Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Saving a piece of a folk artist's passion

The Swallowed Anchor photograph by Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
Feburary 25, 2009


The tiny, white stucco-clad home overlooking West Bay is a landlubbing homage to Davey Jones’ locker.

Anchors litter the yard. A small cannon guards the pathway. A metal seahorse graces an exterior wall, as does a ship’s wheel. A stork nests in the rear chimney. Two characters keep watch from a crow’s nest. The front yard is shared by a mermaid, a frolicking pair of Dall’s porpoises, and a Trident-wielding King Neptune.

Atop the house, a peg-legged pirate in a red jacket scans the horizon through a spyglass, a cutlass on his hip and a parrot on his elbow.

The adjacent garage looks like a pirate’s treasure chest.

The small home at 464 Head St. in Esquimalt is known as the Swallowed Anchor, a name chosen by the man who spent his final quarter-century indulging his passion for the sea. The result, still standing almost a decade after his own death, is a folk-art masterpiece.

Like its creator, the Swallowed Anchor is proving to be not as timeless as the seas.

“It’s looking tired,” Joan Fleischer says of her father’s handiwork.

Indeed, porpoise eyes are missing and marine-fibreglass fins are torn and exposed.

The family has sold the house and the last member of the family — the creator’s granddaughter — has just moved out. Ms. Fleischer claimed one cherished piece of her father’s whimsy by salvaging the heavy wooden front door with its window made from a ship’s brass portal. It’s now stored in the garage at her North Vancouver home.

For most of his 90 years, John Keziere (pronounced KEE-zer, rhymes with geezer) quietly raised his family in another home he built with his own hands.

His daughters grew up, moved out, started lives of their own. After his wife died, he moved into the Head Street house, one of the rental homes the carpenter and one-time mariner relied on for income in his retirement.

He flourished on his own, becoming a character in a one-man play of his own creation. When tour buses stopped at his front door, he greeted passengers in an old sea captain’s jacket, expounding on the sea he loved with long recitations he had memorized.

He was salty dog born and raised on the prairies. His birthplace was Brandon, Man., where amber waves of grain are the only hint of far-off oceans. His parents, Mary and Martin Joseph Kedzierewitch, were ethnic Poles who had emigrated from Lodz, then under the control of Tsarist Russia. John was the first of his family born in the new world. They moved to Edmonton, where his father, a carpenter, enlisted in the army at age 42 in 1915, soon after seeing action at the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front.

A young man during the Depression, Mr. Keziere moved to Vancouver Island in search of work. He settled in the Cordova Bay neighbourhood, where he crafted tables and ornaments from maple burl. He married a proper, no-nonsense woman, and quietly went about his job as a wharfinger in the harbour.

Only as a widower did he indulge his eccentricities. For the annual Swiftsure boat race, he dressed as a mermaid and greeted fellow sailers from aboard his dinghy. He helped the local Thermopylae Club build cairns marking the naval history of what once had been a far-flung outpost of the British Empire.

And he turned an ordinary home into a tourist attraction.

The capital retains a wonderful stock of grand homes from art-deco wonders to superb Craftsmen cottages to boxy Edwardians. The city even boasts a vice-regal residence in Government House. But not all last forever.

Fable Cottage, a home with A-frame extensions that made it look like the home of the Seeven Dwarfs, was cut into sections and barged to Denman Island in 1993, where it continues to undergo renovations for possible future use as a bed and breakfast. The Old English Inn and Resort, with its Samuel Maclure mansion constructed in 1909 (the same year as Mr. Keziere’s birth) and its replica of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, is listed for sale at $6.35 million. It is only a few blocks from Head Street.

When illness forced Mr. Keziere into a care facility, he still took the bus back to his home to create more designs in his treasure-chest workshop. He died in 1999, having shared his love for the sea with his family (another daughter is wharfinger at Ford’s Cove on Hornby Island) and his whimsical vision with a generation of passersby.

The new owner is Westbay Investments Ltd., which operates the marina across the street and also owns adjacent sites on land zoned as residential. The long-term plan is to develop the block with a mix of residential and commercial units.

The house will not survive, but Westbay development manager Mark Lindholm says he wants to salvage much of the handiwork for inclusion in a folk-art park. Hope so. Lest he wants to be thought a scurvy dog.

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