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Art for Life's Sake

The contrast between the rustic walls and the surrealistic canvases splashed across them was dizzying. Or perhaps I was suffering the effects of having spent most of the day on a stepladder hanging pictures with Thor. After several hours banging nails and lugging paintings around, the main hall of the Brackendale Art Gallery was now filled with colorful canvases in frames as oddly shaped as their subject matter. Trapezoids, triangles, diamonds and other polygons enclosed highly realistic images arranged in fantastic contexts: children, religious symbols, musical instruments and nature scenes combining in ways that defied interpretation but nevertheless invited speculation. By the time we had Toby Nilsson’s exhibition hung, I wasn’t thinking straight. I was consumed with the crazy optimism of the lustful shopper, but this was no pair of shoes I was after.

One canvas in particular spoke volumes in my own private language. Entitled “Coffee Break Part Two,” it featured a little girl in a bikini, bangs cut askew, standing in the bowl of a gigantic spoon. Poised to be flipped into infinity by an unseen hand, her apparent lack of stability was juxtaposed by a massive boulder in the ocean waves behind her. Engaged in pouring water out of a jug, seemingly unaware of her own peril, she was surrounded by outsized tools - coffee cup and writing utensils, which she also ignored. A great bird was flying directly towards the viewer, apparently escaping from the center of the rock. I recognized the pattern on the spoon. We’d had the very same ones on our table when I was growing up. The whole image appeared to have been painted on a drawn window shade, pulled to down to conceal another reality entirely.

To me, the painting was a personal communication from the universe at a time when I needed it most – expressing the balance between fear and faith in terms far more exact than words could ever express. I was living on tenterhooks, having just applied for a grant with which to make my first record, and like Thor so many years ago had decided to put my bad habits behind me in service to the greater good. Despite the fact that I was in no position to come up with the purchase price, I asked Thor if I could buy the painting on a payment plan. I offered 200$ down and 100$ a month until it was paid off. Thor only grunted and walked away. Since he was the one paying my rent, he was well aware of my current financial situation, and was no doubt hoping for a better deal. The room was starting to fill up with guests, and I was going to have to wait until after the exhibition for my answer. I could only cross my fingers and hope that no else liked the painting as much as me.

I watched people sipping wine and making the rounds. Every time somebody stopped in front of “Coffee Break Part Two,” my gut tightened. Surely no one else would buy it, I told myself. It was meant for me, I was sure of it. Why else would I want it so much? At some point I approached the artist – a rugged looking fellow short a couple of fingers, lost in some construction accident. The immensity of his talent left me feeling uncharacteristically tongue-tied, but I managed to ask him what had inspired the painting and what it meant. “I don’t remember,” said Toby, laughing. “As for what it means, that’s up to you.”

All at once I saw Thor going around the room putting red stickers in the corners of the paintings. Surely he hadn’t sold all of them! The exhibition had only just begun. My heart sank as I saw him blithely place a red dot on my canvas. And it wasmy canvas, I told myself fiercely, whatever filthy lucre might have to say about it.

“Sorry, Alexander,” Thor said. “That fellow over there just bought the whole show.” Thor pointed him out as we spoke. Lorne Balshine was standing with a group of people across the gallery, a glass of red wine in hand. To me he looked rather like a dapper elf. A small, tidy man, he wore a blue blazer, white shirt and a red ascot, above which curly brown hair puffed around his ears. His eyes were bright and interested, but the merry expression on his face didn’t fool me a bit. I hated him on sight.

Who has enough money to buy an entire collection of paintings? I thought grumpily. He probably thought of them as an investment. How nice to be able to drop a few thousand dollars on a collection of canvases, just because you can. Selfish! I doubted he’d ever had a reaction to a painting such as the one I’d just experienced. He probably didn’t even know what true art was. I felt the fact that the canvas wasn’t in my possession was a crime against nature. And why couldn’t Thor have just set that one painting aside for me? I bid my canvas goodbye with bittersweet yearning. I knew I was overreacting but couldn’t seem to help myself. I wanted the painting that much.

A couple of days later I got a call from Thor. Lorne Balshine had offered to let me hang the painting in my apartment free of charge - indefinitely. Somehow, Thor and our mutual friend, the artist Michael Malcolm, must have engineered it, as Lorne had no reason on earth to do me a favor. I was dumbfounded.

Lorne came over one day and helped me hang it, to my immense gratitude. By the time our conversation had moved from the effect of art on the emotions to God to the nature of reality, I felt I’d made a new friend. Lorne’s canvas has traveled with me through five different living spaces since, over the course of twenty years. Every time I moved, I'd call him up and we get together for a chat. He'd come over to visit his painting and I'd gauge my own artistic growth against the backdrop of his keen insight, knowledge and gentlemanly demeanor. And every time he left, he said, “You go ahead and enjoy the canvas a little longer. I have plenty of art to enjoy.”

He had plenty of art, but not that much time. When he died, I got a call from Thor saying the canvas was now mine. By then, I had long since gotten my grant and made my record "Bird in the House," using the image as the cover, with Toby Nilsson's blessing.

Lorne was one of the few Vancouver collectors who’d been supporting the gallery since the early days, and apparently that support extended to poverty-stricken artists from other disciplines. Thor’s decision back in the seventies to build his gallery an hour away from Vancouver was not the only one considered radical and un-businesslike for the times. Lorne supported the Gallery by buying many, many canvases from artists who were otherwise being ignored. Whatever fashion or commerce might have to say about art, Thor hung what he liked, and Lorne bought it. In doing so they created a venue for the West Coast Magical Realists at a time when everyone else was looking the other way.

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