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Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas

Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas
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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.

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