William McElcheran (1927-1999) embraced a variety of media as his means of expression. He was equally proficient at drawing, painting, bas-relief and sculpture. Quickly, he became one of the most accomplished and versatile figurative sculptors of the 20th century.
A virtuoso, Bill started modelling realistic portraits at the age of 10. He was given advanced standing into second year at the Ontario College of Art at the age of 16 due to his exceptional ability and his considerable body of work. His natural talent blossomed there earning him a painting scholarship and later the Lieutenant-Governor’s Medal. Most nights he attended life drawing classes after painting and modelling from the figure all day. He even made a special arrangement with the custodian to let him in early so that he could do an hour’s work—sculpting in clay—before classes started. During his lengthy professional career, he worked in a variety of media—from carving in wood and marble to modelling in clay to casting in fiberglass and bronze. From early on, Bill McElcheran resolved to have any recognition of his work based on content rather than form. He was determined to be recognized for the humanism of his sculpture. This resolve ultimately led him to create his ‘non-hero’ or ‘everyman’— the single, bronze businessman.
Lesser known, but no less significant, are his commissioned works for a wide range of architectural and environmental projects. McElcheran’s 1964 commission for St. Teresa’s Parish (St. John’s, NL) showcases some of his finest work. Not only did he design the church itself, he designed and cast the Stations of the Cross as well as the Baptismal font cover. He painted Our Lady of Newfoundland for the Adoration Chapel. He carved the four evangelists that adorn the sanctuary. He designed and created the tester that hangs above the altar.
McElcheran is well-known for his businessmen which are included in influential collections on three continents. The wit, humour and irony of these pieces comes from McElcheran's broad and deep knowledge of, and insight into, philosophy and art. German art professor, Gerhard Finkh once wrote, “An understanding forgiveness for the human being in the businessman is discernible.” Over his lifetime, McElcheran sought a new synthesis of plastic expression in a much larger human context than most contemporary sculpture had previously tackled.
It was his combination of masterful craftsmanship, moral courage and intellect which gave rise to the powerful humanism which animates his oeuvre. Bill McElcheran, the sculptor, always kept in mind the context of his work as he created each individual piece. His businessmen aren't mere bronze figures; these hurrying figures touch the world with their relevant and immediately identifiable subject matter. McElcheran's satire was pointed but never cruel. In a 1973 review, freelance journalist Sol Littman wrote, “McElcheran’s work is bitingly satiric yet warmly human.” While McElcheran poked fun at the business elite, he distilled his bronzes into classic forms which never lost their grace and movement.
Though often remembered for his bronze businessmen, Bill McElcheran completed many large, architectural achievements of diverse subjects during his lifetime. Any assessment of his works should take into account the larger context within which his businessmen are found and might appropriately be called "The Art and Humanism of William McElcheran."
Art Gallery of Hamilton; University of Toronto; York University; McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Robert McLaughlin Gallery; City of Guelph; City of Cobourg; City of Windsor; University of Windsor; London Regional Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Windsor; Art Gallery of St. Catherines; Northern and Central Gas Corporation; Norcen Energy Resources; Holy Blossom Temple; Brascan; Steel Company of Canada; Toronto Stock Exchange; Canadian lmperial Bank of Commerce; Royal Bank of Canada; Oklahoma Arts Center; Standard Broadcasting; Dofasco; GlaxoSmithKline; Eastern Construction; Ondaatje Corporation; Bresler Management; Capital Place; Ministry of Urban Affairs; ACTRA Award Design; McMaster University; St. Augustine's Seminary; Schlemmer GmbH; Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Avenue, Calgary); Foothills Hospital; Water Park Place; Toronto Transit Commission; St. Teresa's Parish, St. John's, NL