Cranbrook has lost one of its most renowned, influential and colourful citizens.
The artist and spiritual visionary ManWoman died early Tuesday morning in Cranbrook, at age 74.
ManWoman remained true to his personal vision throughout many years of criticism and controversy and lack of acceptance from mainstream critics and institutions.
However, in recent years he has been recognized as a pioneer and unique individual on many levels. His unique and profound style of art gathered him international recognition. His campaign to rescue the sacred symbol of the swastika from the stigma attached to its use by the Nazis has grown into a global movement — and indeed, he is recognized as one of its founders.
“ManWoman was an iconic, colourful and deeply creative native son of Cranbrook,” said longtime friend Darcy Russell. “He was ‘spice’ for Cranbrook, like mustard on mashed potatoes. He lived his dreams with integrity, inspiring many others to do the same.”
ManWoman’s art took on practically a Jungian significance, utilitizing archetypal symbols — like the Bride, Mr. Death, and of course the swastika — to demonstrate his themes of ecstatic union with the divine, sexual and spiritual liberation and the creation of new icons for modern spiritual experience. Retrospectives of his work in Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles and elsewhere always brought crowds.
In 2002, he was presented with an Award of Excellence by the late Lois Hole, then Governor-General of Alberta, on the 75th anniversary of the Alberta College of Art, when selected alumni were honoured for their contributions to Canadian art.
Friends and artistic colleagues around the region absorbed the sad news on Tuesday.
Longtime friend Infinity Solstice, from the Golden area, is a major collector of ManWoman’s art. “ManWoman is making huge statements with every piece he created, and every piece he created is important to humanity,” he said.
“There are no boundaries for that man — he tackled every subject with humanity and intelligence,” Mr. Solstice said. “He is one of the gutsiest people I ever met.
“My read is that he will become known as one of the most important Canadian artists, because of the vast amount of art he produced.”
Byron Olson, who has been friends with ManWoman since their days in the architectural program at UBC, said of the late artist: “He was quiet and shy in those days — he was a loyal and trusted friend. The threads of time are filled with imaginings and ManWoman wove the cloth.”
Kimberley artists Twila and Tony Austin issued a statement. “ManWoman was the first artist we met when we returned to Kimberley from Japan in ‘95, and he encouraged us to continue our artistic journey. A mystic, an artist, a dreamer and a treasured friend, we will miss him.”
ManWoman was born Patrick Kemball in 1938, in the old St. Eugene Hospital in Cranbrook. He had always been drawn to art — an early example was his work as an assistant to Zeljko Kujundzic, who went on to found the Kootenay School of Art in Nelson. But Kemball originally set out on an academic career at UBC, first in engineering, then architecture.
But beginning in 1958, Kemball’s life was transformed by a series of powerful and tumultuous mystical experiences, which he described in his autobiography “Homesick for Eternity,” and in many media interviews. A disembodied voice urged him to get out from under a car he was working on, seconds before it came crashing down off the blocks it was mounted on. Following that, he had the first of many out-of-body experiences. These events compelled him to drop out of architecture and enroll at the Alberta College of Art in Calgary.
In 1965, he experienced an ecstatic trance. “I soared up into the source, had a mystical experience, no matter what you want to call it — union with God,” he told the East Kootenay Weekly in 1999. “The two halves of me just came together — I had felt like an exile all my life, and now I felt whole.”
He began to be haunted by strange visions, in which he morphed between male and female states, and was continually approached by an old man, who tattooed a swastika on his neck, and who told him to reclaim the ancient symbol from its usurpation by the Nazis.
Kemball began to take on the persona of his dreams, getting swastika tattoos and eventually changing his name. By that time, he was married with children, and teaching art in Edmonton. His transformation threw his life into turmoil, and in 1975, ManWoman returned to Cranbrook alone, where he resided for the rest of his life, working at his art and swastika campaign.
Returning to his hometown proved initially difficult for ManWoman under his new persona. “I know a lot of people were quite upset when I first arrived,” he told the Daily Townsman in 1990. “They used to cross the street so they wouldn’t have to pass me, because they thought I was some sort of alien.”
However, ManWoman’s spirit would not be denied. He married local dentist Dale Sellars (Astarte), and through his art, his spiritual life and his community involvement, became one of Cranbrook’s most respected citizens.
He was an early member of the Mankind Project, an international men’s group with the stated aim of “supporting men in leading meaningful lives of integrity, accountability, responsibility, and emotional intelligence.” It was among this group that ManWoman said he had “found his tribe,” according to close friend Greg Ross.
“He became an elder of significance in the group,” Ross said. “He mentored many men, not just in Cranbrook but elsewhere. He was also involved in mentoring men to become elders themselves.”
Ross said ManWoman was never afraid to stand out. “He knew everything he was doing was controversial, but he never shied away from it.”
He acquired local renown, not just for his tattoos, but for his comprehensive swastika museum, and events like his 1990 radio debate with Vancouver evangelist Michael Green, while his artwork takes pride of place on many a Cranbrook wall.
In recent years, ManWoman found he had acquired a legendary stature among a newer generation of seekers. In particular, he is considered the founder of the movement to reclaim the swastika. He was treated as a guest of honour during his two visits to the Traditional Tattoo and World Culture Festival in Cobh, Ireland, in 2010 and 2011.
“It feels good to me,” he told he Townsman in 2010. “I had no idea when I started this 40 years ago that I would see any real success in my lifetime. It’s amazing how it’s taking off.”
“He was my friend, neighbour and Sufi brother, and like many I will miss his unique presence and treasure the legacy of his lifework,” Darcy Russell said.
The Cranbrook and District Arts Council also issued a statement. “ManWoman is not only a gifted artist and writer but also a staunch supporter of the arts. His presence here in Cranbrook, along with his passion, his artistic courage, his spiritual quests in his work, and his quirky, pointed, and often hilarious examinations of life, make our community a better place. He has given graciously of his time and talent to the Cranbrook and District Arts Council for years, and is a respected adjudicator of others’ work. There’s no question he is a cultural leading light. We will miss him terribly.”
With portions of an interview with Christine Boyd, East Kootenay Weekly, 1999.