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Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas

Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas
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When the family of artist Oliver Balf combed through a lifetime of paintings, they discovered truths about the artist’s passion, and themselves.

October 2010: I remember his being tired but relieved after a long day of international travel. The spare kibbutz “guest house” that we arrived at in advance of a family wedding amused us all: Mom and Dad bunking with their fiftysomething sons in a narrow two-room mobile home was a Seinfeld episode come to life.

The sweetheart roses were in a simple vase on a kitchen table, and Dad must have opened his sketchbook that first day in Israel. A professional artist who exhibited widely, he was 83 and slowing, especially in recent years, but he always drew quickly and with youthful urgency. Botanical color and shape absorbed his attention like few other things. He drew the petite blooms in ink but topped them with playful pink dabs; the process wouldn’t have taken long. Almost as fast as the black, hardbound sketchbook was opened, it was closed—for good, as it turned out. It was his last painting. Five days later he was gone—suddenly and with little warning.

My mom had the idea for a last art show. She didn’t call it the last show, but it seemed implicit.

Oliver Balf, my dad, was an artist who had lived and painted on Cape Ann for more than 60 years. He’d come to Rockport, Massachusetts, on a lark—in the postwar years it was cheap and beautiful. His college roommate at Temple’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia figured it would cost them $37.50 to share a tent for the summer, just a stone’s throw from Old Garden Beach. That same roommate, a veteran like my dad, also discovered that they could get a monthly stipend from the GI Bill as unemployed “landscape painters.”

Dad returned the next four summers, honing his watercolor technique and selling frames on Tuna Wharf. In 1952 he was newly married and living in New York when he suggested that they move to Rockport year-round. My dad was a Hans Hofmann–trained painter; my mom, Nancy Miller, was a Dalton School graduate who called Cape Ann “the end of the Earth.” Nowadays their plans might seem like crazy talk, but they came. And most improbably of all, they stayed. Their first place was a cozy cottage apartment on Main Street, next to the now-yellow-clapboard Rockport Art Association.

The RAA was a hub of the burgeoning Cape Ann art scene and the off-and-on focus of my dad’s exhibiting life for the next half-century. It established him as a professional artist with an invitation into its prestigious ranks as a 19-year-old. It rebuffed him not many years later when his subject matter moved from characteristic seascapes to modernist still lifes. He was estranged from the RAA for a long time, but a decade ago he’d made peace. When he died on October 15, 2010, he was preparing to hold his first one-man show there in 40 years.

We went forward with the show he had planned, despite his death. It was held in a small room at the entrance to the RAA, and in our grief we found the show a helpful distraction. It was very successful—in part perhaps because of the circumstances. People wanted to pay tribute; we wanted to pay tribute. My mom went to the Art Association’s curators after the show closed and asked about the possibility of a major retrospective—bigger and more ambitious, and it would say all the things about his artistic life that this hurried, small-scale show could not. The Art Association agreed and set the date for May 2013.

Now we would have plenty of time to do all the things that needed to be done. There were thousands of paintings to review and a career narrative to explore in a way none of us had really bothered to before. It seemed particularly important for me to understand him, his art, and what moved him. I wanted to unearth everything he’d left behind, from bottom-shelf canvases to old letters. In his obituary I’d described him as a sweet man of “beautifully rebellious work,” but that sounded more authoritative than I felt. What did I know?

My two brothers and I hadn’t had much time for his art, especially during his most productive period in the ’60s and ’70s. Tom and I were popular small-town athletes. My oldest brother, Mike, was engrossed in ’60s-style activism. None of us was emotionally in tune with what he did or what he wanted. My mom worked. We were on one side, it often felt; my dad and his art on another. We’d all come closer as we became adults with young families—understanding, appreciating, moderating—but there was a period of time, when he was an artist and when art was all that mattered, that I didn’t know a thing about.

And then there was his death. Days after my niece’s wedding in Israel, a seemingly routine stomach ailment worsened rapidly. We admitted him to a hospital on the afternoon of October 14. He died hours later of congestive heart failure.

We really didn’t talk about any of it. It seemed better not to explore what we all felt: that we’d collectively come up short. The strangers around us sitting shiva in Israel had said it was good that he hadn’t suffered over weeks, months, or years, and although it was a consoling thought, I knew he wasn’t artistically ready. I had only to look in his travel sketchbook. The last work—vividly colored petals at the end of a sturdy green stalk—was unmistakable evidence of life, not death.

A year before my dad died, he wrote me a Father’s Day card. I still have it. His cards were always magnificent—whimsical drawings or cartoons that were funny and personal. Over the years many of them were plays on my passion for adventure and sport: me on top of a mountain peak; me in the jungle looking comically overmatched, wearing a Red Sox shirt (and a large, lethal snake unseen overhead). There were wry captions, like New Yorker cartoons but only for us. This card was different. An agonized self-portrait graced the cover of simple heavy stock paper. Inside he talked about how he’d outlived everyone in his family and lots of people who were in some way part of his life: “While I’m still rational I wanted you to know how proud I am of you … I want you to know how much I love you.”

Fifteen months later he was gone, and I’d never written or said what he meant to me; I hadn’t taken the time to connect to him as a fellow artist or a grateful son. I hadn’t saved him. “He knew how much you all loved him,” my mom sweetly comforted us.

Of course this show we were putting together wasn’t a second chance for him—he was loved and respected by everyone who knew him—but it felt as though it was for us. For me.

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Updated Monday, February 3rd, 2014

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