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Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas

Where do you start when you try to put together the life statement of an artist? I had this idea that we would engage leading art experts—curators, collectors, professors—a kind of esteemed panel who would guide our selection and by virtue of their eminence shower official art-world acclaim on my dad’s painting career.

For many months my mom went about the work of conceptualizing the show, collecting representative works, and framing what she said would be in the show. She knew we were busy, and each time I brought up the idea of outside experts, she looked confused and hurt. “Why do we need anyone else?” she asked.

I was treading on sensitive ground, and yet the mission to establish my dad as an unrecognized national talent seemed incompatible with the artist’s widow and children putting together favorite works. My mom’s definitiveness unnerved me. We needed someone to assess his collection and weigh in with an accredited view of what made him special, of what distinguished him. Was it his color balance? His fluid watercolor brushstroke? His oddly unrestrained, artistic risk taking?

We were not art experts. We’d merely dwelled amid his art, like the dark and gloomy bureau in the front hall at 9 Cove Hill Lane … the queer faceless lady who hovered in the living room before my giggling middle-school friends … the striking jazz figures who pleased us with their lush, hot expressions and for what they said about his passionate, music-obsessed youth.

The quiet conflict of what all of us thought was our belated duty continued through the fall and into early winter. My mom kept picking paintings and framing them—and I kept fretting and wishing for an art-luminary savior. We were now only six months out from the show. My mom and I seemed to be heading toward a battle, each of us expressing concerns about the other to the rest of the family. And there was something else: My mom felt the show’s success was contingent on people buying my dad’s work. I felt that that expectation was bound to doom the show. My dad’s work was never a big seller; it was too unpredictable, too difficult to categorize. The show should simply represent the breadth and beauty of his work, I argued—and who cared what did or didn’t sell?

My dad had only ever wanted to paint. We all knew that. In college Tom and I started a secret “Dad Fund” with the intention of sending him to Europe for a grand painting getaway. But we never came through, plundering the account for something I can’t even remember. Dad designed logos for trucks during his most creative and energetic artistic years; he created illustrations for a textbook publisher; he helped Parker Brothers’ toy designers present their ideas by drawing what they described. He’d even worked on a silly children’s book with me—something that got us on TV and page 1 of the Boston Globe—more attention than all of his real art shows got by a mile. Some of the commercial work might’ve been fun, but it wasn’t painting. It seemed that in all of these jobs he’d sacrificed his gift for us—to provide, and to do what was expected of him.

Ultimately the crisis came in April, a month before the show, and when it did, it was over the sample invitation I’d had made. The design was contemporary and eye-catching; I was overjoyed. My mom was not, writing in an e-mail that it “doesn’t represent either Ollie or his work.” I took the criticism personally, as an accusation. She seemed to suggest that I was dis­respecting the memory I was so desperately trying to honor.

We’d finally come to the crux of it: My mom was operating on what she thought her artist husband would have done. She’d been through dozens of shows and countless late-night discussions. I was operating on some sort of assumed trust: of the show he should have had.

I told my mom about a memorial service for a friend: His children had eloquently related how their dying father had told them not to worry about what he would have done for the very service they were conducting, because whatever they did would be the right thing. My mom listened, but her reaction wasn’t what I expected. She said, “No, I don’t agree.” There was a right way.

At the time, I was immersing myself in the collection. I was trying to load images onto a Web site, and before that I’d been putting the 1,000 or so photos of Dad’s artworks into categories: working waterfront, landscapes, seascapes, portraits, and so on.

My familiarity with my dad’s work grew, of course, but in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I’d be out in the woods on my bike or on foot and I’d have a kind of déjà vu moment. All over Cape Ann it started happening: a ride along the muscular Back Shore; a stroll along Gloucester’s inner harbor, where rigged steel-hulled fishing boats were at anchor. My flashbacks were of the paintings I’d been browsing through days or weeks earlier. The lines of a tree’s thick trunk and the geometric formation of a pine stand in a half-lit glen brought me back to a series of paintings he’d made from visits to Ravenswood, a beautiful coastal park on the outskirts of Gloucester. Amid arched Dogtown boulders at the thickly wooded center of Cape Ann and at a sweeping overlook to Old Garden Beach the sensation struck again.

He’d traveled all over Cape Ann as a young artist. As he raised his family, he’d shifted his focus to studio work, probably because he didn’t have time to get to the wild places that had drawn him to Cape Ann in the first place. For the first time I was aware of how intimately he’d known and was attracted to the same places I was.

He’d adapted the art he made to the family and work life he was living. He hadn’t done exactly what he’d wanted to do, but he’d determinedly found a way to bring the same Cape beauty to the places where he could: still lifes in the ’70s when we were all a handful; montages of personal objects in the ’80s and ’90s. In a pile of artist’s statements and appeals to agents for representation and speeches to graduating classes at Montserrat (an art college in Beverly, Massachusetts, that he helped found in the late 1960s), I found the connective pieces I needed. “You don’t lose the experience of painting fast and catching the light—even when you are no longer physically able to do it,” he wrote. “That feeling is in you forever; it’s the hook that makes you want to keep painting.”

He had stopped crouching over a canvas on granite headlands a long time ago. I’d thought he’d given up, semi-defeated, like an old jock with bad knees who never picks up a basketball again. But a resilient emotional thread stretched across decades, from his first painting to his last. He was still “playing,” still painting fast, making mistakes, and ending up somewhere he’d never expected.

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Updated Monday, February 3rd, 2014

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