Monday, June 22, 2009

He paints paradise

Ted Harrison with Vast Yukon at the University of Victoria. Photograph by Jocelyn Beyak.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 22, 2009


A woman stepped forward to brush stray white hairs on Ted Harrison’s head. Then another did the same. A few minutes later, a third pressed down the cowlick.

Mr. Harrison, 82, seemed to enjoy their gentle petting.

The artist was dapper despite the wayward coiffure. He wore white socks inside black loafers, kept his navy-blue blazer closed at the belly with a brass button, sported a spiffy black-and-gold tie for the occasion. His mustache, white as well, looked as it might have when he served as an intelligence officer in the British army. In his lapel, he stuck a tiny enamel pin emblematic of his membership in the Order of Canada.

On a day when Carrs and Shadbolts and Riopelles were sold at auction for millions, Mr. Harrison came to campus to see what use the University of Victoria had made of two donated murals.

“Art has to be shared to be useful,” he said. “I don’t believe in billionaire collectors who stuff them down in the basement.”

He was wheeled into the lower lobby of the new Social Sciences building, where a fresh paint job failed to mask the industrial aesthetic of concrete walls. A dull grey was interrupted by a mural as wide as three passed out undergrads lying end to end.

Like all of his works, the mural is a riot of bright colour — waves of deep purples, soft mauves and cascading blues are offset by surprising splotches of pink, nature’s treat when a setting sun shines on the underside of a darkening cloud.

The work is called “Vast Yukon,” representing the Klondike in a shimmering brilliance all those who came before him neglected to see. His is a trademark vision, a transforming depiction of what so many dismissed as a colourless wasteland, one now coveted by collectors and appreciated most of all by children, whose untutored eyes also see greens in the sky and reds in the sea.

The piece is magnificent.

All the more incredible, the mural has gone mostly unseen since it was painted 14 years ago — on the walls of the basement of his Victoria home.

Homesick for the Yukon, where he had arrived as a teacher and left as a recognized treasure, he decided to decorate the alcove of his basement den with a reminder of the land that so inspired him. Aided by his son, he covered the walls in gesso to prime the surface before administering what he described to his biographer, Katherine Gibson, as “great gobs of juicy paint.”

Pleased with the result, he went to work on another piece at the entrance to his home. He wanted to capture scenes still unfamiliar to him. Not for this artist the gloomy grays and misty blues so often associated with the coast. A brilliant sun hovers over a sea busy with a red whale, a blue orca, and yellow trawlers.

“I took my mind into the sea and saw those two whales and painted them,” Mr. Harrison said.They are creatures of his imagination, a rendition made necessary by the unlikelihood of ever seeing a leviathan in its entirety. “You don’t see a whale. You see a fin. Or a tail.”

This scene, titled “View of British Columbia,” was painted on plywood that was bolted to the wall of the entranceway. The artist had a confession. He liked to turn on the hallway light while extinguishing all others, before stepping onto the street of his cul-de-sac to admire his handiwork.

“It would shine out into the night,” he recalled. “It sure livened up Romney Place.”

Now, it is mounted on a wall above a stairwell on the third floor of a campus building.
“I don’t know why I’m looking at it,” he joked, as photographers asked him to gaze onto his work. “I’ve seen it hundreds of times.”

When he decided to sell the home, the artist thought he should leave the two murals behind. He was persuaded they had greater worth than the usual light fxtures or appliances in harvest gold.

The art conservator Philip Mix spent six weeks on the painstaking task of removing the larger mural, painted on drywall and weighing “nearly as much as a grand piano.” He also repaired screw holes in the plywood mural, which includes the Harrison signature across a seam of plywood.

At the peak of his creativity, the artist worked in 10-hour daily bursts. These days, he’s happy if he manages to complete five hours of painting in a week. He maintains a studio in an extra rented bedroom at the Oak Bay retirement home where he now lives.

Mr. Harrison, born in an English colliery town, finds delight in such small pleasures as the Guardian newspaper and an occasional pint of Guinness. He enjoys receiving children’s artworks, a reminder of his inspirational quality.

“Ted is what he paints,” said Ms. Gibson, the writer. “He’s optimistic, he’s fun, he’s meditative, he’s sincere. He’s also courageous.

“He says, ‘Painting is the last great freedom.’ ”

The eponymous biography, subtitled “Painting Paradise,” will be released in August as part of a several events being held to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his first Canadian exhibition, at the Whitehorse library. As well, a retrospective of his work will be on display at the university’s Legacy Art Gallery and Cafe in downtown Victoria.

The artist inspires not just children. Having completed the mammoth task of salvaging the murals, Mr. Mix has pledged to replace his conservator’s tools for paintbrushes.

Edward Hardy Harrison has that effect on people.

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