much other than just be around at home and do a little drawing and keep in touch with friends. But he enjoyed being at home these last few months," Perkins said.

On Wednesday morning, he was taken to Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre with severe shortness of breath. His health took a sudden turn on Friday, and he died early Saturday morning.

'Not just the walls'

His death has left a huge hole in the arts community.

As an associate professor in the University of Manitoba's school of art, Eyland was invested in the success of younger artists and those he felt "weren't getting enough attention," Perkins said.

"A Canadian-art star known across the country and internationally, he will be missed tremendously," said Dominique Rey, a visual artist who teaches fine arts at the university.

"He was a tremendously talented artist and mentor and friend for so many people," she said.

Winnipeg artist KC Adams wrote on Facebook that Eyland had recognized her talents and helped further her career, and the careers of others.

"For years he had a small gallery and a large studio that he rented, and he would use that space to host shows by developing artists, artists who were being overlooked [and] artists who were developing their careers, and this was at his own expense," Perkins said.

"He's generous with his support for others."

One of his students has since become an educator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

"He had such a wealth of knowledge about the creative process that he passed on to many people," said Aline Halischak.

"He wasn't pushing techniques, he was rather pushing your own creative skill and ability," said Halischak, who spoke highly of his tiny art that "you need binoculars" to closely look at each one.

Cliff Eyland's artwork draws a Halifax library patron in this 2015 file photo. His love of libraries turned into a passion for redesigning the public spaces with thousands of file card-sized pieces of paintings and drawings. (CBC)

Hundreds of posts, comments and reactions are being shared on social media, including from family, friends and colleagues who say they will pay tribute by visiting his library installations.

In a Facebook post, Winnipeg Art Gallery CEO Stephen Borys recognized the way Eyland's work transformed how "we see and engage with art."

"His approach has penetrated museums, libraries, and public spaces across the country — not just the walls but the spaces between the object and the viewer," reads the post from the gallery director.

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk and CBC-Radio Canada's Julien Sahuquillo and Laissa Pamou


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