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Off the Wall by Tony Urquhart and Michael Phillips  

Before the Canadian Government ended the jet interceptor project Urquhart, then a young artist, was consumed by a wish to design a hood ornament for the new fighter aircraft. He was hard to console when he first learned that the plane would not have a hood and his melancholy deepened when the entire project was stopped.

Hypnosis has brought Urquhart to an new understanding that the Arrow calamity drove him from the medium of titanium alloys and back into the embrace of your more basic wood.

A series of 113 drawings which served as studies for artist Tony Urquhart’s ubiquitous box sculptures -- strange, surreal, almost absurd objects. These preliminary sketches provide a unique window into the mind and process of the artist. Captions for the drawings are provided by Michael Phillips who has approached them as if coming on a batch of drawings without prior knowledge of their intent. He has tried to divine something of the artist’s purpose in designing these objects, and to speculate on the end of various projects. Off the Wall -- amusing, irreverent, nonsensical -- is exactly that!

In order to facilitate the construction of his box sculptures Urquhart required working drawings, idea drawings and even drawings of the stands upon which the sculptures would sit. These works were not intended as ends in themselves, but nonetheless they are as complete, interesting and exciting as the artist could render. Urquhart explains that one of his ‘artistic heroes’ is Leonardo da Vinci -- whose idea drawings for flying machines, military catapults and siege cannons have never been surpassed.


2009—ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year,


2009—Alcuin Award for Excellence in Book Design,

Review quote

‘The commentaries, or rightly so, ‘‘captions’’, are as imaginative, absurd, humourous and surreal as some of the drawings, prints and sculptures that grace the pages of this finely produced volume.

‘My initial observations evoked images of pedestalled personal altars, cosmological or climatological devices, strange reliquaries, bizarre, surreal -- à la Remedios Varo -- objects with organic links between the terrestrial and the cosmological space-time continuum ... So how refreshing to come across Phillips’s courageous captions such as this one on page 52:

‘‘A box inspired by the Spanish puppeteer Senor Sergiao Wenches, a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. Any resemblance of the head-like object within the box to a former Prime Minister of Canada, or to Ed Sullivan himself, is probably a coincidence’’.’

—Ralph MacKay,

Author comments

I have at various times made paintings, at other times sculptures and even prints, but I have always made drawings, even as a child. In 2002 I was honoured with a drawing retrospective, organized by Museum London and the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador. It also toured to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery and was hung at the National Gallery of Canada in the summer of 2003.

Terrance Heath, who guest curated the exhibition, decided, with my blessing, to include all types of my drawings except those concerning my opening box sculptures, which he felt were already well known (the boxes, not the drawings for them).

In order to facilitate the building of these sculptures I needed working drawings, idea drawings and even drawings of the stands upon which the sculptures would sit. These works were not ends in themselves, but nevertheless I always tried to make them as complete, interesting and exciting as I could. After all, one of my ‘Artistic Heros’ is Leonardo da Vinci.

I like these drawings but a book full of them, without explanation would be confusing and ultimately boring. A book with an explanation of the end result of each drawing would be even more tedious. It was a problem.

The solution appeared in the form of a friend of mine, The Honourable Michael Phillips. A career diplomat, Canada’s Ambassador to Sweden and Ireland, he also served a term as Consul General in New York. On his retirement he has become a humourist. I am not sure whether his long service in Canada’s diplomatic corps is directly related to this or not, nevertheless he is a very witty man. The box sculptures themselves are somewhat strange, surreal objects, in some ways almost absurd. The drawings can often be even more so, particularly if you are not familiar with the sculptures. Michael Phillips has written the comments as if he has happened across a batch of artistic drawings without knowing what they were for. He has hypothesized an artist/designer and tried to divine what might have been his purpose in designing these objects, and what happened to the various projects the artist had been attempting to realise or had been commissioned to do.

I think you will find the relationship of text to drawings, as well as the overall layout by Tim Inkster of Porcupine’s Quill, quite amusing.

—Tony Urquhart

Introduction or preface

When I started this project with Tony I tried working in Dublin. I would spread his work out around me as I sat in a comfortable leather chair, bought for half the original sticker price although delivery took six months. Inspiration never came during the many hours I spent staring at the drawings. Most of the time I could think of nothing except escalating house prices.

It was only when I took the drawings to Kerry and Donegal that things began to come into focus. Imagination still runs free in these two Irish counties. No matter where you go the house next door has a ghost, often of an ill-treated servant girl. Phantom horse-drawn carriages rumble along the back roads after midnight heading god knows where. The little people still live up in the mountains although competition from the Far East has put most of them out of the shoe-making business.

In Kerry I shared my cottage with a lone mouse that rummaged through the garbage each night looking for scraps of Marks and Spencer ready meals. In Donegal a cat accompanied me home from the pub most nights and we often spoke about Canadian art. She was very knowledgeable and, oddly I thought, hated the Group of Seven.

Perhaps my greatest discovery in scrutinizing this selection of work is the industrial design talents of the artist. It appears he was unaware of this element of his talent. People go to school for years so they can end up designing ironing boards or perfume bottles that resemble parts of the human anatomy. The drawings that hint at industrial design are grouped together for ease of reference.

Readers will note that many of the drawings include pedestals. Some have been used as the basis for actual works of art during the artist’s interminable Box Period. Other drawings include pedestals for no apparent reason except, perhaps, as a signal by the artist that he is fond of his own work.

—Michael Phillips


Tony Urquhart is a painter, a sculptor and draughtsman. In the early sixties Urquhart was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy, the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour and the Canadian Society of Graphic Arts. He later resigned from these organizations to found CAR (Canadian Artists Representation) with Jack Chambers and Kim Ondaatje. He has taught in the art departments of McMaster, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Waterloo. ‘Worlds Apart: The Symbolic Landscapes of Tony Urquhart’, a major retrospective curated by Joan Vastokas toured Canada in 1988-89.

Tony has been involved in the illustration of works by his wife, the writer Jane Urquhart, as well as those of Michael Ondaatje, Matt Cohen, Louis Dudek, and Rohinton Mistry. Named to the Order of Canada in in 1995, Tony Urquhart was named to the Order of Canada in 1995, he divides his time between Stratford, Ontario and Ireland.

For more information please visit the Author’s website »


Michael Phillips was born in Saskatoon when Cokes were a nickel. He received all his formal education there and articled with a law firm before moving to Ottawa to join the Foreign Service. During his diplomatic career he served in Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Dublin, London, Stockholm and New York. He was Canadian Ambassador to Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia during the period 1991 to 1995. He was Ambassador to Ireland from 1996 to 1998 and Consul General in New York from 1998 to 2002. In Ottawa he served twice as an Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for US relations. Early on Michael’s artistic life was confined to piano lessons and executing wall drawings using indelible crayons. Later, however, he was much involved in cultural diplomacy, particularly as Minister for Public Affairs in London and as Consul General in New York. Michael retired from the Foreign Service in 2002, and now lives with his wife, Oonagh, in Ireland where she was born.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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ART / Individual Artists / General

ART / Canadian

ISBN-13: 9780889843028

Publication Date: 2008-07-01

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 224

Price: $27.95