At the altar of art – a visit to the art gallery

Did I ever tell you about my esteemed colleague at work (not in the art business) whom I took to the Art Gallery to see the Fred Varley show?

This man is brilliant. He has a steel trap memory; he’s tremendously smart; but he doesn’t have a diplomatic bone in his body. My other colleagues have often wondered about this person because he is penurious to the nth degree. At the end of all conferences, he will pick up any pop or juice cans and keep them so he can return them for the money.

I understand from others that he is a millionaire a few times over from his day trading which he did from the office – on his own time, I should hope. We all had travel allowances when we were away on company business. He was no exception. We never had to account for our per diem for meals. It was a lump sum we were entitled to, around fifty dollars a day.

It was rumoured that he always took his own lunch rather than buy one so that he could put the extra money aside for his investing hobby. He was equally frugal about dinner, and critical of others who were not so economically minded. The accumulation of this careful husbanding of coin was what started him on his way to wealth.

This man, besides not being particularly diplomatic, had a voice that would do honour to any theatre. You could hear him from afar and he could often be heard in dispute with someone.

Now, you may think I am criticising, but really, I spend my life in observation. That was what I was trained to do as an artist; it overlaps into my penchant for writing, and I make no judgments. I assume that others make critical observations (critical, not in the negative sense, in the sharp observation sense) of me. I may not agree with others, but they are entitled to their opinion.

His colleagues were very thankful for his prodigious memory. If you wanted to know a policy or a rule or a standard of practice, not only did he know it off the top of his head, but he also could find the reference for you and give it to you within minutes if not within seconds. It was most helpful for a person like me who was so overloaded in my job that my brain acted like a sieve. It was a real boon to young new members of staff whom he was only to delighted to train in the norms of our work.

I rarely saw him at my office door since he was confident that all he did was correct. He occasionally, very occasionally, reported something I would need to know – a form of keeping me in the loop. More often, he would inform me of things through e-mail. It saved any messy discussions. It also helped one’s case if your point of view was in print. It made things somehow more official.

One day, Herman was standing at my office door hopping from foot to foot, waiting for me to finish with a phone call. When he did, he said in his characteristic strong voice, “I’ve come to ask a favor of you. I’ve come to pick your brain.”
If ever there was an expression I hated, it was that one! I could see my brain being extracted fluffy bit of feathers by fluffy bit. One day there would be no more stuffing up there and I wouldn’t remember anything!

“There’s something I don’t understand and I think you can answer it for me. When you need help with something, you should go to an expert, and you are it!” He grinned broadly as if he had caught me in a net and I couldn’t get out of it. It put me on the spot.

That a bit of buttering up made me very nervous. What possibly could be coming?

He was claiming that I was clever in something and that if I couldn’t explain it to him, somehow I was letting down my own self image. I squirmed as I waited for the ending to his plea.

Normally we were somewhat leery of each other; we were often at loggerheads when I would ask him to complete something for me and he had an altogether too slippery a way of delegating the task back up to me or refusing to do it. What possibly could be next?

“What’s on your mind, Herman? ” I asked rather too assertively, all the invisible shields going on red alert.

“It’s about art.” There was a pause.
“You’ve seen my picture of Vera at my workstation. I really am attracted to her, but I don’t understand about art. ” Another pause laden with I didn’t know what. I wasn’t quite sure who Vera was until he went back to his desk and returned with an eleven by fourteen coloured laser print that he’d downloaded from the Vancouver Art Gallery web site. Later I noticed that he had co-opted the same image for his screen saver.

“I was down at the library and took out every book about Varley that I could find. I’ve read them all and I don’t understand what makes his work Art. I don’t understand why one painting becomes identified by a gallery as a work of art and another piece doesn’t.”

Truly, he had come to the right person. I think of my real purpose in life as being an art missionary. His plea struck an addicted chord in me that I couldn’t resist. Here was a man asking for help and I could provide it. Perhaps I could open up his eyes to the marvels of Art. Perhaps I could convert this crusty individual into an avid appreciator of Art. Who knew, with a suspected millionaire like this, maybe I could push him over the brink into an Investing in Art mode! Miracles could happen if you only had faith.

I asked him if he had seen the Varley show at the Art Gallery. The answer was negative. It cost twenty dollars to get in. Rather, he had tried to absorb the show through his (free) library research.

Like the Salvation Army seeing a soul to be rescued, Art Missionary moved in for the rescue.

“I’ve got free tickets to the Gallery, ” I proposed, all caution to the wind.”I’ll go with you on a lunch hour.” I had calculated that a free ticket would be far too tempting an offer for Herman’s frugal sensitivities to refuse.

On Thursday, we left the office about eleven thirty to miss the lunch time crowd. He brought me up to date on his readings as we walked the two blocks to the Gallery.

With my membership card and his free entry ticket, we barreled into the Gallery without even having to stand in line and made straight for the Varley exhibit. In theory, we were only supposed to be away for half an hour at lunchtime; but we both worked diligently and often did unpaid overtime. If we went over limit today, neither one of us would feel very guilty.

The exhibition was ordered somewhat chronologically. Beside each painting was a blurb explanation of what the picture represented. It gave the artist’s name, the medium that the work was created in, the dimensions of the painting and some background information that would help explain the image.

So what’s so good about this painting,” he said in his theatrical voice; and we looked at an early Varley painting with a simple image of a wide open window looking far down from the escarpment to the beach below. It wasn’t one of Varley’s most pleasant pictures, but it represented a beginning of his departure from the established norms of the day.

I explained about the context of the work; the composition; the choice of colours. I explained that sometimes good art was not necessarily pretty work; rather it described a reality, an essence of a location; and sometimes the gallery was more interested in exhibiting the sequence in the development of the artist than in necessarily showing their final and quintessential production. In other words, how the artist arrived at his imagery was as important as the imagery itself.

Herman continued, “And how did his life in 1905 influence the kind of work that is represented in this painting?

I looked around me to see how many people were trying to absorb the exhibition. Fortunately, I thought, there are only a few. I wondered if a guard would come and tell us to shut up. I wasn’t going to whisper in reply to his loud voice, but I wasn’t going to match it either.

But this question had given me a whole new insight into this man. He really had absorbed what he had read out of the various tomes he had been able to find at the library. As if by photographic transfer, he had memorized Varley’s major life events – his marriage to Maud, his children, his marriage break-up leaving his wife for Vera; his teaching at the Vancouver School of Art; his eventual poverty; his death in Ontario.

But with all the items of life he might have remembered, he could not correlate them to the paintings; did not know what made something Art or not.

I answered that I hadn’t memorized his chronology. Perhaps if he knew, he could remind me and I might be able to bring some insights to the work? He did so for every painting until we had to go.

Bit by bit, there were hangers on following after us until we had twenty people following, listening as he provided some of Varley’s life context and some very pertinent questions for those uninitiated in Art theory and practice. They were interested too, as I grappled with answers that I hoped would illuminate for him what he was looking at.

I remember telling him that you don’t have to like every painting you see in an art gallery; that all art is not just pretty pictures. You enhance the appreciation of the work if you know the context of it and if you know the artist’s intentions.

I remember telling him very briefly about the Group of Seven and his place in that illustrious group. I remember telling him that the work that Varley was doing was in many ways a breakthrough from traditional ways of painting and that in itself was a special thing.

What I never had the courage to tell him, neither there while we were in the gallery nor when we got out of it, was that an Art Gallery, these mausoleums of paintings past, are somewhat like Cathedrals, like churches. That there is a hush and quietness as each visitor is careful to speak quietly, if at all, not to disturb the essentially visual experience of their fellow art worshipers.

I have no idea if I helped him on his way to his own art epiphany. I do know that he spoke more kindly to me, in general, in our day to day work relations and we had no more office rows. Until the day I retired from those corporate halls of industry, he remained faithful to his Vera by Varley, not only the paper photocopy pinned to his work station cloth divider but also on his screen saver.

I wonder if he has ever bought an original piece of art work.


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