Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas
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.
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?
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