Monday, October 17, 2011

The Secret Life of Donald Flather

Written by Daniel Wood
Beauitful BC Magazine,
Spring, 1999

As David Flather, then 28, stood in the doorway of his grandparents' Vancouver home four years ago, he was struck by a sense of erieness. His grandmother, Grace, had just died. His grandfather, Donald Flather, had passed away in 1990. Together with his aunt and uncle, David was there to begin the task of emptying the cluttered home of 54 years of occupancy. His grandfather had been a Vancouver school teacher and packrat of the first magnitude. His grandmother had rebuffed every effort to clean the house after her husband's death. She wanted nothing moved, believing her husband was still there, still inhabiting the place. And in a strange way, she was right.

The livingroom walls were covered with Donald Flather's paintings --- large, abstracted landscapes that had a familiarity David couldn't quite define. A half-dozen more paintings were stacked --- like a firescreen --- in front of the fireplace. In the hall, in the diningroom, in the bedrooms, every wall held more of his grandfather's artwork. When he pushed open the door to the upstairs studio, where David on occasion had watched his grandfather paint, he paused and asked himself: Where do I put my feet? Dozens of large, framed landscape paintings stood on edge, filling the room from wall to wall. They leaned against each other and against the room's shelving where hundreds of slide trays, jammed with Flather's travel photos, were stacked among the musty collection of art books. In the corner by the north window stood Flather's easel. For the first time David could recall, it held no painting. When he'd been a boy, he'd stand near the easel watching his grandfather: bald, portly, wearing a smock against the splatter of paint, intensely immersed in his art. "His strokes were flowing and certain," David says today. "He knew where the brush was going to go the moment it hit the painting."

His uncle, Barrie Flather, a Surrey, B.C. doctor, joined David. There were, he informed his nephew, hundreds of more paintings in the basement. They were everywhere. It was incredible. It was also a dilemma. The house was being cleared out, its contents dispersed. Donald Flather was a completely unknown artist, a modest man who eschewed self-promotion or publicity. If he'd sold more than three paintings in his lifetime, they didn't know about it. He never discussed his hobby and seldom bothered to show his work to his family even. He often simply finished a landscape and stored it in the basement darkness. Yet, the paintings seemed too beautiful to destroy. What to do? Was there a market for them? Would a gallery be interested? And where did Flather fit in to the development of Canadian art in the West? Overwhelmed by the number of paintings and inspired by their similarity to those of the Canadian Group of Seven, David decided to rescue the imperiled collection.

Flather was born in London, England in 1903 and immigrated as a child with his parents, members of the pioneering Barr Colony movement, initially to the Canadian prairies, then to an orchard on B.C.'s Shuswap Lake where his lifelong fascination with nature was cultivated. In the 1920s, his family moved to Vancouver to operate a greenhouse. He met his wife, Grace, a home economics student, at teacher training college and in 1927 he began teaching secondary biology and science in Vancouver. The couple had three sons. Barrie recalls that as a child the family went on endless nature trips, collecting --- in his words --- "all sorts of pondlife." The family house on East Boulevard in Vancouver's upscale Kerrisdale district gradually filled with Donald Flather's disorderly collection of animal bones, microscope slides of amoeba, roadkills, fossils, rocks, mushrooms, and shells, the volume of specimens gradually overwhelming Grace's fierce penchant for order.

Barrie remembers his father in his upstairs studio, his slide projector on, a landscape from a recent trip on the portable screen, and him in deep concentration as he reworked the projected image onto Masonite. Barrie could see that his father took painterly liberties with reality, distorting the scene in a slightly surreal way. At the time, the early 40's, the names that were occasionally heard around the house; Lawren Harris, Fred Varley, W.P. Weston, Emily Carr, Jack Shadbolt, A.Y. Jackson - didn't mean a thing to him. They were people his father knew through his work as secretary-treasurer of the Federation of Canadian Artists. At that time, Barrie had never heard of the Group of Seven.

While the European and American art world had gone through a dramatic transformation in the two decades on either side of 1900, Canada had remained stuck in an colonial back eddy, its painters churning out landscapes-by-formula: realistic, romantic, grandiose, and dull. Art, the prevailing view held, was meant to be morally uplifting. In 1920, a fraternity of seven young artists from central Canada opened a show in Toronto that challenged the conventions. Influenced by French impressionism, cubism, Art Nouveau, and a northern mysticism from Scandinavia, the Group of Seven announced that they were dedicated to producing a truly made-in-Canada art form, unhindered by the insipid landscape traditions of the British academy style. For a while they painted Ontario, but soon grew restless with the limits imposed by the low relief of the Canadian Shield. By 1928, four of the Group of Seven were making annual summer pilgrimages to British Columbia. A fifth member, Fred Varley, moved to Lynn Valley in North Vancouver in 1926 and began teaching art. They were drawn westward by the province's extraordinary scenery, dominated by verticality, clouds, the rhythmic repetition of ridges, huge rainforest trees, and dying native coastal villages.

Lawren Harris, Canada's most influential artist, first brought his ideas to B.C. in 1924 when he began his regular, summer painting trips to the Rockies. (He moved permanently to Vancouver in 1940.) Like several other members of the Group, Harris was deeply affected by Theosophy, a turn-of-the-century mystical belief which held that spirituality was present in all things. The massive, glaciated mountains of B.C. dwarfed the human intruder, confirming his view that the land itself was divine. His paintings- with the landscape whittled down to the bone - became metaphors for archetypal truths. Peaks became abstract triangles, symbolic of paradise. Clouds become emblematic, flying saucer-like ovals. Light shafts equalled transcendence. A burnt tree stump represented death and redemption. In his paintings, the land was elemental: the place where nature and spirit met.

His influence on artists in B.C., was enormous. He told a frustrated Emily Carr in 1927 she should not- despite years of rejection -give up. She didn't put down her brush until shortly before her death in 1945. He affected W.P. Weston, the best-known B.C. landscape painter and art teacher of his time, who learned to simplify the overwhelming complexity of the province's terrain. He argued passionately with a young Jack Shadbolt who felt Harris's symbolic religiosity was too geometric, too pat. Shadbolt, in defiance, began painting exploded natural forms. Harris organized music evenings in his home in Vancouver's Kitsilano district. He led regular horseback and hiking trips to sketch in the Coast Mountains around the city.

It was into this milieu that Donald Flather, an untrained, hobbyist painter, stepped with his 1941 offer to help Harris found the Federation of Canadian Artists. He became the nascent organization's secretary-treasurer. At that time, there was in Vancouver - and in Victoria - not one commercial gallery showing contemporary art. British Columbia was a resource-exporting province, predominately blue-collar, proud of its starched, British heritage and smug in its parochialism. The artsy 'Lotus Land' moniker lay 30 years in the future. Serious painters like Victoria's Emily Carr lived in poverty. (Jack Shadbolt recalls Carr holding up two of her landscapes to him, saying, "You can have either one for $15." He demurred and spent his money on an artbook instead. He enjoys the irony that had he bought one of Carr's oil paintings then, he'd have realized a 500,000 percent profit today.)

Flather's landscape paintings, showing the influence of Harris, Carr, and Weston, soon began appearing in the annual, juried exhibits of B.C. artists at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In the shows' catalogues from the 40s his name appears just above Harris, Lawren. The catalogues list the prices - all under $100 - of paintings by Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, Toni Onley, Jock Macdonald, and Arthur Erickson, each unknown then and each famous a generation later. Flather's work was inexplicably unpriced, as if he wasn't interested in selling his landscapes. By about 1950 -for some unknown reason - Flather stopped exhibiting completely.

What Flather's paintings show is the same gradual shift from realism to impressionism that occured among the Group of Seven a generation earlier. Like Varley, his brushstrokes become thick and textured. His trees evolve into feathery, Carr-like flames. Without buying into Harris's mystical Theosophy - Flather was, after all, a science teacher and a dedicated member of Kerrisdale's Ryerson United Church - he begins reducing landforms to abstractions. Dead snags are burnt-out candles. Talus slopes are inverted pyramids. Like Harris, he revelled in painting blue shadows on snow and the coruscations of light on moving water. His storm clouds -like Weston's - are transformed into malevolent cocoons.

But in the art world of the late 40s and early 50s, the tectonic plates of convention were shifting. The landscape painters, the impressionists, the figurative artists all soon found themselves on the wrong side of the faultline that lay between them and modern art trends. Realism was out. Abstract expressionism was in. Flather - like Shadbolt - tried his hand at complete expressionism at that time, but his surreal paintings, without any horizon, become groundless, colourful patterns that reveal nothing of the artist's deeper feelings.

It may be that it was so ingrained in Flather's unassuming - even reticent - nature that he simply couldn't express himself artistically other than by imitating styles explored earlier by those who challenged convention. He was not an innovator. So, for over 40 years, he'd retreat several times a week to his upstairs studio and quietly paint, either landscapes drawn from photographs of recent travels or flowers taken from his garden. If friends or relatives came by, he'd offer them a painting. He gave away about 100. Other than that, he was tight-lipped about his work and artist friends. Says Barrie of his father: "Painting was his escape. He painted all the time and never talked about it. He was an enigma. He spoke through his art: it was his emotional outlet. He revealed himself through his paintings."

Flather's next-door neighbour for 47 years, well-known dance teacher, Kay Armstrong, remembers him not for his painting at all, but for his seemingly boundless creative energy. She could hear him playing the organ in his livingroom... or sometimes the violin. She knew he had an elaborate pottery workshop in his basement with wheel and kiln for making ceramics. She could see the handmade birdhouses he hung in his backyard to attract songbirds. Sometimes in the early morning he'd stand on his porch whistling and sometimes she'd she him prowling outdoors with his camera taking pictures of dew on spiderwebs.

But his most visible hobby was gardening. Around his castle-like, stucco house - with brick fretwork framing the windows and a weathervane-topped turret above the front door --- Flather publicly pursued his horticultural obsession with the same enthusiasm he pursued his painting in private. His backyard was filled with chrysanthemums and fruit trees. He was proud of the apple tree on which he'd grafted branches producing 35 different species of apples. Clemantis and wisteria grew upward on trellises - over the house's eaves and electric wires. Across the street - he'd secretly drilled a water pipe under East Boulevard - he planted a garden on the abandoned B.C. Electric right-of-way. There, he grew household vegetables and bizarre flowers in such an abundance that Armstrong grew accustomed to his gift of fresh produce on her doorstep. Grace Flather put the vegetables up in meticulously labelled Mason jars. Armstrong didn't know that Donald Flather was preserving the flowers, too: in dozens of Georgia O'Keefe-style paintings.

Says Armstrong of her neighbour of almost a half century: "You wouldn't have had any sense he was an artist. He never talked about his paintings - never. You'd see them. The place was bulging - BULGING! - with them, but he didn't talk about them. They were, I guess, a personal thing to him, his babies."

After his retirement in 1968, he had even more time to explore the land that he - like his Group of Seven predecessors -wanted to define in paint. Sometimes, he'd head in his camperized GM pickup to his Crispair Farm on Shuswap Lake near Celista, B.C. to photograph and sketch and tend the orchard there. Sometimes, Flather and his wife would set off across country, collecting scenes for possible future reference. The Maritimes, Ontario, the Prairies, Northwest Territories, Baffin Island... Donald Flather took thousands of photographs and his wife took extraordinary - and useless - notes recording every single purchase (and the price) of every item bought along the way.

But Flather's great love was British Columbia. In dozens of road trips and hundreds of hikes into the province's backcountry, he saw it all. As his paintings testify, he had a special affinity the yellowing, autumn aspens and willows of the Chilcotin, the high lakes and peaks of the Rockies, the dead snags and pines along Howe Sound, the snow-covered terrain of the northern Okanagan, and the dramatic spire of Black Tusk near Whistler. He tended often toward the overtly romantic, toward Art Nouveau-style natural patterns, toward cliches. He paints an innocent doe in a field and tiny snowdrifts caught in the bare branches of red osier dogwood. He paints sunsets. He paints flowering plants
wherever he went.

When he died of cancer in 1990, five of his landscapes were hung at the funeral service in Ryerson United Church. Most of those in attendance had absolutely no idea Flather painted.

David Flather and his uncle Barrie decided the long-hidden collection of artwork deserved recognition and removed 318 paintings from the Kerrisdale house for storage after Grace's death. Except for a dozen currently on display in two B.C. art galleries, the rest are stacked - along with Flather's thousands of slides - under blue plastic tarps in a warehouse. On the back of each painting, in the same bold print he used on school chalkboards, Flather has succinctly recorded the artwork's history. When Flather's slide images are compared to the resulting paintings, it's clear what artistic liberties he took with reality. It is also clear whose art styles he tried to emulate.

His spare, almost stark 'Sunset Beyond the Sunshine Coast' (Autumn, 1979) shows a view westward past Howe Sound's Anvil Island. An unnatural dagger of wind-driven clouds, the emblematic silhouetted ridges, the coppery sky and water reflections are so Lawren Harris it would be easy to confuse the two painters' works. 'Aspens in the Early Spring' (Loon Lake) is an ominous grey-green landscape of swirling, feathery trees and reeds which mimick Emily Carr at her most surreal. 'Pulpit Rock' (Entrance into the canyon of the South Nahanni River) shows a brooding, Northwest Territories landscape that bears in style a great similarity to the paintings of W.P. Weston. Often, the warehouse paintings appear unsigned. But in close inspection, the name D.M. Flather is seen, concealed amid swirls in the lower right-hand corner.

Expert opinions of those who have seen photos of the paintings today are varied. Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian art at Ottawa's National Gallery, feels Flather is like many other good amateur artists in the country. Jack Shadbolt admires Flather's fortitude in painting.

Vancouver art dealer, Robert Heffel, knows of only one example of an artist who was discovered posthumously. His name was Vincent Van Gogh. For many artists, however --- W.P. Weston and Emily Carr come to his mind --- significant fame and sales occur only after the painters have died. "He's good," Heffel says as he inspects photos of Flather's paintings. "He's an amateur, but I wouldn't call his paintings amateurish." He considers it possible that Flather, too, could be recognized after his death. After all, W.P. Weston's work went into critical limbo for a half century. But at one of Heffel's recent annual art auctions, a 1932 Weston landscape called 'Jotunheim', showing identical brown, roiling clouds to Flather's 1972 'Pulpit Rock' painting, sold for $71,500.

Whether Flather's reputation as an artist will survive the criticism that comes with showings, whether the paintings sell, whether they come to form a missing piece in the province's cultural history is, to Heffel, less important than Donald Flather did what he did. He painted for over 50 years, totally unrecognized, every week, every month, every year. That he appeared to conceal the paintings from scrutiny makes his dedication more bizarre. "He was trying to express the beauty he saw," says Heffel today. "He painted just for the love of painting. From that point of view, that's a good story. It's neat."

On Kerrisdale's East Boulevard today, Flather's curbside ginko tree still sends out green shoots from its base each spring. His lilacs still bloom along the deserted train line nearby. His clemantis turns pink each summer and his apple trees produce fruit each fall. The place where his old, clandestine pipe passes under the boulevard's grassy median on its way to the illegal garden across the street --- still tended by the Armstrongs --- is deep green year-round from a subterranean seep. It is sort of like Flather's lifetime of paintings --- hidden from sight, quiet, fecund, and hinting at the resilence of dreams. 

reprinted with the permission of David Flather
To view this article and visit the gallery and see other information about Donald Falther, please click here.

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