Banff 1959, Part 5: "Crossing the Great Divide"

By now it was almost mid-July. One more month and summer school would end. Murray MacDonald, the faculty member who discovered me at Moraine Lake (see previous post), said I should meet the director.

And so it was that I met Donald Cameron. He gave special consent for me to register. Thus yours truly, who had no funds, became the first-ever (?) “guest” student at the Banff summer school. His decision was also influenced partly because I already had accommodation and meals in town.

Being mostly self-taught, this was an opportunity for me to receive “lessons in Art” from established faculty such as Charles Stegeman, William Townsend of the Slade School in London UK, and Murray MacDonald.

The classes had been in session for a month already when I joined. Great was my disappointment when they went on their next field trip and I wasn’t able to come along. Instead, I had to stay in Classroom #308, Donald Cameron Building. (Coincidentally, many years later, Natasha had her office right across the hall from this very classroom, when she worked there from 1980-85 as executive assistant to Presidents David Leighton and later Paul Fleck.)

Instructions were given to me: “To avoid distraction from the natural scenery, Henri, we advise you to turn your back to the window”. Why this unusual advice? Because I had been asking all kinds of questions, such as: “Those greens, greys and browns here in the Rockies, after awhile they become monotonous. For a start, why can’t we change the colours to make the landscapes more alive?”

Already I had started painting in this way. This led to the faculty’s suggestion for me to put these questions to the test, and seek answers. Hence my back to the window!

Since I’d been in the Rockies on my own the past 2 months and created numerous landscapes (see earlier posts), it was worth a try. After all, the faculty were experienced artists themselves, well-established and respected. And so this great adventure into the unknown started. I began with a blank sheet of paper - - - no guidance of objects or phenomena.
Instead of rendering what’s “out there”, the process is reversed. Now I’d work on drawing out what was within. Soon I was comfortable being alone on those occasions when the others went field painting, and began painting some ‘imaginary things’. (But I still was not too pleased about being left out on the field trips!) However, this challenge gave me a new incentive.

“It’s easier to start an argument than to start a painting from a blank canvas.” (Henri van Bentum)
After doing a series of abstract images on paper, I began to have fun. Soon I had more confidence and started to work on masonite or canvas board. Next came a series inspired by my meeting with the First Nations chiefs (see earlier post), depicting their neglected and declining culture. Being in Canada less than 2 years from the Lowlands, I was taken aback by decline of their culture. 

At the end of the summer school season, an exhibition was held of our work. Great was my surprise when one of the First Nation’s series won not only First Prize in oils, but a scholarship for the 1960 summer session, plus the Purchase Award for the School’s permanent collection. Still to come: one or two more posts about this crossing of the “Great Divide”, Banff, 1959.