Dad was a commercial artist, and an amazingly brilliant one, and I can say that quite objectively. He learned his trade in the UK in the 1930s, and his skill at precision artwork was nothing short of astounding. (He also did artwork for my school projects, and the very last ‘title page’ he did for me was the cover to my novel, Gryphon’s Heir --- a subject I’ve written about and you can find here if you’re interested.) However, what he really enjoyed doing was what he called ‘fine art' --- painting with watercolours and acrylics. His subjects tended to be the rural buildings and environments of Western Canada, which is where we lived, and I recall many Sunday afternoons when we would all load up in the family car (a mammoth 1970 Pontiac Strato-Chief that seemed only slightly smaller than the Queen Mary passenger liner) and head out into the countryside to photograph countless barns, agricultural equipment, sheds, railway stations and buildings --- and, of course, grain elevators. (I’m afraid my interest in these structures --- many of which either already were, or certainly appeared, derelict --- approached zero. But I always had a book with me, and could curl comfortably up in the massive back seat and lose myself in Middle Earth while Dad did his thing.)
Like so many things from our collective childhoods, I’m sorry now I didn’t take a more active interest in these expeditions. As children, we often don’t appreciate the singular opportunities --- the moments in time --- that we’re frequently confronted with. (Well, how can we, really? To a child, time and lifespans, both one’s own and those of people surrounding them, stretch ahead endlessly --- if a child thinks of such abstract things at all, which most don’t. Including me.) But the opportunities include whom we’re with, or where we are, or what we’re doing, and now all I can do is peer down the telescope of memory 35 or 40 years after the fact.
The painting prompting today’s epistle is one he did almost 15 years ago, when he was in his 80s. He worked from an old black and white photograph taken probably 30 years prior to that, but his paintings were never just slavish copies of his photos --- he would often take his artistic licence and alter details to make things more photogenic or worthy of art, sometimes quite considerably. His skill in this painting is still razor sharp, and the only thing wrong with it when it arrived in our home recently was that dad had framed it himself, using bits of what I believe were floorboards --- which I sighed at and smiled with fond reminiscence. Dad was always thrifty (having grown up during the Great Depression years in grinding poverty, and even later, coming to Canada and being a self-employed commercial artist bringing up a young family) and professional framing wasn’t and isn’t cheap. But my wife and I felt the painting deserved proper framing, so we went ahead and had it done. Dad would have approved with the finished result, I believe, although I’m quite sure he would have clucked in dismay at the price. But it can now hang worthily above our fireplace mantelpiece.
It will serve double duty there: first, as a reminder of a bygone era --- there really aren’t any of the old wooden grain elevators dotting the prairie countryside anymore. At one time, they were ubiquitous, silent sentinels marking the location of small settlements that couldn’t charitably even be called villages; now, they have vanished into the mists of history, and mostly, those small settlements right along with them. The painting’s second duty will be to provide a living memory of the gentle man who created it, a tangible reminder left behind that he lived and loved.
Always look back. Not in sadness or anger or preoccupation, but in simple remembrance. Because to know where you are now, to know where you’re going, you need to know --- and honour --- from where you’ve come.