A passionate advocate for the arts, the environment and social justice, Richard Rudnicki had a gift for capturing emotion in the human figure and the land. Today the walls of ARTSPLACE Gallery, Annapolis Royal, hum with the drama of human life and the beauty of nature in nudes, portraits, landscapes, daily sketches, award-winning illustrations for children’s books, and commissioned works for the Halifax Army Museum, Halifax Citadel, where Rudnicki was artist-in-residence.
“It really shows the breadth of his practice,” says Susan Tooke, a painter and the late artist’s wife. “He was versatile, extremely serious, very organized. He really believed in the importance of drawing and training the eye. At the same time, he could do something more communicative emotionally. He wasn’t afraid of that.”
Rudnicki died Nov. 4, 2019, at the age of 68, just a year and a half after he and Tooke had left Halifax for a country paradise in Port Royal where they raised chickens, grew vegetables, and made art in studios they named Long Branch Studios. He had immersed himself in the community with a portrait club and plans to teach art to children. “The week before he died we were out protesting with Extinction Rebellion,” says Tooke. “He was on the fire escape of the power station. I have a picture of him holding up a sign, ‘There’s no Planet B,’ and he’s obviously shouting.”
Born in Yorkton, Sask., in 1951, raised in Ottawa and educated in commercial and fine art, Rudnicki moved to Lawrencetown near Halifax with his first wife, and ran the design company Rudnicki-Murphy Advertising. In 1995 he sold it. “He threw out all his neck ties,” says Tooke, “and became a visual artist which is what he had always imagined being. ”
After seeing one of Rudnicki’s nudes at Argyle Fine Art in 2004, she tried out the artist’s weekly life drawing class at Dartmouth’s Findlay Community Centre. On her first day the model didn’t show up, “So Richard sat in with his clothes on.” Tooke painted his hands as golden and lined in blue for an image that opens the exhibit along with Rudnicki’s self-portrait. Within a week of that first class Rudnicki invited Tooke out for coffee and in 2008 they married.
Art for Rudnicki was “a way of life, a way of seeing things, a way of learning, understanding, growing,” he writes in an artist statement pinned to the wall. “It’s a way to reach others.”
The two painted together in the woods, on the South Shore, at Five Islands, at Port Joli, on Sable Island. His palette of oranges and blues grew brighter, says Tooke. One day she was arrested by a work-in-progress as he painted a seascape at Acadia National Park, Maine. “I told him to stop because I found his orange underpainting so beautiful. It was the way he drew his lines and the quality of the composition and the way he could describe space and the tones, very quickly and …. I was going to say simply. It’s not simple. He just knew what he was doing.”
Lights Over Duncan’s Cove, 2002, is a sublime painting of shafts of light streaming through human-shaped gaps in a pointillist sky to beam on a cluster of houses clinging to the coast. “It feels as if there is some sort of threat, but the light is coming through providing protection. I told him he couldn’t sell that one. He would just laugh.”
Rudnicki’s nudes have lovely, abstracted backgrounds, a soft light—he always sat in the same place with light coming in from the left—and reflective expressions. He transferred this gift for capturing character, expression, and movement to award-winning illustrations for children’s books, including Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged, Tecumseh, Abigail’s Wish, Fania’s Heart, and Cyrus Eaton: Champion for Peace. Tooke, an award-winning illustrator herself, encouraged him. “His first one was Gracie, the Public Gardens Duck and with his ability to draw characters and represent emotions I introduced him to the Nimbus folks and they thought his work was extraordinary. One book led to another and other publishers.”
For Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged!, written by Jody Nyasha Warner (Groundwood Books, 2016), Rudnicki hired a model, bought a vivid green dress at a vintage clothing store and borrowed Tooke’s grandmother’s stylish, green hat with a feather. Desmond is a gorgeous woman in green, prodded in the shoulder by a giant, fat finger amid the harsh reds of the Roseland movie theatre.
At the Army Museum, Halifax Citadel, “Richard left a lasting legacy for all who wish to look beyond the often dull words of history,” says chief curator Major Ken Hynes. “His use of colour, context and a deep understanding of humanity, led to true masterpieces.”
Just before Rudnicki died he was working on the challenging, highly dramatic and intensively researched graphic novel Dusty Dreams and Troubled Waters about the corvette HMCS Sackville, written by Brian Bowman and completed by Tooke this year.
The gallery’s back room features Rudnicki’s daily memory sketches triggered by what he’d seen or done the day before. For 10 years he emailed them with written commentary to over 1,000 fans as “Sketch-of-the-Week” posts. It started as an exercise but “it has grown to be much more to me,” he writes. “I have learned just how important are the little moments of everyday life.” “He was wonderful with it,” says Tooke, pointing out a particular one. “This is of Richard and me lying on the beach on Sable Island during the Perseid meteor showers and it was remarkable. And we could hear the seals moaning and you could see the Milky Way and you could see phosphorescence in the water. It was unbelievable. What a night!”
Richard Rudnicki: Reflections on Life, which Tooke curated and hopes to tour, is at ARTSPLACE (arcac.ca), 396 St. George St., Annapolis Royal to Dec. 18.