Canadian outsider artist Jahan Maka

I have made many phone calls and sent a lot of emails during my exploration of Canadian outsider art. One call always leads to another link in the information chain. I was talking with a gallery owner in Victoria, BC, who curated a Scottie Wilson exhibit in Canada many years ago. When I asked her where all the Canadian outsider artists were,  she suggested that I speak with Susan Whitney in Regina, Saskatchewan, as she could tell me about the artist, Jahan Maka (1900 – 1987). It turns out that Susan Whitney knew Maka and represented him in her gallery for many years.

One of Maka’s “black” paintings

I was startled when I first saw images of Maka’s work. They are among the best outsider art pieces that I have admired at international exhibits. The titles are charming, like “Four Rich Farmers and two young girls dancing at the crossroads and the people living in between”. Some are familiar as naïve art pieces, with drawings of zoo animals in the centre of the canvas. Others painted on black backgrounds are magnificent, as in the example shown here. (The photo images are poor, but I was not able to find better ones given the near obscurity of Maka’s life’s work.) The surreal and textured images of people, animals, and buildings cover every inch of the canvas; they are right-side-up, sideways, upside down.  All make you catch your breath and get close to study them.

The Zoo

Who was this remarkable artist?  Jahan Maka was born on a farm in Lithuania in 1900. Although the facts are unclear, his family lost their farm during the First World War, and Maka left for Canada in 1927, hoping to make enough money to return and buy another farm. The Depression thwarted his plans and he worked as a labourer in the Prairie provinces. Sometime before 1937 he anglicized his name to John Thomason (or Thamason, or Thamasson), worked as a miner, and settled in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

His friends recalled him as a bit of a loner, introspective, but sociable with his close circle of friends. Perhaps the most influential person in his life was his godson and artist, Tony Allison. When Maka began painting at age 68, Allison encouraged him and supplied him with art materials whenever he visited. Without professional art supplies, Maka improvised with products like commercial enamels, airplane paint thinned with lighter fluid, appliance touch-up paint, wax crayons, and carpenter’s chalk.  He rebuilt worn paint brushes with hairs from his own moustache and painted on walls or doors of his apartment when he ran out of canvas.  Motifs that he wanted to recreate, like forests, were carved from wood or linoleum and stamped onto the canvas or board. The effect is gorgeous.

Art critic, Michael Hall, describes Maka as a Canadian Chagall. Why aren’t we celebrating this Canadian treasure?