Artist Oliver Balf Remembered | My Father’s Canvas
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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