Born in Lumsden, Saskatchewan, Kerr studied at the Ontario College of Art, Toronto (1924-27), with several members of the Group of Seven, and at the New Westminster School of Art, London, England (1936). In 1945-46, he taught at the Vancouver School of Art. From 1947-67, he was the head of the Art Department at Alberta’s Provincial Institute of Technology and Art, which under his guidance evolved from a small department with one full-time teacher (Stan Perrott) to the Alberta College of Art, one of Canada’s best art schools, offering a four year course in all departments. Perrott observed, “He was a tower of strength in Alberta… The painters of Alberta today may not paint like Buck Kerr- but they are his children. They all caught his spirit. He was the central reference point for artistic morality and dynamic living.”
Kerr’s second greatest interest was writing. In the early 1930’s he wrote short stories for Blackwood’s magazine of Edinburgh. His 1946 illustrated book of stories about life on the prairies, “Gay Dogs and Dark Horses”, was short-listed for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. His autobiography, “Paint and Circumstance” was published in 1987.
Above all, Kerr was a great artist, working for over 60 years in various styles and mediums. He produced abstract expressionist canvasses, official state portraits of lieutenant-governors and premiers, and linocuts and ink drawings of animals. However, he was best known for his prairie and foothills landscapes. Fellow artist and friend John Snow stated, “I liked his work, its absolute honesty. It was straightforward and no-nonsense. He had such a fine sense of colour and such a knowledge of prairie landscape. He knew it from working it on trap-lines. But what I think set him apart most was his ability to look at landscape and think of it in abstract themes of volume, space and colour, to create more abstract designs without losing the form and contour of the land.”
Illingworth Kerr lived to paint. When a stroke in December 1988 left him without the vision necessary to paint, he fatally shot himself on January 6, 1989. In his will, he asked his executors to throw a party for his friends. Close to 500 people gathered at the Alberta College of Art to say their good-byes. He is commemorated by the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the A.C.A.
Kerr was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary, Calgary, 1973; the National Award for Painting and Related Arts, the University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1975; and the Order of Canada in 1983.
He became a member of the Alberta Society of Artists in 1947 and was Vice-President in 1951-52 and President in 1952-53. He was a Calgary correspondent for the A.S.A. Highlights in 1956 and Assistant Editor in 1957. He became a member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1974.
Kerr had many solo and two-person shows; he held retrospective exhibitions in 1940, 1962, 1975 and 1985. Collections containing his paintings include the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Alberta Foundations for the Arts, Edmonton; the Glenbow-Alberta Institute, Calgary; the University of Calgary, Calgary; Alberta College of Art, Calgary; Saskatoon Art Gallery, Saskatoon; the Norman Mackenzie Gallery, Regina; the McMichael Canadian Collection, Klienburg, Ontario; Memorial University, St.John’s, Newfoundland; and many corporate and private collections across Canada.