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Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas

We made peace, my mom and I, very quickly after the dust-up. A day after her comments and my obvious hurt, she reached out, saying she liked the invitation after all. I doubt she did, but nothing for her was worth a fissure in the family. I began to see her side of it, too: how the judgments she made were because she was answering to her husband, trying to measure up as a spouse of 58 years, just as I was trying to measure up as a son. “When you’re married to an artist,” she once told her college-age granddaughter, “their first love will always be art. It was always hard.” She was simply guarding my dad’s love; every decision was filtered in a way that poignantly asked, What would Ollie have done?

The show began to take shape as our family met weekly through April and into May. We added and subtracted from my mom’s first pass. There were private paintings she didn’t see as “show” paintings, several of them on the walls of her bedroom. “They don’t have to be for sale,” Tom suggested. “What are we talking about?”

We walked into her bedroom and saw the majestic watercolor of Eastern Point; it was clearly the show’s signature painting. On the far walls there were pictures of my mom—he’d done so many—but the colors were elegantly muted, drawn in the half-light of dawn when he was returning from a night-shift job at the Globe. My mom and dad had argued often when I was a kid; household expenses were tight, a painting career was sliding. But this portrait of my mom struck me—it was utterly different, utterly adoring. It had to be in the show. My mom blushed.

A couple of days before the May opening, we descended on the Art Association with three cars loaded with paintings, carefully stacked amid heavy blankets. There was already a banner at the doorway and a poster in the glass-encased events box next to the walkway. I was particularly attentive to a three-foot-tall posterboard featuring a black-and-white photo of the young artist and the biographical text I’d written for the show. I didn’t want it to get dinged; it was to be mounted at the alcove entrance to the gallery. The photo looked the way I wanted him to feel: strong and at ease, relaxing in our small backyard in front of his then-working studio. You could easily imagine him back from a day of watercoloring, all the little accidents of the medium adding up to something worth quietly celebrating.

In the text I’d given his background: born in Rye, New York; raised on the Cape as a painter, where he found a community that launched not only galleries but a new idealistic art college for painters, by painters. I told how his acceptance into the Art Association had been an early success, but that the exhibit of his first painting had been a crushing disappointment—it didn’t sell—so he’d painted over it in dismay. I guess I wanted people to understand how much he cared, then and for the rest of his career, and how secretly hopeful he was that his first love—his art—would be loved in return. He’d confessed as much in an unpublished artist’s statement I’d found among his papers. He’d said that all artists want to be admired and recognized, and he was no different. With every painting not sold and every exhibit sparsely attended, he walked an emotional tightrope—stubbornly having faith that his time would come, but fearing that he wasn’t good enough and it might not.

“Do you want to do it or do you want me to?” asked Carol, the petite, hard-charging curator, as we paused with 50 paintings leaning against walls and seemingly acres of blank wall space in front of us. It was awkward. For weeks we’d been developing a mock show on PowerPoint slides, not sure how else to see the show. There wasn’t much in the DIY world for organizing your own art retrospective. For all my get-the-experts-in sentiment, I’d changed. I didn’t want to cede control to anyone, and Carol was good enough to let us have at it.

We were all stunned when the show was hung. It had taken so long to assemble, but it went up in a flash. Little accidents worked themselves out; pairings we hadn’t seen in the slide show organically presented themselves. Dad’s discovery of the Cape came first—the sloping headlands at dawn, the great dragging fleet on the Gloucester waterfront, the granite totems of woods-cloaked quarries—and then life at home, and in memories, and, finally, the last work, placed in a nook at the show’s end: the sweetheart roses, all five of them, not for sale.

A few nights later came the opening—and, other than Mom’s jazz-standards soundtrack not playing, it went off splendidly. Everyone seemed to come out. “It feels like he’s here,” I heard someone say. “He is,” her friend responded, gesturing across the gallery. Some assumed that the bright colors were indicative of a uniquely happy man. I knew that wasn’t exactly the case—but maybe they were the work of a hopeful man. For me, the highlight was meeting an artist friend of my dad’s who, because of a long-running feud, hadn’t set foot in the Art Association for 40 years. “I’m not all that comfortable,” he told me, “but I’m glad I came in.” My dad was a wonderful man, he said, and I knew that a man with an undimmed 40-year-old grudge wouldn’t just say that. He thought the show looked dynamite.

My mom wore a long floral-print skirt and a white blouse, accented with a corsage we’d given her. She looked relaxed—pleased at the enthusiastic reception, comforted to be surrounded by artwork that spanned their life together. She’d been unflagging in the many months leading up to the show, teaching herself to frame (and not without consequence to the fingers her flying hammer found). She’d even sat for an interview with a Boston Globe reporter, going off the record to explain the chance, faintly illicit first meeting she’d had with my dad at a Rocky Neck jazz club—a meeting she’d downplayed, since she was seeing someone else at the time. My brothers and I loved that story, and the fact that they married a mere eight weeks after their first official date, capping it with a wild honeymoon in Chicago, where the virtually penniless newlyweds lobbed water balloons from a high hotel room in celebration. She’d given her time, her fingers, and a few of her secrets to see this through. And I think she knew that by any measure—her own, ours, my dad’s—she’d done well.

That night, and over the course of the show’s four-week duration, the response was amazing. A town lobsterman offered $2,000 for a painting of a classic fishing shack: $1,000 cash, $1,000 in lobster. My friend Brad, who tended to be a tough critic of my dad’s work, allowed how he’d seen a watercolor in the show that blew him away, that he never would have guessed my dad had done. It was the one of my mom. In a gallery walk, the guide, Ron Straka, analyzed the paintings to a large and attentive crowd, sharing how my dad had once explained his expressive work as a reaction to his immigrant upbringing, where he was often told not to say too much and to get along.

People said they’d never seen so much joy and happiness in a gallery. They seemed to react to the works for the pure feelings they presented. All the little things we might have done better in terms of presentation didn’t seem to matter or detract. Someone put a reserve on a painting I’d found only days before at the bottom of a dusty storeroom pile—just like me, smitten enough by the subject that the age spots and irregularities were ignored. Another bought a beautiful harbor scene, inexplicably signed twice. Imperfection, at least on this night, was perfection. When the show ended four weeks later, the curators told us it was one of the biggest-selling one-man shows they’d ever held.

I was pleased by the show’s commercial success and that we’d done it as a family; it wouldn’t have been the same had my acclaimed art panel put the exhibit together. When we took the show down at the end of June, we were all a little melancholy, aware that there was probably no next show. We all felt his loss in the blank empty walls. We’d fully immersed ourselves in my dad’s creative life and now we had to move on.

To an all-family lunch I brought along a beautiful letter I’d unearthed: a letter from my dad to a struggling young artist. My mom wept gently when she read it, feeling all over again his passion for being an artist—and for becoming one. It occurred to me that we’d created something not unlike a painting, and not unlike the imperfect proc­ess my dad knew and loved. “Delight in the surprises,” he’d implored in the letter. I think we finally had.

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Updated Monday, February 3rd, 2014

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