1951-1952 - Notes from a Friend
(from a memoir by Kal Opre)
In January 1951 I signed on for four years of apprenticeship at Smith Lithograph Company, on the corner of 11th and Pine in Vancouver. One of the more prominent printing firms on the West Coast, the company designed and created artwork, generated reproductions, made its own printing plates and printed, finished and shipped the work. It also produced labels for canned goods, posters, catalogues, books and postcards. It took me a week to figure out what was going on, and after that I worked amongst the "journeymen" in the assembly department. The work, rather mechanical, nevertheless demanded a high degree of facility with the EXACTO knife, the brush and the ruling pen, as well as familiarity with the photo-mechanical process.... The artists, the cameramen and all the other 'preparatory' lithographers belonged to the Society of Craftsmen, while the rest of the work force, the pressmen, the plate-makers, the bindery, to the Lithographers Union of America.
One hot summer afternoon, as I worked I absentmindedly whistled the piano's introduction and first phrase of Schubert's Der Erlkonig: "Wer reitet so spaet durch Nacht und Wind...". A pleasant male baritone from the adjacent art room continued the line in German "...Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind..." and carried on. I was nonplused, and went to investigate. The skinny and bespectacled guy looked up as I entered. "Did you whistle the Erlkonig?" he asked. "Did you sing it ?" I inquired, equally surprised.
That's how I met Peter Ewart.
In Peter I had finally found my kindred spirit in Canada, someone who not only shared my love of music and art, but who also had a remarkable sense of humor and a special talent for languages and voices. He also turned out to be an even greater romantic than I.
Shortly after our meeting Peter invited me for supper to their
apartment, only two blocks away from mine. There I met his wife Susan, a lovely and spirited woman, and a great cook as well. To my delight, I discovered that she also loved to sing and to laugh and, having a great sense of humor, she enjoyed and appreciated our clowning. As a frequent visitor and dinner guest at the Ewart residence I felt pleased when they asked me to babysit their one-year-old baby daughter, Linda. The three of us saw a lot of each other, and I became a friend and confidant to both. In turn, I cherished their hospitality, trust and friendship.
Five years older than I, Peter excelled as a commercial artist, and created the original artwork for the popular travel posters for the Canadian National Railroad and for the Canadian Pacific Railroad companies. I soon learned that Peter was only biding his time at commercial art, for he aspired to be a "real" artist. Peter set up his studio in one corner of the apartment, where he painted his Rocky Mountain scenes and western landscapes. He populated his paintings of the Cariboo with cowboys doing what cowboys do: riding, herding, fording creeks, making camp. His romantic nature led him to develop and perfect his favourite subject matter: the lone cowboy hunched over the saddle horn, heading toward the yellow light in the single window of a small log cabin. He painted this scene in the blue moonlight with a starry summer sky above, as well as in the winter when the twilight world becomes monochromatic, when the blizzard blows the horse's tail around its rump, and the half-buried fence posts lean at just the right angles. An accomplished landscape painter, Peter's excellent draftsmanship allowed him to paint cowboys, horses, and cattle with equal ease.
One day Peter asked me to accompany him on a painting trip to the Cariboo; we would be camping, he said. Until then, I had never heard of the place, nor did I have any idea what "camping" meant. But it was summer and, anxious to experience the formidable Fraser Canyon and "hinterlands" beyond it, I enthusiastically went along.
Peter was a good driver as well as an astute tour guide during our drive through the Canyon, heading toward his favorite locations. Unfortunately, our destination, the rolling, sage-covered hills between Spences Bridge and Ashcroft, were invisible in the darkness. After the ten hour drive (water pump trouble at Lytton) we finally struck camp around 3 a.m. in the light of a roaring camp fire, (Peter loved roaring fires!) in the pitch-dark Venables Valley*
*This quiet, narrow valley stretches high above the western side of the highway between Spences Bridge and Ashcroft on the Thompson River. Its entrances were almost hidden then, and the dirt road that snaked between stands of Ponderosa pines was narrow and steep, more like a trail than a road. A couple of small alkali lakes dotted the landscape, their poisonous whiteness fenced in to keep the cattle out. The road led up to the flat, green floor of the valley where a sizeable lake stretched along picturesquely. The only building in the valley was a sawmill run by a couple who lived on the premises. Since my very first visit with Peter in 1951, the Venables Valley has remained my sentimental favourite among all the other places in the Cariboo...
The morning sunshine revealed the glory of Peter's favourite landscape. He was right. It was magical.
My first camping/painting trip to the Cariboo exceeded all my expectations, and in the summers of 1951, '52 and '53 Peter and I spent almost every weekend in the sagebrush country. We sketched and photographed the structures of gates and fences, cattle-guards, cows and horses, and studied the color of the sagebrush from close up and from afar, at high noon, at sunset and at night.
We walked into the hills, far away from our campfire, to guess the hue of a Hudson's Bay blanket in the moonlight, or to correctly evaluate the contrast between a stand of pines and the sky. We'd debate the diminishing values of distant hills and discuss the colours we'd use to paint the shadows cast on the foreground.
The landscape took on an otherworldly character in the light of the full moon. On such nights we'd bounce down to the highway without headlights, with the top down, inhaling the scent of the sage and the pines. Occasionally, when we'd hit a pocket of smoke in the night air, Peter would stop the car and we'd sniff around with our noses held high, trying to guess the location of the fire. Of course, in our minds the smoke curled out of the crooked chimney of a one-room log cabin on the range. Of course, there were cedar logs that crackled in a pot bellied stove, warming the hands and the coffeepot of a lonesome cowboy, sitting on his bunk thinking of his sweetheart in the distant city. His tired horse dozed, tethered at the back of the cabin.
Once down on the narrow two-lane blacktop curving amongst the clay cliffs above the Thompson River, we'd swish through our silent, undulating world of cerulean blue with a touch of cobalt green, muted by ivory black. Peter taught me the rousing title song of the musical Oklahoma, and the two of us would roar the staccato chorus of Okla-homa-okla-homa-okla-homa at the top of our lungs. Truly wonderful times.
Peter had had the good fortune to learn the crafts of the Canadian woodsman from his father, while I picked up my early handyman skills mostly by observation. They formed the foundation for all the various manual and survival skills which have eased my passage through the years both during and after the war. Consequently, both Peter and I reveled in the simple pleasures of camping without too much fuss. Aside from the Coleman stove and lamp we disdained the "store-bought" gadgets of modern campers and preferred the groundsheet-and-blanket bedding, the sheet-metal frying pan, plates, cups, coffee pot and utensils used by cowboys on the range. The incredibly graceful and functional Hudson's Bay axe of the coureurs de bois and a World War II British trenching tool kit completed our camping gear.
Our "makings" were equally basic: eggs and bacon, canned beans, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, maple syrup, salt, pepper, brown sugar, coffee and cans of Carnation condensed milk. We roasted potatoes in the ashes and wieners over the fire. Once or twice I cooked Hungarian gulyas, and taught Peter to flip pancakes.
Whenever Susan and baby Linda came along, our basic campsite assumed the look of a nursery. Diapers dried on the tops of sagebrush, and there were soap, towels and a wash basin. With Susan at the Coleman stove we enjoyed a much more sophisticated and varied fare. We ate off china plates, used serviettes, had desserts and washed our dishes with soap, rather than rinsing them off in the river.
It didn't take me long to become a weekend cowboy. I bought jeans, belt, boots, hat, shirt, and smoked Bull Durham. I learned to draw the cloth pouch closed by pulling the string with my teeth. I lit my Rollins with the big self-lighting matches, struck mostly on the seams of my jeans and occasionally, and painfully, by my thumbnail.
The bond between the three of us grew as we camped, went to concerts, exhibitions and movies together. Peter and Susan hosted my birthday parties, and I drew them into my circle of friends.
Unfamiliar with North American artists, I gratefully listened as Peter introduced me to the "painterly" works of those he admired. I became a life-long fan of John Singer Sargeant, Norman Rockwell, Robert Fawcet. I learned about flora and fauna from the works of Carl Rungius and Winslow Homer, and about the West from the paintings of C.M. Russell, Frederick Remington and Frank Tenney Johnson. Through Waugh's seascapes I learned the structure and color of waves and developed a respect for the power of the oceans.
...As an excellent amateur singer and self-taught pianist, a hobby of Peter's was creating informal archives of his singing and playing. His rented recording machine used wire and could be unwieldy, so on several occasions he enlisted my help. There were lots of things to do: Peter would set up and start the machine, then move over to the piano bench. I would continue operation while Peter played the piano and both of us sang and attempted to read the words from the sheet music... We did manage to record a pretty good duet of our much beloved Erlkonig.
The following 75 rpm disc recording is one of Peter Ewart's attempts to sing, accompany and single-handedly record Franz Schubert's Der Erlkonig, in the living room of his Vancouver home in 1952. It is a challenging piece even for professional musicians because of the three different characters, the father, his son, and Death in the vocal part and, in the piano accompaniment, the rapid and relentless hoofbeats of a horse galloping through the night.
Press play () to start listening.
Webster-Chicago 228-1 wire
Daughter's note: In the early 1950's, the process of home wire disc recording had been in its hay day since 1947. It was still a novel idea for my father, and he had great fun trying it out. There were, however, distinct limitations and frustrations. Once the recording process began, it was a one-shot effort with no easy way for him to edit or repeat if mistakes were made. If a song ran on too long it was abruptly cut off, with no way to correct the shortcoming except to try to adjust on the second side. In my father's collection were many rejected recordings labelled "loused up", "no good" and "fiasco", an incentive in 1954 to forsake the wire process for magnetic reel-to-reel tapes.
recorder from 1951.
Courtesy of Bill Wray.
I'd like to think that Peter got as much pleasure from sharing with me his love of art, of music and of the outdoors as I did from learning from him and experiencing them in his company.
*Susan died unexpectedly in 1959. Their only child Linda was 8 years old, and Peter brought her up lovingly. He never again married. He did realize his goal of becoming one of the most commercially successful painters in Western Canada. Peter moved from Langley to Crescent Beach, where he kept painting and exhibiting and living on his own. We kept in touch through the years, visiting each other occasionally, talking movies, playing records or making music...
I miss him.