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And thus began an experience that played a pivotal role in the transformation from student to artist and into a career as a successful sculptor. Inevitably the close working contact with Henry Moore would leave an indelible mark on his early works until he developed his own distinctive artistic style – a style that drew inspiration not only from Moore, but also August Rodin and Constantin Brancusi, to name a few. (see the Matthews’ sculpture gallery)
In his formative years, John related in an interview, he was concerned with permanency – driven by a sense that life changed too quickly and sculpting would be his way of grasping something permanent. His sculptures were meant to last. So it was hardly surprising that bronze became a favourite material.
His approach to art was honest, simple and direct – “I think there’s far too much intellectualizing about art. To my mind, it stems from a gut reaction, without having to be able to explain why. My work starts off as a purely emotional thing. A sculpture takes on its own life”.
And his own life would have to imitate art. His schooling and apprenticeship with one of the world’s great sculptors behind him – it was time to put words into action, acquired knowledge into creation, and turn his imagination and ideas into a vibrant art form.
In 1967, he returned to Canada, took up residence in Ottawa, married (he and his first wife later separated) and set up a studio in a garage. It was a starting point for his artistic inspirations and aspirations. He began to fashion abstract sculptures that frequently introduced suggestions of natural and organic forms – rocks, pebbles, mountains, trees and caves – with occasional figurative busts which he created for his own personal enjoyment or when commissioned.
His first big break came when he signed an exclusive contract with Dominion Galleries in Montreal to sell his works. He also began receiving a growing number of private commissions and in due course, his art would be displayed in many other major Canadian galleries across the country. Meanwhile, he continued to work out of the Ottawa studio where Joan Michener had completed the portrait of her father.
In 1970, plans were already underway at Rideau Hall to establish an annual award to recognize excellence in meritorious public service journalism. Roland Michener wanted to lend his name to the award not only to pay tribute to the best in Canadian journalism but also to honour the memory of his daughter Wendy, a journalist and broadcaster herself, whose untimely death that year had shaken the Michener family.
He invited officers of the newly formed Federation of Press Clubs to discuss his concept for the award and how it would be administered.
What ultimately emerged was the Michener Award. Each year, the Governor General would present the Award to a print or broadcast news organization, French or English – judged to have performed the most outstanding example of public service journalism, journalism that made a difference.
The award would go to a news organization and not to an individual. It was the view of Mr. Michener and the Press Club committee that excellence in journalism is achieved through the commitment of everyone in a news organization – writers, editors and researchers – the support staff who create the climate for success. In essence, the award would validate the importance of a team effort.
Now it was time to draft specific terms of reference, prepare entry forms and invite applications and select judges. The very first Michener award would honour a story that was published or broadcast during the 1970 calendar year.
What was missing was a visible and physical representation of the award – a fitting symbol of journalistic excellence – that a deserving organization could take back to the newsroom.