Jack Chambers' Red and Green

Primary Author: 
Tom Smart
Jack Chambers' Red and Green

What is the purpose of life? The purpose of art? What is the purpose of the artist? Jack Chambers probes these fundamental questions in his final piece of work – an unpublishable manuscript – ‘Red and Green’, now decrypted by author and curator Tom Smart.

In 1968, Canadian artist and filmmaker Jack Chambers was diagnosed with leukemia. Faced with his own mortality, Chambers began a programme of research into the nature of his own immortality. From that starting point the artist embarked on a nine-year journey that would ultimately take him to the end of his days. In his search, Chambers consulted many sources: philosophers, scientists, poets, priests, mystics and clairvoyants. Using the metaphor of the complementary-colour contrast of red and green, Chambers examined life’s inherent paradoxes, resolutely searching for synthesis. What resulted was ‘Red and Green’, a collage of quotations and ideas – a visual and literary mosaic – photocopied and diligently pasted into ring binders.

The manuscript called ‘Red and Green’ has spent the greater part of its existence closeted in a studio, a basement and an archive. Today, Tom Smart, with remarkable care and persistence, presents Jack Chambers’ Red and Green, Chambers’ final thoughts on the purpose of the artist in society.

Table of contents



Perception and Perception

Sight and Vision

Down and Up

Realism and Real

Artists and Art

Reality and Reality


Excerpt from book

(from ‘Down and Up’)

At the core of ‘Red and Green’, Chambers turned his agile mind to the distinction between being and existence, our relationship to God and to nature. He writes that, ‘the recurring theme of “God is Love” appears to mean exactly what it says; that there is a force, an energy, that binds the cosmos together and moves always in the direction of its harmonious action ... [In human beings], this force emerges and expresses itself as love, and this is the “spark of the divine” in each of us.’ In no other quotation comprising the densely rich mosaic of the manuscript, does Chambers so succinctly express his thesis. The reconciliation of opposites – down and up – and synthesizing the dialectical nature of being and spirit, body and nature, object and subject is made manifest through the force and energy of love. Love unites opposites and reconciles disparate energies, blends complements. Moreover, Chambers asserts that when the force of love (the spark of the divine) is ‘acknowledged and reinforced by the culture’ it contributes to humanity, relating harmoniously to one another, to the rest of the universe and ‘to move forward towards the most unique and awesome self-fulfillment.’

Just as it appears that Chambers has given us a moral centre to his manuscript, resolving the many threads which, up to this point he had been weaving, he opens another tangent to explore. If anything, the nature of the inquiry at the core of ‘Red and Green’ does not advocate one to be passive. On the contrary, Chambers vouches for a hybrid form of contemplation that calls one to be active. To deny the potent agency of the force of love to lead one to be redeemed is to risk the energy being inverted and perverted to cause one to hate, hunger for power, be greedy and ‘the real possibility of ... disrupting the expression of ... energy as to end [our] part in the cosmic design.’ He admonishes his readers, challenging them to tap into the energy of the universe and to accept the challenge that human beings are ‘a part of the energy of the universe and can only function harmoniously within it through [the] capacity to love – infinitely.’ What began as an artistic journey in ‘Red and Green’ has moved through the paths of a perceptual journey, a mystical quest, and arrives at this point as a profoundly spiritual inquiry into the mystery of God’s divine love, divinity and omnipotence. Furthermore, Chambers adds nuance to the journey by also making it philosophical and phenomenological, taking up the voice of Merleau-Ponty probing the essence of consciousness by which we are both a part and distanced from the world around us. For the philosopher, this pure centre is also ‘absolute emptiness observable only at the moment when it is filled by experience.’ Merleau-Ponty likens this centre to God. Through the authors Chambers quotes, he affirms that there are higher states of consciousness, and that these states are necessary for the human species to survive and, perhaps, overcome the day-to-day problems that plague the world – pollution, genocide, exploitation of natural resources, overpopulation, famine, disease and war. Inner space needs to be cultivated, and it should be the responsibility of humans to try to achieve at least a state of illumination in order to understand and process the higher aspirations of consciousness. This state of illumination is a form of animism, of magical perception of the world. Chambers calls for a counterbalance of the scientific worldview in the privileging of the magical perception and appreciation of the world – a perception that pays attention to the voices of the stones and plants and the magical essences of all things.

What Chambers advocated was a deep plumbing of the layers of reality to reach a mythic layer where archetypes rest below the level of consciousness. His view was that the universe is animistic, pantheistic, Christian and Jungian all at the same time. He also recognized the magical dimensions of reality, and the potentials of shamanism to provide alternative pathways for unlocking and channeling the profound currents of energy flowing through the entire cosmos. The perception of reality requires a belief in things unseen, graspable partly through contemplation and the practice of occult rituals. The occult, he averred, provided humanity with a vein of untapped resources that could be accessed in order to survive an external reality whose own resources are being depleted. The world of the occult is a reality defined by ‘secret knowledge’; it is a reality we all have the capacity to intuit and know, but choose to keep hidden from ourselves.

Unpublished endorsement

‘Many years ago, in London, Ontario, at the invitation of Olga Chambers, I sat at a table in the Chambers living room and examined a curious manuscript assembled by Olga’s husband Jack, an artist I revered, a painter at the height of his powers when he died of leukemia at the age of forty-seven. The manuscript is a collage of quotations drawn from many fields and arranged in chapters, a bold exploration of the conjunction of ‘intelligence, heart and flesh’ in approach to everything in nature and in both the creation and response to a work of art. There was talk of a ‘key’ to all the sources. Apparently it never showed up, so Tom Smart spent a decade ‘decrypting’; the manuscript and figuring out a way of presenting Jack Chambers’s ideas and his vision (in summary, paraphrase, quotation and interpretation), since the manuscript could not be published as assembled. Smart has done a service to the memory and the thought of a magnificent ‘perceptual realist’ in whose paintings the ordinary is brilliantly transfigured.’

—Stan Dragland

Introduction or preface

This is the story of a thirty-year-old manuscript titled ‘Red and Green’, made from the words of many authors, that has spent its existence secreted away in a studio, a basement and an archive. Its pages, bound in ring binders, comprise the scraps and copied pages from authors as varied as the human imagination.

Its history and reason for being – its story – goes as follows: Jack Chambers, an artist in midlife, realizes he is dying and in his search for redemption and eternity he asks questions about immortality. After a lot of instruction by following the courses of many writers, scientists, mystics, clairvoyants, philosophers, poets, priests, artists, critics and ghosts - taking place on the page, and in his art – he finds answers.

I was handed this project more than twenty years ago and was asked to find a way to have it published. But, it cannot be published because it is essentially a long mosaic of quotations lifted from the writings of others. Most of what has been written to date about ‘Red and Green’ – what it is, and what it might mean – is merely guesswork, because since it was begun in the late 1960s in the southwestern Ontario city of London, very few people have managed to read it or even have a look at it. For the better part of its life, despite the fact that it is thought to be an important, pivotal work of one of Canada’s most accomplished artists and filmmakers, ‘Red and Green’ has existed mostly just as a rumour, cosseted behind the veils of its own legend – respected and puzzled over only from a great distance, shrouded in its strangely hermetic form, and weighted by its ambiguous message.

Part of the challenge is that ‘Red and Green’ is more scrapbook than anything else. It is a very large, dense accumulation of texts that Chambers photocopied from other books and pasted down in a long, deliberate order. The many hundreds of entries set out his ideas on art. The words of others speak for him; Chambers expresses himself through them. Unusual, the accumulation of sources, sparsely interspersed with his own thoughts on perception, were identified by Chambers with a highly cryptic code notation that was incomplete at best, rendering the publication of the book as it was originally crafted and structured all but impossible.

Nevertheless, its message provides insights into the mind and art of one of the country’s most gifted artists of the twentieth century. When I promised Chambers’ sons that I would prepare the manuscript for publication, little did I realize the magnitude of the task. The challenge lay first in cracking his cryptic code – decrypting it – then identifying all of the quotations, consulting the original sources, and adding full bibliographic citations to the hundreds of entries, merely as a beginning to understanding who it was that Chambers had read and, perhaps, why he consulted these sources in the first place as written avatars of his own voice and ideas.

Deciphering the code and identifying the quotations took more than a decade, and this involved returning to the sources Chambers consulted and finding the exact passages he quoted, checking his version against the original text, and writing the citation. From the fragments, Chambers’ own voice rises above the chorus leading the reader on a long exploration of the multi-dimensionality of art, reality and its transcendent aspects.


Author, art gallery director, curator, columnist and special advisor to art galleries and museums, Tom Smart is especially noted for his award-winning critical biographies, catalogues and monographs on Canadian artists. To date, Mr Smart’s writings on painters include Alex Colville, Mary Pratt, Tom Forrestall, Miller Brittain and Fred Ross, graphic novelist George A Walker and sculptor John Hooper. Mr Smart has worked in art galleries and museums across Canada and the United States, among them the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, The Frick in Pittsburgh, the Art Gallery of Sudbury and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection where he was Executive Director from 2006–2010. Smart’s essay ‘The Wood Engravings of Rosemary Kilbourn’ was recently published in the Devil’s Artisan. Currently, Smart is working on three new books on artists Oscar Cahén, Freeman Patterson and Aba Bayefsky. His bi-weekly column ‘The Curator’ appears in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

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