Nijmegen, Pelham and me

(Tribune May 2005)

Periodically, I have met the mother of my children in a public place and wished her a happy Mother’s Day. We have even been known to exchange hugs to mark the day.  Considering that our marriage ended over thirty years ago, we think this is rather civilized. We also enjoy the surprised reaction we get from local gossips.

The public place I am referring to is the Pelham Arena and the event that brings us together is the annual Pelham Art Festival. The event is held every spring on Mother’s Day weekend and this year will mark its 19th anniversary. Over the years, the team that puts the show together has raised nearly $200,000 for the Pelham Public Library.  Marilyn, in addition to being a show participant, has served as a member of that team.  She, along with all the members of that group, should be congratulated for their hard work and generous service to their community over nearly two decades.

Noreen and I have attended the show fairly regularly and although I do not have a big spender reputation, I have purchased some pieces over the years. The biggest attraction is the opportunity to spend a thoroughly pleasant spring day wandering through an extensive exhibition of interesting paintings and sculptures. For the $4 admission fee, it is also a cheap date.

I am not a fan of everything on display but, like all of us, something will catch my eye for unknown reasons. Jack Gordon, who lived outside of Fenwick, displayed his works for many years. In his younger days, Mr. Gordon had traveled and painted with some famous Canadian artists including A. Y. Jackson. His booth always had a good selection of his works, but one piece in particular caught my attention. I remember a table with a display of small watercolours that had been painted by him during World War II. The one that I was drawn to was a picture of a bridge, (similar in design to our own Peace Bridge), with three military vehicles crossing. The piece was titled “Nijmegan (sic) Bridge” and was signed by Mr. Gordon, dated 1945.

Jack Gordon was not the only artist who painted that particular bridge in the same time period. The then young Alex Colville, who was serving as an official war artist, has published a number of sketches of that structure covering the period from mid November 1944 to early January 1945. Colville’s painting “Infantry, Near Nijmegen, Holland” was a classic illustration of the exhaustion experienced by Canadian troops at that place and time.

I wanted to buy Mr. Gordon’s painting but he would not part with it. He patiently explained that it was too personal to sell and he brought it to the Art Festival for display only. Each year he brought it back, each year I expressed my interest and each year I was turned down. I guess I am a slow learner but eventually I accepted his decision.

In the fall of 1998, an advertisement appeared in The Tribune. Mr. Gordon had become ill and there was to be an auction of his assets, including over 250 of his paintings and sketches. The auction was to start at 7:00 PM on a Friday evening at his former home on Tice Road.

I arrived early but the open garage was already full of potential purchasers looking through the large selection. The trustees had matted and shrink-wrapped about 200 of the larger offerings. There were boxes with lesser items, and after extensive searching; I located the “Bridge” in one of them. Immediately, I registered as a bidder and stood back for what would become a long evening.

The auctioneer was doing a good job of extracting the maximum price for each offering.  The bidding was spirited but I did not participate. I just stood back and waited. It was getting cold and dark.

Finally, he came to ‘the box’. One by one, the contents were removed and offered. At last, the “Bridge” came up and the auctioneer suggested the opening bid. I put up my hand and was accepted. He started to work the crowd but to my surprise, no one wanted to up the price. It appeared that I alone saw the painting’s value and I alone realized its significance to the artist.

I claimed my prize, paid my tab and headed to my car and cell phone.

Noreen says that my conversation was emotional but I will never admit to getting teary over a simple drawing. That would be bad for my image. I was pleased that I was able to take possession of one of the artist’s favorite works and hopefully will give it the respect it deserves. War art is rare outside of museums and I am proud to have this unique addition to my collection. I hope Mr. Gordon would approve.

I encourage you to experience this year’s edition of the Pelham Art Festival. If you find an artist who creates what you like, talk to that person and get to know more about the thoughts that go into that creation. Most of the artists are approachable and knowledgeable. You can learn a lot.

If in your conversations with an artist you find that she is a mother, wish her happy Mother’s Day.

You may even get a hug!

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