From Rough to Brilliant

On more than one occasion I’ve met with situations where the value of a commodity is known but the beauty it contains is not.
Over the years I’ve travelled aboard ships as Artist-in- Residence. My classes always begin with the foundation of colour studies. One of the passengers came to art class wearing a stunning diamond ring. The jewel must have been at least 2.5 karats. Upon mentioning the dazzling spectrum colours this gemstone reflected, she was absolutely flabbergasted: she had never before seen them! However, she certainly knew its value in the marketplace.

See what we mean? Speaking of colour, people often think right away of flowers. But, there’s also the rainbow - - -that mysterious phenomenon which displays how the mixing of primary and secondary colours creates a spectrum. When the ship cuts through the waves on a sunny day, at the crest you can see myriads of spectrum sparkles. Even closer, just squint and look through your eyelashes. Voila! more rainbows.This spectrum of course is also present in prisms and crystals.
Diamonds have a particular meaning for me, being the son of a diamond-faceter and grandson of a diamond-faceter and cleaver. Here is a picture of my father:

The craftsmen who create such brilliance from a raw gemstone are not “diamond cutters”. That’s a misnomer. It should be “diamond faceters”. The original “diamond cutters” were the cleavers.
Both my grandfathers, and my father (see photo) were diamond-faceters. However my maternal grandfather also practised the now-rare skill of diamond cleaving. How do you cleave a diamond? With steely nerves.
A rough diamond is enclosed in a piece of sealing wax, layered with shellac. Then it’s stuck on a “dob” (a wooden stick), which is fastened onto a clamp. Depending on the size of the rough diamond, and how many stones have to be cut from it, the cleaver marks the ‘veins’ (each diamond has a unique growth pattern) with pen and Chinese ink. This is followed by carving a small cut or ‘guide groove’ into the marked lines. To accomplish this, another diamond must be used (diamonds are the hardest gemstones).
Very carefully, and after sometimes weeks of contemplation, the master cleaver hits the wedge with a mallet. One mistake and the rough diamond splinters into a multitude of fragments – a disaster for all concerned!
So you can see why we say that diamond cleaving is a “rarely practised profession”. It demands a steady hand, patience, good eyesight and steely nerves - - besides of course skill and know-how. (And today, computers guide the sawing of the diamond.)
Next, comes the faceting. And there are numerous types of diamond shapes, the most popular being a “Brilliant” cut (shown here). If faceted correctly and of good quality, the gem will have the same dazzling effect as the diamond of my student aboard ship. In my boyhood, I often watched my grandfather at work. I would stand on a chair looking through a small window in the door (the little window was ostensibly for visitors, but really for the boss to keep an eye on things).
Under no circumstances was a diamond-cleaver to be disturbed. He would need all his privacy and solitude to contemplate his task. Patience, skill and a calm mind was required, in what was to me, a‘magical domain’. Few know the long voyage a diamond takes from ‘rough’ to ‘brilliant’, from discovery in the bowels of the Earth or riverbed, to final destination on finger, neck, ear or nowadays, a nose. Signing off, Henri


We're all Astronauts

We "speed and spin" so fast through Space, that all 'stays put', or so it seems.
Are we still finding time to look at these blog posts, what with the economy, and those elections on the horizon, not to speak of day-to-day Life . . .
We looked up the Mayan Calendar prediction our Mexican Troubadour was talking about on October 7. It’s all there on the Internet (where else?), showing the ancient Mayans predicted a catastrophic disaster will take place on our planet, December 21, 2012.

May we just point to the North and South Poles in the Arctic and Antarctica and how rapidly glaciers are melting. Interestingly, the word Arctic comes from Greek arktikos, meaning arktos bear’, Ursa Major, North Star.’ And the word Antarctic comes also from the Greek, ανταρκτικός antarktikos meaning opposite of north. The prefix 'ante' means opposite. And, there are no polar bears in Ant-arctica!
You could say these two icy realms keep the planet “in balance” on its axis, so to speak, allowing us to enjoy our ride in space. Yes, and quite a ride it is. It’s hard to believe we’re travelling around the Sun at a mere 67,000 miles per hour (108,000 kph). And we’re whirling, spinning around our axis (at the Equator) at 1,040 mph/1,674 kph. And, in case you forgot, our “mean orbital velocity” is 29.78 kilometres per second.
So, going back to the Mayan Calendar predication, all it needs is a shift in any of these velocity phenomena, and Voila!, “There goes the neighbourhood”.
Has it happened before? They say it has, but I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Except perhaps as a mitochondrion, or diatom (sounds close to “van Bentum”), or one of those ancient deep-sea sponges.
So we should be thankful our planet Ocean/Earth planet permits us to come along for the ride. Have a memorable Thanksgiving, although I can hear the turkeys gobbling, “All we are saying, gobble-gobble, is give Life a chance!” Henri


Roses do have thorns

The longest time I lived in one place during the ‘60s was 579 Jarvis Street, Toronto, 1965-67, the old ‘Massey’ family mansion which had been converted into apartments; I was assistant manager. Furniture was sparse but solid. The canvas “Living Tapestry’ (see post of October 4) was painted there, along with many other works, all painted in the kitchen which had a square table (and of course the essential tap water on hand).
My first solo exhibition at Roberts Gallery in 1965 was a success:“sold out”. Then in 1966 I received First Prize at the OSA show. On top of all that, there was the solo exhibition in Paris, May 1966 (more on this in a later post).
Meanwhile my thinking, inspiration and intuition were spiralling upwards, and changes in my work were noticeable since that 1965 exhibition at Roberts Gallery. Abstract or non-objective art (and Surrealism) allows you to give imagination free reign, within the discipline required from skill, in turn learned from experience.
Roberts Gallery was conservative with mostly “Group of Seven” or post-Group of Seven artists. There I was, an abstract artist. The dealer was so pleased with the success of the ’65 show, he offered me another solo exhibition to take place in February 1967. (For a novice, this was quite a coup.)
In preparation, I worked from first daylight to dusk, for nearly two years. (I always work in daylight, which allows you to judge and see colour at its best.) My paintings were becoming simpler, almost minimalist, but required complete awareness in order to prevent the ‘blank’ areas of the canvas from being splattered. Freedom and awareness was required in unison. It was vital for these blank or ‘void’ areas to remain pristine for my composition and imagery to maintain its strength.
For me, it was exciting and uplifting - - - through the joy of free creative exploration - - - to realize you can travel to far-away galaxies, enter microscopic realms, coral reefs, or go to Antarctica --- without actually having to ‘be there’. Virtual reality, forty years ahead of its time! Not only “the sky is the limit”, but the whole universe.
Back to Jarvis Street, one painting after another was born on that kitchen table (or depending on the size, on the floor). Since they were all done with acrylic, and mixed with water, I had to keep my canvas perfectly flat. Otherwise, the paint would drip and run downwards.

And then came the exhibition: here you can see some paintings at Roberts Gallery, done forty-two years ago. Notice their space-like quality, or what I call “micro-macro” nature. Keep in mind these were created long before NASA images of space we’re so familiar with today. (We were still two years from landing on the moon.) But - - - this major exhibition of ‘67, with forty-two works, was not the success of the 1965 show.
Understandably, clients came back expecting to see more of the same kind of paintings from two years earlier. Instead, they were faced with an evolutionary change. Of the 42 paintings, three were sold. Robert Gallery kept another three. This was Toronto in February, cold and snow. The landlord was not amused that his ‘manager’ was the creator of all those ‘strange and weird looking things’.
The ‘blow’ at the end of the show, of having to take all those paintings back from the Gallery, was intense. Plus, the landlord gave me notice. I am sad to say, that reluctantly, I took 32 of these paintings, and burned them in the fireplace.
Not because they didn’t sell, but because I absolutely did not know what to do with them. Also, because of the blank areas of the canvas which could easily be damaged. So I took it into my own hands to determine their destiny.
After this trauma, the shock of burning my own work, awoke me to the need of preventing suffering like this from ever happening again. I removed myself from the art scene and it would be another 5 years before a return to painting. Five years of introspection, worldwide travel, exploration and healing which in turn, set the stage for further evolution in my work.


The Mexican Troubadour

One of the last ships of the Alaska season was here the other day. Soon all will be quiet, at least until April when it starts all over again. While sitting on a bench at the sea walk watching the world go by on a grey Autumn day, I heard someone singing. There was a fellow seated at the next bench over. Some passengers from the ship, along with some curious locals and dog-walkers, gathered around him.
I walked over. He was greying at the temples, playing a guitar and singing Mexican songs. All alone, no ‘hat’ to collect coins. When one of the onlookers tossed him a coin, he suddenly stopped, put down the guitar, as if his dignity was offended, and quietly lit up a cigarette.
Slowly the curious crowd dispersed, leaving just the two of us. “Usted de Mexico?” I asked. “Si, amigo”, he replied, pleased to speak his language. “I work in the galley”, pointing to the docked cruise ship. I told him I’d been on lots of sea voyages and also lived in Mexico. When he told me he was born in the Yucatan (Merida), I mentioned I’d been to Chichen Itza & Uxmal, back in 1969, to visit and study the great Mayan temples.
He put the guitar on his lap to make room for me to join him on the bench. “I am half-Mayan”, he said. “Have you heard of the Mayan Calendar?” was his unexpected question. “Yes, I have”. He then asked, “Did you know my wise ancestors predicted in their calendar that, at the end of the year 2012, a catastrophic disaster will take place to our planet?”
I replied, “I hope not, but the way we’re treating our Earth and our biosphere, we’re certainly heading in that direction”. The fellow added, “That’s why I work on ships, to see the world while it’s still possible. I sing and play guitar (‘mucho problemas’ with security and the guitar), not for the public, but for me. It makes me ‘feliz’, happy”.
I invited him over for a coffee at our place located just across the road. ‘Muchas gracias, amigo, but I must get back to the ship. I only have a short time for my break, and need to go back, for more problems with my guitar and securidad. Adios!”, he smiled. In turn I wished him “Adios”.
He then slung the guitar over his shoulder. Although there was a lead-grey sky, I could hear him whistling the jaunty tune, “Cielito Lindo”. No sooner had he gone out of sight when I remembered a question I’d meant to ask about the venerable Mayan ‘liquer’ which bears our name: Bentum

Ah, well, maybe next time?
Two autumns, one for he who departs, one for me who stays.


Birth of a Painting & Death of a Mentor

“When you play the cello, I want to hear rainbows!”
Quote from Pablo Cassals to his cello students, when he was in his ‘80s
There are several works on the website http://www.vanBentum.org which show the evolution that took place in my painting from 1954 onwards. One work has been commented upon more than once: “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, 1960, an oil painting done at 150 Walmer Road, Toronto in my room at a boarding house owned by the family Kandelsdorfer from Vienna. The following is the story of how it was born.

During my brief time at the Ontario College of Art, one of my teachers (and for me, the best), was J.W.G. Jock Macdonald. Artist and teacher, Jock was a member of the 1950’s group “Painters Eleven”, contemporary Toronto artists.
He became my mentor and it was Jock who suggested I leave the OCA, because I’d already done so much work on my own; he must have felt it would be better for my development as a painter not to be constrained by the-then academic (and conservative) atmosphere at OCA.
Very fortunately, after I left the School, he visited once in awhile on Saturdays. He gave precious pointers and positive criticism on works in progress. Jock was a remarkable teacher; you felt as if he carried a small ‘flacon of oil’ and dripped a bit onto the flame of inspiration that burned within you.
It was Jock Macdonald who suggested I paint while listening to music. I’d always had ‘friendly relations’ with music, and have what’s called a musical ear. Jock told me “To listen with ‘eyes closed’, and when the music touches the strings of imagination and inspiration”, then start the recording again, and paint. He said, ‘Only when music and imagination blend into one will you be able to transform it visually.
My collection of records was limited, all classical 78’s. (I also had a small radio, but recordings were better for this purpose.) Besides Chopin (Dino Lipatti), there was Debussy, Mussorgsky, Ludwig van Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. Also, I had one 78 album of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
It was a warm July day. Despite chewing through a pending divorce, I felt happy listening to his music. (Music is a calming and soothing antidote to “stress”).
I create beautiful music for people in distress”, said Ludwig van Beethoven.
I had a large bay window which opened up to allow fresh air, permitting me to paint in oils and use linseed oil and turpentine; otherwise I would have been given notice by the landlady, for sure! After playing the recording over a few times, I set to work and finished the painting in one go. Thus “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was born on a beautiful July day, 1960, in Toronto. 

Thanks to the Bard, William Shakespeare, and to Mendelssohn who transformed the play into music, allowing me to give my version in another art form, painting. Jock Macdonald’s valuable suggestion about painting while listening to music fell on ‘willing ears’.
Later I did several other works inspired by compositions such as ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ by Debussy (see “Inner Reflections”, shown here); Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony; Ninth Symphony, “Ode to Joy” and Musssorgksy’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, to name a few.
These precious visits from my mentor Jock Macdonald didn’t last long, for in early December of that year, he died prematurely at the age of 63 of a sudden heart attack. This was a great loss to the art world in Canada, and to young students. He was a great teacher. Signing off for now, Henri (p.s. reproduction photos of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” are available on eBay at http://organiverse.org.