Filiming Royal Hudson, Squamish, BC

Spreitz at Squamish train station. 1977.

Karl Spreitz’s film debut was in 1964 at the first International Film Festival in Victoria, BC. He won first prize in the British Columbia category for Steelhead River, a twenty-minute film, featuring fellow Limner artist and friend Ricky Ciccimarra.  The film was highly praised for its authentic depiction of fly-fishing on Vancouver Island’s Cowichan River.

Steelhead River typifies Spreitz’s widely recognized work in documentary film-making and photography.  Both his moving and still images focused almost exclusively on British Columbia: its history and geography and the cultural life of its artists both indigenous and non-native.   Concurrently, Spreitz developed a strong artistic practice in painting, drawing and collage, and in 1972 became one of the founding members of the Limners Society art group. These artists, many of them expatriates from Germany, Austria and England, played a major role in establishing a modern art scene in Victoria.  But Spreitz’s multi-faceted career has never been linear, and his road to recognition has had many unexpected influences and trajectories.

Photo by Joey Walker, published with permission

Karl Spreitz, 1988.
Photo by Joey Walker, published with permission

Born in 1927 in Graz an der Mur, Austria, Spreitz witnessed the rise of National Socialism and its effect on German and Austrian society.  After the Anschluss in 1938 he saw the travelling exhibition of “Degenerate Art” and was introduced to the art of members of the Bauhaus, Expressionist and Dadaist artists.  The Second World War also disrupted the Spreitz family.  His step -father was captured on the eastern front and incarcerated for two years in a Russian prisoner of war camp.  In 1944 at the age of seventeen Karl Spreitz was sent as a member of the Youth Corps to Hamburg, but escaped.  He fled across Germany via a stolen bicycle and by swimming in the Elbe River.  He was finally captured in Bavaria by the American army.  After the European liberation, Spreitz, on the encouragement of his parents, applied to art school but was not accepted.  The very same day he wrote the entrance examination for the athletics program at Graz University.  There he became a coach at the university, and was then promoted to the position of Assistant Coach to the Women’s Olympic Team of Austria.

During his Olympic coaching career, Spreitz acquired a 16 millimetre movie camera, which he convinced the team officials he could use for training purposes. With this camera, filming the European track and field events in Brussels, Spreitz taught himself the skills of motion film production.  He claims that “while pretending to know all about film-making,” he observed the form, volume, action and aesthetics of the human figure framed by the camera lens.[1]  This solidified his aesthetic interest in both moving and still images.   During this time Spreitz also met and coached Olympic bronze medalist Ina Mayer von Bojan, whom he married in 1953.

Spreitz immigrated to Canada in 1952 and went on to graduate in 1957 from the Brooks School of Photography in Santa Barbara, California.   He worked as a newspaper photographer in Prince George for the next year, engraving all of his own plates.  It was not until the 1959 when he moved to Victoria, however, that his artistic style developed and film and photography career truly began.  He acknowledges a number of his fellow Limner artists for their influence and encouragement.  Maxwell Bates, the widely recognized Canadian Expressionist artist, was his ‘hero.’


Self Propelled, mixed media on paper, 1975, Gift of Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic, University of Victoria Art Collections

Close friend Expressionist artist Herbert Siebner, was both his teacher and constant partner in crime for any kind of artistic endeavour, and hilarity often ensued between these two larger than life characters.  Artists Richard Ciccimarra and Michael Morris also encouraged Spreitz’s work in painting, drawing and photo-collage.  Spreitz also collaborated with many of the Limners members on projects such as books with Skelton and Siebner, photographic portraits with artist Myfanwy Pavelic, and art exhibitions.   A quickly assembled exhibition in Vancouver caused Andy Warhol to quip, “Karl Spreitz is the master of instant retrospectives.”[2]

Spreitz has stated that much of his artistic work from the 1960s was reactionary, rebelling against the restrictions placed upon him by editors of Look, Star Weekly, The Globe and Mail, the Victoria Daily Times, and the Victoria Daily Colonist, for which he worked as a freelance photographer.[3]  In a more recent review of Spreitz’s 2007 artistic retrospective at the Winchester Galleries, art critic Brian Grison emphasizes dualities in Spreitz’s work: “the ironic relationships between titles and images that [Spreitz] brings together like some kind of mad equation of contradictions suggest[ing] the struggle of dualities that he witnessed at play in the world.”[4]


Untitled serigraph, Karl Spreitz (left image) and Herbert Siebner (right image), 1976, University of Victoria Art Collections

Spreitz’s artwork is in the collections of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, University of Victoria Art Collections and the Canada Council Art Bank. The 1977 gouache painting Where do you want to go? in UVic’s permanent collection suggests struggle and conflict.  Two bodies overlap and share arms; several heads expand in a line with two faces looking forward and back; suggesting a duality of self, a struggle within to decide,to move ahead or go back.  Another mixed media painting entitled Self Propelled combines the typical imagery of Spreitz’s work – a human figure part machine or geometrical construct, reduced to almost complete control through the outside forces of technology.   “The reason I’m so fascinated with the human figure is probably those years and years of editing… that dance, of body mechanics, broken down.”[5]

Spreitz’s photographic career was also significant.  He was a staff photographer and occasional editor for Beautiful British Columbia magazine from 1965 to 1968 and co-authored several books, including Vancouver: Visions of a City with Paul Grescoe (1992); Beautiful British Columbia Wildlife: The Living Landscape (1991) with Anne Mayhew; and his own Songs from the Wild (Beautiful British Columbia) (1992).


Government Drinking Fountain, serigraph print, 1973, Gift of Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic, University of Victoria Art Collections

Spreitz worked from 1968 to 1972 for CTV television.  He also had stints with CHEK and CBC and produced numerous commercials.  He continued thereafter as a freelance filmmaker, producing films for the National Film Board, CBC, the BC Provincial Museum, and the BC Department of Travel Industry.   He also produced a recruiting film entitled Coming About for the Canadian Navy in Comox.  Spreitz’s  independent film collaborations with Vicky Husband, Colin Browne and Anne Mayhew are detailed elsewhere on this site, as well as his experimental films with Michael Morris, Herbert Siebner and others.

Spreitz’s far-reaching contributions in film and photography have captured many important moments in BC history and his collaborative approach to film-making has been significant.  This digitization project will continue to promote access to his extensive film archive, focusing primarily on west coast artists, environmental and historical films, and will be added to as funds become available.  These thematic areas are meant to highlight the range of his work and provide an overview of his career to both academic and non-academic audiences.

Caroline Riedel, Curator of Collections (with original interviews and research also conducted by Kim Reinhardt, former graduate intern, History in Art, University of Victoria)

[1] Robin Skelton, “Karl Spreitz.”  The Malahat Review.  37(January 1976) 60.

[2] Interview with Kim Reinhardt, 1998 and Caroline Riedel, 2013.

[3] Interview with Kim Reinhardt, 1998.

[4] Brian Grison, “Karl Spreitz Comments on the Human Condition.” Focus, vol. 9, no. 6, (March 2007), 28.

[5] Times Colonist “Spreitz Narrows his Focus in Show” March 1, 2007,