My Father's Studio
(Langley, B.C. 1958 to 1982)
My father's studio was special to me when I was a girl. Visitors regarded it as a workplace in which raw materials, ideas and talents were developed into works of art. As the artist's only child I was privileged to see it over time, and from a more personal point of view.
Attached to the house but accessible only by its own, outside entrance, it sat purposefully, and to my mind artistically, at the northern end where the light was best for painting. It was rectangular and roomy, with a high, A-framed ceiling. Across the lower portion of a tall, wide bank of windows, gray, semi-opaque curtains were drawn across. Still, daylight managed to flood in through the upper portion. Looking up, one could see outside the tops of tall evergreens, maples and alders, and although direct sunlight never entered, the room was bright and warm, with dusty shades of green, brown, rust and fawn.
My mother had died when I was eight, and single parenthood tended to take its toll on my father's time. Surrounded by what he termed a "terminal moraine" of creative clutter, when not occupied with me he chose to focus on his artwork. What a wonderful jumble that room had become. Stacks of paintings, pictures on display, corners and cupboards piled high with papers and magazines, homemade shelves lined with books, sketches and artifacts, frames, tools, curious bits of memorabilia that appealed to him. Over the easel and suspended from a beam was a rectangular fluorescent lighting arrangement used for night painting. It simulated daylight so Dad could work after I was asleep, when there were no distractions. Perched on a small shelf beside the door, the intercom was a sentry assuring him that the house was safe for me as I slept. An old, comfortable chesterfield waited for the compensatory nap, faithfully taken after lunch when I was at school. On it was draped a red and green plaid, wool blanket. I remember how its fringed edges tickled when it was pulled up under the chin, scratchy and soft at the same time. His 'nap jar' seemed perpetually full of coins emptied from pockets on a daily basis.
The smell in the air was of oil paint and turpentine, cigarette smoke and sagebrush, dust and old cedar. Straw tiles carpeted the floor and through them fine dirt and stray particles sifted and disappeared onto the cement slab underneath. The wooden easel was one which Dad had built himself many years before, and secured upon it, almost always, was a painting in progress. To the left, his slide viewer was perched on a tall, gray stool, and when he was painting the fan inside it hummed softly. Beside that stood an old, wooden cabinet with drawers and drawers filled with thousands of slides of places he had been, buildings and people, mountains and oceans and lakes, skies and seasons, mornings and evenings-- many and countless possibilities for his paintings. To the right of his squeaky chair was an artist's tabourette. His palette rested on it, squeezed full of colours with inspiring names like French Ultramarine, Naples Yellow, Cerulean Blue and Viridian Green. Scattered about were the gnarly tubes of oil paints, the thinners, brushes and rags.
Around the room's perimeter ran a miniature railroad. This was not a toy, but Dad's handmade and minutely detailed re-creation of Canadian railroading. The snow was actually flour, sifted over a winter scene where inhabitants had shovelled a path to the shed from the farmhouse. There was a frozen pond beyond the track. In the middle of the ice was the stone thrown by a boy to test its thickness. By the woodpile and lodged in the chopping block was an axe fashioned from a tiny piece of razor steel. Down the line were mountains with glaciers and snowsheds where avalanches had run. Dad had devised a means whereby we could see below the surface of the mountain lake to rocks beneath. Trestles and bridges spanned the gullies and canyons. Trees and bushes were made from bits of natural vegetation. Further on, the drybelt country with its dun-coloured hills and sagebrush, sported a prospector's cabin and a stream for panning. I was especially fascinated by a water barrel made from a pencil end, fired with a match to look weathered and old-- to me the 'piece de resistance'. And there was a Cariboo town with a lamp that shone moonlight. There were little lights in the windows, too, just like the ones in Dad's paintings. The model railroad was an unrequited childhood dream finally realized. Years later, on into my teens when the cars and engine sat abandoned in the switchyard, the scenes remained a source of wonder for me and my friends.
When it wasn't quiet in the studio, it was because the records were playing. Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms were his favourites... I still associate symphonies and sonatas with the scenes that my father painted. And when it was quiet it wasn't, quite, for there was the brush on the canvas, the viewer humming and the rattle the brush handle made in the recycled V-8 tins that held the turpentine. At regular intervals there would be the click of the viewer switch and Dad's cheerful whistle as he headed out the studio door, and back into the house for coffee.
The space was an honest one with no pretense toward neatness or show. On rare occasions Dad would attempt to tidy it, but it would always settle again in much the same arrangement. The room had a heart that seemed to beat on its own, and although I was always welcome there it was never mine to alter or arrange. I sensed it was a unique and separate place, and very much my father's.
Linda Ewart, 1994