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. 


Banff, 1959 Part 4 - unexpected company

To do field painting in a natural environment sharpens the “noticing” and observing senses.Each change of shadow, light, movement, wind, clouds, temperature, plus the myriad variations of the colour Green alone, how and where you put your feet - - - all this and more serve to ‘sharpen the pencil’.
Painting outdoors in the Rocky Mountains is different from visiting as a tourist or hiker. For an artist, it’s not the same, no matter where. The act of painting (or anything done with absorption) can lead to a timeless state of mind. Speaking of things “not being the same”, landscape painting has never been the same since the Impressionists took their art out of the conventional, academic studio environment, and placed it outdoors to capture on paper or canvas. Here in Canada we had the Group of Seven, who came later and were “our Impressionists”.
You have to respect the courage, the challenges that were faced by these painters working in the field. In France --- the Mistral and the fierce summer heat; in Canada, mosquitoes and black flies. Yet, they kept going.[Today the public loves the Impressionists and great artists such as Vincent van Gogh, and here in Canada, the Group of Seven. But that’s easy; after the initial scoffing and mockery, a century has gone by bestowing and recording praise upon praise on these pioneer artists, now household names. ]
Since arriving in Banff early May, I’d done several oil and oil pastels in remote locations throughout the Park. Some days while hitchhiking early in the morning I’d get a ride into Canmore where I did “The Three Sisters” in oil pastel.
Several times I gave paintings to strangers who offered me a lift back into Banff. In those days, I was grateful for the being there, I believed I could always do more some other time. Little did I know what was in the lap of the future, or I would have kept every one. Now I’ve completely lost track of where these paintings are, no record for our archives.
The grandson of Mrs. Parkin, my landlady, lived in Calgary. He visited sometimes, and one day his grandmother said, “Why don’t you take Henri to Calgary, for the Stampede?” And so he did, and I stayed for the full Stampede week. 

What an experience! I have never forgotten this extraordinary spectacle. (Remember at this point I’d been in Canada less than two years, coming from the Lowlands, where as boys we grew up under the spell of Cowboy and Indian movies.)
Back in the Rockies, one morning I’d already spent several hours painting at Moraine Lake when a big van pulled up with several students and two faculty members which later I learned were from the Banff summer school.Earlier, my landlady mentioned “that School” up on Tunnel Mountain, but I’d not been there to visit. (From what I’d heard, I couldn’t afford the fees.) Here's a picture of me painting at Moraine Lake:

The students, all women, set up their easels. One of the faculty came over to me and introduced himself: Manly MacDonald. He looked at the work on my easel, then asked a few questions, including who was I, where did I come from, where was I staying, and how long had I been painting? He also enquired if I’d ever visited the “School”. Mr. MacDonald then said, “I think you should come and visit the School sometime.”
I finished my painting and waited until the group was ready to return, hoping to get a lift. This worked out well.A few days later, I walked up Tunnel Mountain to pay the School a visit.
That July day, 1959, at Moraine Lake, destiny guided me towards an unexpected and unknown road into the future. A path I am still walking. More on this, later. Happy Trails! Henri


Banff 1959, Part 3 - Nourishing substance in an Oil Pastel stick

After seeing the woman sketching here at the seashore, not one but several doors opened into my ‘memory mansion’. Here we are already on part 3, yet, the most important part of the Banff story (other than the memorable experience of simply being there) hasn’t begun. Of course this isn’t a play-by-play colour commentary on the full summer of 1959 in the Rocky Mountains.

Actually my motivation for recording all this is the fact that though I did numerous landscape 
paintings ‘en plein air’ at Banff National Park, it was there that I ‘crossed the Great Divide’. The wheel was set in motion for a major evolution in my work.
But let’s not be too hasty, first things first. On my early morning painting treks into the mountains, I’d see chipmunks and also lots of Gophers everywhere. Gophers would swiftly pop up and down into their holes. They whistled shrill warnings to their family while I set up shop in their neighbourhood.
Since I was always alone in the wilderness, one of the fishermen who gave me a lift to the road leading up to Peyto Lake warned me to be careful not only of the Grizzly and Black Bears, but also the Wolverine. This was good to know. Coming from Holland less than 2 years earlier, I’d never heard of Wolverines.
Anyway one morning I was seated, totally absorbed in trying to capture the intriguing shape and milky turquoise-colour of Peyto Lake. I was looking down on the Lake below, when suddenly I heard a rustling and crackling sound. “Oh-oh! A bear or wolverine!” I thought to myself. Slowly I turned my head around. A few feet away, there was a chipmunk nibbling, very dapper, on one of my sticks of oil pastel! He was holding it gently in his front paws, having already carefully removed the wrapper. A breakfast snack.

I’d come back to Banff soon after high Noon, if I could get a lift. The temperature rose high and fast in these early days of summer. Back in those days, 1959, “Indian Days” were held every summer, just outside the town of Banff. First Nations chiefs of the Blackfoot, Stoney, Blood, and other nations sat outside their large ‘wigwams’. They’d answer questions posed by curious visitors.
One of the Chiefs said something I’ve never forgotten. He said to our little group, “White man is funny, because when we say ‘There are only twenty ocelots left’, some of you would say, ‘Oh, let’s go shoot them, before they’re all gone.’”
Tomorrow, I’ll share with you amongst other events, how I was ‘discovered’, at Moraine Lake!


Banff 1959, Part Two - Wildlife face to face

Memory can be like a clear mirror, but only when what the eye views is “seen” with full attention as things happen. Otherwise the mirror becomes foggy, as if “breathed” upon. Or to put it another way, ‘when we let the film role with the cap still on our lens of the camera’, no picture will be developed. 

Banff in 1959 was a sleepy town.  

There was the classy Banff Springs Hotel; a trail riding outfit for horseback riding, and the Banff summer school up Tunnel Mountain. Banff Avenue had no T-shirt stores, jewellery shops, no Japanese signs in the windows, no mall.

There was a small Western “Chinese” restaurant, typical of the 1950’s, also a grocery store. 

During that summer, a black bear got into the back of the store twice and feasted on the sweets. I say twice; after he was caught the first time (tranquilized and carted off), he came back and did the same thing all over again! Tranquilized again, this time he was taken far from the town, never to return that summer.

Sometimes very early in the morning, I’d go over to the golf course at Banff Springs Hotel to collect golf balls that were here, there and everywhere. I sold these, for extra income. 

On those occasions I encountered the odd coyote or black bear in the distance, but was never threatened by them.

By mid-June, everything came to life. Snow was gone except on higher peaks. Flowers sprung up everywhere. Most to the bears awoke from their lengthy hibernation. Mothers and cubs hung out in the outskirts of town at the garbage dump. (This was 1959, remember.) 

Scolding their cubs, chasing them, getting them out of the trees – this was a sight to behold.

Out on my daily expeditions into the mountains, I’d often spot elk, whitetail deer, Bighorn sheep and mountain goats. And, bears. Now that they were up and around, extra caution was needed.

One morning while in a remote spot to do field painting, I came face-to-face with a big black bear, less than 15 metres away. “Oh-oh. What to do now? I’d been told never to turn my back to a bear. So then what?

I began to whistle a tune. The bear stood up on its hind legs, gave me a good look, and then lumbered off on all fours into the undergrowth. Phew! That was some moment! Another caution: never come between mama and her cubs. (But the trick is to know where the cubs are!)

Late one morning I was painting near a lake. Suddenly something bizarre slowly appeared out of the water. Dripping greenery hung from its long snout. Huge flat antlers, long gangly awkward legs. Had never seen anything like it! Looked like one of Mother Nature’s ‘misprints’. 

Later my landlady when she saw my sketch laughed and exclaimed, “Oh, Henri, that was a Moose!”

 Signing off, ‘til Part 3, coming up.