Sunday, 28 October 2012

EPISODE 3


EPISODE 3

In the first posting of Episode 3 there were some inadvertent errors.  If you read it early on October 28th, please look at it again, with the corrections in place.  We apologize for any incomprehension and inconvenience.

        This was long before my critical encounter with George Dunning.  On Grenville we were a convivial bunch, yet most of us were often broke.  Work was scarce in the art world.  For a printing shop I sometimes did a little graphic piece, and once I sold a painting — a landscape, for $35 — to someone who knew me.  I did portraits of my friends, but for the most part was wrapped in my grandiose themes, disdaining people-pleasing pictures.  However, there was Eaton's, and largely because of it, there was our artists' colony on Grenville Street.
        In its heyday, which is the time I'm referring to, Eaton's College Street in Toronto was one of the world's great emporiums, rivalling the most glamorous department stores of New York, London and Paris.  From France, in the late 1920s, Eaton's brought René Cera to be their Head of Architectural Design.  And he did add effects in the art deco manner popular at the time.  But he was in fact a painter, and it wasn't long before he became the virtual czar of all design.
        Eaton's College Street (Eaton's also had their large store downtown) took up a very big entire city block, from Yonge to Bay Streets and College to Hayter.  It was intended mainly to promote furniture and house furnishings, and had, at street level, huge show windows that usually displayed model furnished rooms.  Cera kept a generation of artists alive by commissioning paintings and hanging their paintings in those rooms.  I later met a longtime Eaton's executive, a woman, who told me she had been part of a committee that was to determine whether those paintings had any actual merchandizing value for Eaton's.  She said it took the committee fifteen years to decide that they hadn't.
  Cera was a power many feared.  He was from the south of France, shortish, thick set, heated, passionate and enormously imaginative.  It was said that he was a favourite of Lady Eaton.  His quarters on the Fourth floor had a long front room that housed his assistant's desk, several architectural draftsmen who kept redesigning projects (none of which was ever built) that might be developed on land Eaton's owned around the store, and three more-than-comely women artists who were forever doing large paintings along one of the walls.  At the end of this gauntlet was Cera's sanctum, in which he sometimes secluded himself.  But for me all that was to come.
A rough depiction of Bill McCrow.
If you have a photo you'd care to submit,
we'd be eternally grateful.
        For the store's displays Cera also kept using outside artists for various kinds of works.  On one such assignment Bill McCrow was busy in his attic creating tall paper-maché sculptures, some five and six feet high, of something like fantasy birds and animals.  But he had a deadline and it was getting close, so he had me help him.  Then he gave me a little of his payment.  And he did more: he got me taken on as an artist worker at Eaton's.
        Bill warrants a special word here.  He was not only a gifted creator, he was also given to outsized visions.  He dreamt up the idea of a physical artist's colony, found a large plot of land near Kleinberg, Ontario, designed the project, and got people to fund it.  The notion was to have artists build houses there, but few artists could afford that, so the scheme was broadened to include artistic people.  And they came.  Pierre Berton built a house there and lived in it for the rest of his life.  Initially, Bill was the manager of the colony, but he was better at dreaming than managing, so that didn't last.  But the place drew like-minded people.  It can be said that the McMichael Art Gallery in Kleinberg is a far-flung result of Bill's dream.
  At Eaton's College Street a large part of the Fourth floor was walled off into an exhibition hall.  Admission was free; the motive was to attract visitors and add to Eaton's prestige.  About a dozen or more artists and some craftspeople worked on those exhibitions.  When I was taken on, as the youngest and least of them, they were nearing the completion of a huge relief model of Toronto, about fifteen feet across, showing the planned future subway.  Cera was, of course, in command of these exhibitions, which changed about every month.  The next one had some sort of sociological theme, because there were large black-and-white photographs of groups of people.  The photos were mounted on cardboard posters.
  Cera made periodic inspections, always wearing a three-piece suit and fedora, and followed a couple of steps behind by his assistant.  I don't remember the latter's name, but he was totally unlike his boss.  He was taller, cool, sombre and entirely White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant.  I'll call him Stewart.  They came along one day, Cera looking from one poster to the next.  Then he came to an empty one: the photograph was missing.  It had somehow been lost; no one knew what had happened to it.  Cera flew into a tantrum.
  When that occurred, as well as shouting in his thick French accent, Cera would tear off his fedora and fling it up in the air.  The ceiling was high; the hat had a long way to go.  Everyone stood silent as the fedora slowly settled down.  And then Cera, in his rage, would stamp on it, repeatedly.  But a moment later, after stepping off it, he would be slapping his balding head, crying Where's my hat?  Where's my hat?  In the meantime, Stewart would have picked it up, brushed it off, reshaped it, and without a word would hand it to him.
  I must have had some extra time — and something to go by — because on the empty poster I painted in that picture, realistically, making it appear like a photograph.  The next time Cera came in he stopped in front of it, stared, and scratched at it.  Then he swung around and in a loud threatening tone demanded Who did this? 
        We were all anyway scared to death of him, so no one answered.  The silence became strained.  Finally, in a small voice, I said I did, sir.
        He looked at me, for the first time ever, grunted Oh! and went on.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

3 EPISODE 2

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        The best-looking girl in our group was a demure brunette named — I think, for it was a long time ago and we seldom heard her real name — Helen Faid.
        We called her Billie.  She was demure not out of shyness, but because she was so self-contained.  She had a smooth face, small nose, and steady, knowing eyes.
        She and Stevie McCrow were close friends.  Almost every male amongst us had at some point been sweet on Billie; one or more had formally proposed.  Each was put aside politely, gently, and firmly.


George Dunning
Jim McKay
        Another of our set was Jim McKay.  He was attractive, and so casual and whimsical that his ease of manner and movement seemed entirely natural.  Most of it truly was, but occasionally he would indulge in an enhanced guise, like when he smoked a Sherlock Holmes pipe and wore tweeds.  He was a marvellous draftsman and caricaturist, and along with his sidekick George Dunning had gone to Ottawa to the National Film Board, to work in animation, where Norman McLaren's highly-original, inventive films were already gaining world attention.  One of Norman's won an Academy Award.  But though George and Jim became deeply immersed in animation, both sometimes came back to Grenville for visits.
        Months were passing, others were getting settled, but Billie was essentially alone.  One night, when some of us were again gathered at the McCrow's, the question of alliances arose.  By the fire, Billie was her usual friendly, quiet, slightly-aloof self.  Suddenly Stevie, whom nothing held back — if she was annoyed one could expect a withering put down and to be called a twit — said to her Would you marry Jim McKay?  Billie's face lit up, and in a joyous voice she cried Yes!  In effect the poor fellow had nothing to say about it.  Theirs was a life-long marriage.
        About two years later, I was coming back from the Eaton's College Street complex, where I had found work as an exhibition designer (more of that later).  It was only a block away from Grenville, but I found George Dunning standing solitary across the street from the McCrow's house, miserably waiting.  He asked if I knew when they would be home.  I didn't, but George had been there quite a while and was getting cold, so I suggested his coming up to my place for a cup of coffee.  He at once agreed.
        Dunning, Jim McKay and Bill McCrow had graduated together from the College, two or more grades ahead of me, though, like George, they were about five years older. George Dunning was a dark haired, tallish, handsome, intelligent man.  He later worked in New York on the animated Gerald McBoing-Boing series, and then went to England where he made the movie The Yellow Submarine with The Beatles.  Tragically, he died young.
        Back at Grenville Street, while I was heating the kettle for instant coffee, George began poking among the canvasses and sketches stacked around the walls of my small room.  Then he pulled out four large panels I had drawn on only in outline, and, to my surprise, arranged them in the right order.  I hadn't told anyone about them.
        The first represented morning and had forms opening up.  The second was to mean in full day the clash of life, the third the decline of life, and the fourth, about which I was still rather vague, the afterlife.  They had stayed in outline for a long time.
        Why didn't you finish them? George said.
        I shrugged.  The reasons were not only that I was too busy at Eaton's, but that the would-be paintings were really one theme and would have had to be hung side by side, like a cartoon strip.   At the time that seemed absurd.
        Don't you see the problem? George said.  I didn't.  You're trying to make it move he said.  You're in the wrong medium.
        It was like a light going on.

Next: truly a saviour

Sunday, 14 October 2012

5 EPISODE 1

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        Frederick Horseman Varley was already a legend when I was a young painter of eighteen.  The artist's colony in Toronto was then centered on Grenville, a short street that runs between Yonge and Surrey Place, just east of Queen's Park Crescent.  I had a so-called studio, a small room, in a tenement on the north side of Grenville, but  the social heart of the community was across the street in the home of Bill and Margaret McCrow.  Everyone called her Stevie.
        (In these Memoirs people and places are given their real names, except when something could reflect negatively.  Then the person's name might be changed. The Musings will derive from my own thoughts and feelings, but the Memoirs are a true account of what actually happened.  They won't be chronological, but will move back and forth in time, as in a conversation.)
        Bill and Stevie had met at the Ontario College of Art, which most of us had attended, and were as bohemian and unconventional a couple as our rather well behaved crowd produced.  Bill was a tall rangy fellow with a pirate moustache and a friendly smile, while Stevie was the attractive adopted daughter of a prominent businessman.  She had always strained against constraints.  At the College, among many other exploits, she had once danced on the eating tables during lunch hour.
        The McCrows occupied the second and attic floors of a high austere house, but their living room had a working fireplace that on cool evenings was usually lit, and, traditionally, their door was always open.  I was then already keen about a pretty woman painter who lived a few buildings away, but on evenings when I couldn't be with her I was invariably at Bill and Stevie's.  Into this milieu I introduced two close friends, Harry Trosman and Bernard Cowitz.  They were then medical students, and both went on to become American university professors and prominent psychiatrists.  But the heady experiences of those days long continued to occupy their memories.  Almost all my paintings have been lost, but there is one I know of: a large portrait of the young Harry Trosman that hangs in his home in Chicago.
        We all revered Varley.  We knew of him as one of the Group of Seven, and much of his work was famous, but we respected him more for his reputation of bringing out in both portraits and landscapes the spirit of the subject beyond what showed on the surface.  Yet none of us knew him personally.  He had a studio on Grenville, on the west side of Bay Street, but was a reclusive figure, seemingly aloof and unapproachable.  It was also rumoured that he was in want and somewhat forlorn.
Frederick Varley (L) with five other members of the Group of Seven painters, and friend Barker Fairley,1920. 
       But one cold wet autumn night, Bill McCrow somehow managed to get Varley up to his place.  There were a bunch of us there, drinking beer and trying to be casual about the presence of the august older man, who was quietly sipping from his bottle and warming himself at the fire.  White-haired and with a grave face, Varley was then close to seventy.
        I was the youngest of our community of former art students.  That past summer, Bill and I had been up north on a sketching trip, and, through his father-in-law's influence, had stayed at a lumber camp at Latchford, near Timmins.  Bill had doggedly devoted himself to little oil paintings, but I had met a trapper, and spent most of the time travelling with him by canoe from one trap to another around his licensed territory.  A log shack, where we stopped overnight and slept on pine boughs, and where he had made the mistake of leaving a little sugar in a tin, was rather drafty, because a corner of it had been torn open by a bear.
        Now, Bill took it into his head to show Varley his northern sketches.  Varley didn't want to look at sketches; he just wanted to be left in peace.  But Bill confronted him, insisting on displaying them.  After a time Varley criticized the small panels, fairly but quite severely.  Bill was a genial and imaginative fellow, with flair for some kinds of design, but he wasn't a very good painter.  Varley's comments left him crestfallen.  And misery desiring company, he said Allan, why don't you go and bring that big painting you just finished.
        I was appalled.  The last thing I wanted to do was reveal my work to Varley.  But Bill persisted, telling me again and again to go across the street, until it became such an issue that, to end the tension, Varley turned to me and said Bring the painting.  I did.  It was a 30"x40" canvas and the paint had not long been dry. Varley looked at it in silence. Then he turned it sideways, then to the other side.  And upside down.  Finally he began to criticize it, on purely technical grounds: composition, areas of light and dark, colour.
        As he spoke I had a mental image of him slicing the picture with a razor, that in the end there was nothing left but shreds hanging from the frame.  At last he looked at me and asked What were you trying to say with this painting?
        It was an allegory.  Into it I had poured everything I thought I had ever learnt: masses and individuals of struggling, suffering, loving humanity, beauty and ugliness, riches and poverty, and penetrating all, like a finger of God, a shaft of light from a turbulent sky.  I was extremely reluctant to put any of this into words, ashamed now of its enormity and presumption, and acutely embarrassed in front of Varley and the others.
        But Varley coaxed me.  And bit by bit it all came out, my entire conception.  He listened without interrupting, was quiet for a moment, and then said,very kindly It's a good thing you didn't succeed with this painting, because if you had, there would have been nothing left for the rest of us to paint.
        From that moment on I loved Varley.

Next: The breakthrough