John Kenneth Esler, RCA (1933–2001) “was considered one of Canada’s finest printmakers for many years” by Canadian Contemporary Printmakers (Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1982). Esler began his long career in printmaking in 1963; he favoured the etching process, but also worked with photoprocess, silkscreens and woodcuts. Esler was well known in the Alberta arts community, working hard to raise the profile of printmaking in the province. He played a major role in expanding the printmaking departments at ACAD and the University of Calgary; he also established Trojan Press with artist Ken Webb, to provide a facility for local printmakers to hone their skills. Esler’s prints were exhibited widely throughout North and South America, Australia, and Japan; his work is represented in many public and private collections.
Esler’s willingness to experiment was the defining characteristic of his artistic practice. He had a rather “irreverent, somewhat Dadaist sensibility” (Esler, Alberta Foundation for the Arts) which was expressed in his art—and in his teaching. Esler’s students were encouraged to open their minds to unexpected possibilities by his example. One typical instance of Esler’s approach was his series Relics of the Twentieth Century: he ran cast-off garbage and refuse through a printing press to create relief prints, proving that anything could be fodder for the creative process! Objects used in the Relics prints ranged from “a squashed lunch box to the flattened chassis of a television set.”
Born in Pilot Mound, Manitoba in 1933, Esler graduated with a BFA from the School of Art at the University of Manitoba (1960), followed by a BEd (1962). After travelling in Europe, Esler returned to teach at ACAD (1964-68); he then joined the University of Calgary and taught intaglio printmaking and drawing until he retired (1968-1980). Esler was the recipient of the C.W. Jefferys Award from the Canadian Society of Graphic Arts, and the G.A. Reid Memorial Award from the Canadian–Etchers and Engravers. He was an elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy for the Arts.