Art installation by Cliff Eyland at the Halifax Library, photo by Christine Rondeau, cropped from original, used under CC BY 4.0. Source:

Artist Feature: Cliff Eyland


Interested in learning about artists whose works we’re studying? We’re delighted to be presenting articles about artists in Canada on our blog—read on to learn more about Cliff Eyland and his famous file card works.

Exquisite and intimate, bold and colourful, provocative and meditative: Cliff Eyland’s file card paintings bring an extraordinary array of ideas and emotions together in tiny rectangles. Numbering in the thousands, his artworks nearly always measure three by five inches, the size of the standard file cards once used for library catalogues. For Eyland, this format was the structure that defined his art, one in which he found huge creative freedom for over thirty years.

Born in 1954, Eyland was raised in Nova Scotia. As a young man, he struggled to get into art school, and his initial studies included philosophy and art history courses at Mount Allison University (Sackville, New Brunswick) and the graphic design program at Holland College (Charlottetown). Then, in 1980 he began a BFA program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and it was there that he began his file card project, the series that would be the foundation of his art for the rest of his life.

In the late 1960s, NSCAD emerged as one of the most important centres of Conceptual Art in Canada. Under the leadership of Garry Neill Kennedy, the college had created the first MFA program in Canada, established a gallery to show radical art from across the country and abroad, created numerous exhibitions in which leading international artists collaborated with students, and founded a lithography workshop to support printmaking in contemporary art. Conceptual Art—an approach to artmaking in which an artist develops a central idea or system that guides and shapes the artworks they create—was at the heart of all these initiatives, and it was tremendously inspiring for Eyland.

Reflecting on his practice in 2003, Eyland recalled, “I have often thought of the library as my own kind of secret museum.”[1] He was not only interested in libraries’ collections of books and art magazines, but also in what he found in books—all kinds of items people tucked away in them—and in library file cards, especially as he knew that they might soon be replaced by online catalogues. Eyland was familiar with Card File, a 1962 artwork by the American sculptor Robert Morris that was made with file cards, and soon after arriving at NSCAD he decided that the file card would be the fundamental concept in his own art. He began making paintings the size of file cards, and he planned interventions for the library at the college.

As Eyland explained, “I cut up Arneson’s History of Modern Art into file card sized pieces and then spent two months inserting these cards amongst the file cards of the School library’s catalogue. […] The library projects I did at art school reflected my thinking about the organization of art and documentation in libraries and art galleries, and about how libraries work.”[2] At the time, the card catalogue in the library was a guide for all users to locate any of the library’s books or journals on art and artists—but users had to work within the categories it offered them. With his file card interventions, Eyland created a playful but subversive intervention, using fragments of pages of a famous book on modern art to encourage people to think about how art challenges organizational structures.

After graduating from NSCAD in 1982, Eyland began curating exhibitions and writing about art, while still continuing to create his own file card works. He emerged as a key leader in the arts in Nova Scotia, but in 1994 he moved to Winnipeg with his partner, and it was there that he created his most famous projects. As a mature artist, Eyland was committed to exploring every possibility for file card paintings. In a statement about his process, he declared, “Usually I compose images out of my imagination as I paint and draw. I also paint from life, but more often I work with an image that gets formed before my eyes in the painting without using models of any kind. I have a discipline about work which permits me to produce art no matter what my circumstances. Sometimes I work on a painting for several years, but sometimes the work congeals into something acceptable in a few minutes. Work on individual paintings is absorbing enough for me to quickly forget that my 3” x 5” format never changes.”[3] The size of his work led him to take an avid interest in the history of painting on a small scale around the world, and his research was interwoven with his artwork. After Hilliard, for instance, responds to the great English artist Nicholas Hilliard, who was celebrated for his miniature portraits in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

Eyland became a professor at the University of Manitoba School of Art in 1998 and Director of Gallery One One One. Balancing teaching, curating, writing, and artmaking, he was deeply admired for his generosity in the arts community. He began reaching new audiences, however, when he developed installations for libraries—massive displays where hundreds, even thousands of his paintings were on display. Eyland had long been drawn to libraries for their accessibility, noting “in art school I became interested in libraries as public, free-to-enter institutions […] libraries are perfect contemplative places for art.”[4] Untitled at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg (installed 2005, and subsequently added to by Eyland), Library Cards and Book Shelf Paintings at the Halifax Central Library (2014), and Sculptures in Landscapes at Edmonton Meadows Library (2014) are installations that in many ways reflect the early interventions in catalogues: with them, Eyland offered library visitors visual surprises, images in miniature that invite us to open up our thinking about libraries and art. In doing so, these projects bring together Eyland’s years of work and his open, warmly inclusive approach to creativity. As friend and fellow artist Craig Love recalled after Eyland’s death in 2020, “It was Cliff’s belief that if you were physically making art you were an artist, and nobody could stop you from being one, regardless of any art world success or praise. ‘They can’t stop me from doing this’ was a kind of mantra that we would joke about…and boy did he mean that with all his heart.”[5]


[1] Cliff Eyland, quoted in Peter Goddard, “Paintings the size of a file card,” Toronto Star, April 12, 2003.
[2] “The File Card Works,” Cliff Eyland, (accessed February 24, 2024).
[3] “The File Card Works,” Cliff Eyland, (accessed February 24, 2024).
[4] “Q & A with Cliff Eyland,” NSCAD University, February 2, 2015, (accessed February 24, 2024).
[5] Jan Peacock, Craig Love, Peter Kirby, Jeanne Randolph, and William Eakin, “Three-By-Five: Remembering Cliff Eyland,” Canadian Art, June 10, 2020, (accessed February 24, 2024).

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