For her 97th birthday, I offered to take my mother to Whistler for the day, especially to see the new Audain Art Museum. She was ecstatic at the prospect, and especially eager to see the in-house collection of works by Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes – her two favourite B.C. realist painters.
Mom was a lecturer in fine arts at the University of British Columbia. And she was especially close to Carr, as she had nursed her during her final days in hospital in Victoria in 1945.
But as it turned out, the biggest hit of our art tour was a different B.C. artist – Claude Breeze, a famous Canadian abstract painter (and now, aged 80, a professor emeritus at York University in Toronto). His work first began drawing attention in the late 1960s during the hippie era.
This is where my late father comes into the story.
Dad was a professor of pediatrics at UBC and often published papers in medical journals. He liked high-quality medical illustrations to accompany his work and the best medical illustrator in his network was Breeze.
One day in 1968, Dad arrived home with a huge Breeze painting in the trunk of his car. I was 17 and can still remember being called to the driveway to help carry the large acrylic canvas into the house. I remember thinking it was somewhat shocking.
Transmission Difficulties: The Dignitaries depicted a lawyer, a priest and a judge in their robes of office, but totally naked from the waist down. The penises of the lawyer and the judge were on full display. They were all portrayed in a huge TV screen, as if coming at you out of the news. The acrylic background was full of yellow, red and green shapes, which Dad said the artist called morphic shapes.
We hung the painting behind Dad’s desk in his study. From that day on, it was the major hit of any household tour for guests. Dad was mildly amused by all the ruckus about his new art acquisition but basically he was unruffled by the attention.
The only way I can now rationalize his purchase is that Dad had an edge and Breeze’s work shocked people who Dad wanted to shock. The rest of us just rolled with the punches.
As the years rolled by, the family started calling it the “nudie painting” and it generally blended into the eclectic visual art displayed throughout the house. Mom had broad collecting ambitions, too, and altogether human portraits and landscapes, both realistic and abstract, completely filled the walls.
More years passed. We kids grew up and left the family homestead for university, marriage and our own family lives.
Sometime in the 1990s, I remember coming home to Vancouver and noticing that the Breeze was gone. Dad was by then retired and sadly entering dementia, and Mom had started an oriental antiques business.
I queried where the Breeze was and Mom simply said, “I sold it to someone for $9,000. I needed the money for my business.”
I was sad to hear this as, over time, The Dignitaries had become my favourite painting in our family collection.
Now we can return to Mom’s 97th birthday trip to Whistler and the Audain Museum of Art.
I followed Mom as she enthusiastically pushed her walker into the rooms full of works by Carr and Hughes. She loved the experience and stopped for reflection before each of the paintings.
As we entered the third room, a sign announced “Exploring Land, People and Ideas.” And the first painting on display was The Dignitaries!
I was astonished to see it again. Memories of showing off the work to pals, girlfriends, aunts and uncles, and other guests flooded into my consciousness.
Mom looked at it briefly and simply said, “I never liked that painting. Your father bought it for its shock value.”
Then she wheeled out of the exhibit.
I remained in front of Breeze’s work and started laughing.
The security guard in the room approached me and asked if there was anything he could help me with?
I explained why I found humour in the situation.
The guard smiled broadly and said, “Well, at least you know the painting is in a good place!”
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.