Selwyn Dewdney

Selwyn Dewdney

Selwyn Hanington Dewdney (October 9, 1909–November 18, 1979) was an author, illustrator, artist, activist and pioneer in both art therapy and pictography.

Early life

He was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan on October 9, 1909 and was the son of the Anglican bishop of the diocese of Keewatin. His family moved to Kenora, Ontario in 1924 and he received his secondary education there. He attended the University of Toronto where he received a general Bachelor of Arts.

In the summer of 1928, he accompanied his father on a 3,800 mile journey to visit the Ojibway and Cree missions in Northern Ontario. Much of this venture was travelled by canoe. This experience established his interest in native culture and love of the bush in the Canadian Shield.

In 1932, he attended the Ontario College of Education and received a High School Assistant's Certificate and Art Specialists Certificate. He also took a course in landscape painting.

The artist

In 1933, he was hired by the Geological Survey of Canada, and was assigned to survey the transition zone between the Precambrian formations of the Canadian Shield and the Hudson Bay lowlands. Amongst the muskeg and blackflies, he sketched the landscape and produced pencil portraits of the traverse crew at the survey camp.

Dewdney's inspiration as an artist came from the great northern landscapes that he loved to visit. His dramatic style is quite similar to that of the Group of Seven. He was also inspired by the American illustrator, Lynd Ward, as can be seen in the personal Christmas cards he designed each year.


In 1936, he married Irene Donner in a ceremony conducted by his father. Their honeymoon was a 500 mile canoe trip loop from Kenora to Red Lake. Later, Dewdney became a father to Christopher Dewdney, a Canadian poet, and Alexander Dewdney, a mathematician, author, conservationist, enviornmental scientist and naturalist. Two other sons are Peter, and Donner.


He began teaching at Sir Adam Beck Secondary School in London, Ontario but resigned in protest at the demotion of a colleague in 1945. This experience was the subject of his first novel "Wind Without Rain".

Art therapy

With a growing family of three sons, he turned to illustrating books, writing, researching, editing and painting commissioned murals to support them. It was during this time that he became interested in art therapy when he was commissioned illustrate Lional Penroses's psychiatric 'M' test. In 1947, while working at Westminster Veterans Hospital in London, he began giving art instruction to some to the psychiatric patients. The positive results of this eventually afforded him the position of Psychiatric Art Therapist. His pioneering work in this field, along with his wife Irene, led to the development of the first art therapy program.

Rock art

During the 1950s, his ongoing exploration of Northern Ontario introduced him to the ancient native pictographs painted in red ochre on the rocks. He always maintained a profound interest in native culture, so recording the little-understood drawings was a logical next step. A chance meeting with Kenneth E. Kidd, the curator of the enthnology department of the Royal Ontario Museum, led to an opportunity to join Kidd and help record the pictograph sites. By 1957, 11 rock painting sites were recorded in Quetico Provincial Park. Between 1959 and 1965, with two of his sons as field assistants, he discovered and recorded rock art from the foothills of the Rockies to the Atlantic coast. By 1978, he had visited 301 sites in Canada and the U.S.. In 1962, the first edition of "Indian Rock Paintings of the Great Lakes" was published, with Kenneth Kidd as co-author.

The Sacred Scrolls

Dewdney learned of a secret society within the Ojibway, the Midewiwin, which embodied the traditional ceremonial rituals of healing and sorcery. It was formed in the early 1700s and included four degrees of initiation. This was recorded on scrolls made of birch bark, sewn together with cedar roots. His "The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway", published in 1975, remains the only volume dedicated exclusively to this esoteric subject.

Norval Morrisseau

In 1960, Dewdney met Norval Morrisseau, a young native artist, and his encouragement and support helped promote Morrisseau as the country's best known Woodland artist. Dewdney edited Morrisseau's book "Legends of My People". At one time, Morrisseau and his family actually lived with Dewdney and his family at their home on Erie Street in London.

Last years

In 1978, he published his second novel, "Christopher Breton". He died in November 18, 1979, following heart surgery. In 1980, two stands of white pine were planted at Agawa Bay in Lake Superior Provincial Park by the Ministry of Natural Resources to honor his memory. A plaque erected by the family stands against the Shield rock he loved so much, a few meters away from the Ojibway pictograph "Mishibizhiw", the great horned lynx. In 1997, his son, A.K. Dewdney, published "'Daylight in the Swamp", based on Dewdney's bush diary, field notes and letters. Selwyn was working on the original manuscript for the book at the time of his death. In the preface to the book, the author explains that the night following his father's funeral, he felt his presence which inspired him to complete his father's work. The term 'daylight in the swamp' refers to a call to loggers after breakfast was eaten to start the men into the woods to work.

ee also

* Walam Olum
* Birch bark document
* Midewiwin
* Wiigwaasabak
* Petroglyphs

Selected bibliography

* 1946: "Wind Without Rain". Toronto: Copp Clark
* 1960: "The Map That Grew". Toronto: Oxford University Press
* 1967: "Indian Paintings of the Great Lakes". Second Edition. Published for the Quetico Foundation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
* 1975: "The Sacred Scrolls of the Southern Ojibway". Published for the Glenbow-Alberta Institute, Calgary, Alberta. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press.
* 1975: "They Shared to Survive: The Native Peoples of Canada". Illustrated by Franklin Arbuckle. Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada, Limited
* 1978: "Christopher Breton". Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
* 1980: "The Hungry Time". Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Publishers.


* [ biography at "BookRags"]

NAME=Dewdney, Selwyn
DATE OF BIRTH=October 9, 1909
PLACE OF BIRTH=Prince Albert, Saskatchewan
DATE OF DEATH=November 18, 1979

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