What does it mean to be an artist? Where does all this come from? I know it seems odd but before I began to systematically put my thoughts into words for others to read, I never really considered such questions at all, or, if I did, never bothered to answer them. I just made stuff. I acted in an intuitive way to those things which interested me at the moment and my intuition led me to make a visual expression of what was exciting me at the moment. I just responded visually, never really considering my motivation at all. I knew I had to do it and the bonus was it was fun. It's been this way ever since I was little, and that's quite some time ago!
I have always enjoyed making things. I have designed and built light fixtures and furniture; I have designed and helped build two modern houses, and designed the major renovations for our 1892 Victorian home/gallery which we lived in and operated as a full-time retail gallery for almost 9 years in Stratford Ontario. I have been a scratch ship modeler; I have worked in leather, creating clothing, luggage and whips; I was a potter for six years; I have always been interested in photography and had my own dark-room for many years. And, of course I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember.
I did all this without really worrying about understanding why. It just seemed to be the natural progression of things. I was happy if I was creating and that was all that mattered. Then, in 1980, at the age of thirty-six, my life changed. I had what I now suppose was an early mid-life "crisis". In fact it was more like a conversion. I looked at the things I had accomplished to date. I had tried many avenues of expression and thoroughly enjoyed each one. But I finally realized if I wanted to "be an artist" I had to get serious. Sounds ominous doesn't it? Where's the fun in getting serious?
My initial decision was to begin work toward my first solo exhibition. Serious artists have shows. I began to use a technique new to me - drawing with powdered graphite - to create realistic, large scale drawings on a variety of themes, including animals and children. I spent the next year working toward this show which thankfully proved to be successful. Serious artists sell work. I was happy with my first show.
Almost immediately I began to work toward another exhibition. I was really serious now! At first, I had planned to add color to my large graphite drawings, but I soon realized that what I wanted to do was make the leap to full color and I began to experiment with large, abstract water media landscape-theme images. My second show came and went. I was pleased. I was focused. I was serious. And I was still having fun to boot!
Gradually, my mixed-water media, abstract work began to evolve toward my current style of realistic watercolor. My northern landscape watercolor themes come from my traveling and vacation experiences both as a youth and an adult and I still periodically feed my senses in the stimulating north. I love to paint it, and always will. Then, in 1988, I had another "conversion" experience. This one was more powerful and has had more profound repercussions in my life. As a landscape painter for many years, it was a shock to others (as well as to myself) when, as a response to some intensive reading I was doing about RCAF wartime history and Canada's immense contribution in the air in World War II, I decided to paint my first Spitfire. And the rest, as they say, "is history"! I say it's like eating potato chips. I could never just eat one! Little did I realize how the consequences of this simple act would change my life.
In little more than two years, I had my first exhibition of aviation art in London, in November, 1990, which included over forty original works. I had reached new levels of seriousness. In another year-and-a-half my wife Jay (business manager, mother of our two children, my biggest supporter, and the only critic I respond to) and I had committed to opening a new retail gallery and publishing business. There was no lack of work and no turning back.
People often ask the question, “Why aviation art?”. After all, it is not exactly "mainstream" in the art world. I have an abiding fascination for history which has, since 1988, been translated into a passion for aviation history. In fact, I'm proud to say, air force blood flows through my veins. Both my father and his brother served in the RCAF during World War II and some of my earliest memories are snatches of an air show at Centralia, an RCAF and Air Commonwealth Training base in southwestern Ontario.
But it was during my early teenage years when my interest spiked after we built a house on the edge of a little rural airstrip just south of Stratford. From my back door I could see the windsock, grass strip and hangars. I still have many exciting memories of events, aircraft and the inevitable "characters" who flew them and to this day my aviation dreams are often set in my boyhood spaces. This was the era of Canada's great display team the Golden Hawks in their F-86 Sabres, and it was at this time my dreams of flying first appeared in my art, mostly in the form of drawings. The legendary Avro Arrow represented both the pinnacle and abyss of my teen-age aviation passion. But it would not be until years later that images of the air would surface in my art again.
All my early aviation work depicted the considerable contribution of the RCAF in the air in World War II. Because many of my paintings represent actual historical events, my "recreational" interest in the reading of history was easily translated into research, which is a vital part of my preparations. My research takes many forms. Of course I have a large collection of books on aviation which I refer to constantly.
But equally important is my growing circle of friends - some of whom flew in wartime - who are more than willing to share their knowledge of history and machine, and even to co-sign some of my limited-edition reproductions as a confirmation of their historical accuracy. Some of them are also heritage and general aircraft owners who are always willing to generously share their aircraft on the ground and in the air. And I'm busy building my back-seat time in a growing list of types. Periodically I make pilgrimages to aviation museums, although I always prefer visiting flying aircraft such as those in the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum at Mount Hope. Non-flying museums are, in a way, sad places, a bit like morgues.
I require periodic bouts of stimulation and feel the need to have first-hand experience, to soak in the sensual, to have close contact with the aircraft I paint. One way I accomplished this, for many years, was to exhibit my work at air shows. Not only did it allow me to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of flying, but it gave me another chance to get my work out in front of the public. Although Jay and I no longer live the gypsy life of the air show vendor, we still get to air shows as spectators occassionally.
I enjoy being an artist. I have always been visually motivated since childhood. My first serious landscape at age fifteen, was in oils on the back of a shoe box lid. All these years later I am still depicting the beauty of Canada in watercolor. In fact, many visitors to my studio cannot believe that one artist paints both the watercolor landscapes and the aviation works. I refuse to be pigeon-holed, even painting abstractly at times. My aviation media include acrylic on board, watercolor and powdered graphite on paper. However, as much as I enjoy and treasure my 'landscape time', it is my aviation work which has proven most rewarding, always leading me in new and exciting directions.
As a writer I found another outlet for my creative compulsion. For almost three years I wrote a monthly column about my work for Canadian Flight, the national publication of The Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA). I have written articles for the American magazine AVIATION HISTORY which has also used my artwork on their covers and sometimes to illustrate other writers material. This has given me a chance not only to increase my profile south of the border, but also to present some of Canada's aviation history to American readers.
Furthering my goal to advance the genre of aviation art, I was fortunate to be the subject of a CBC television profile, first aired across Canada in January of 1994. One of my paintings, WE FLEW WITH THE HEROIC FEW was chosen by the Royal Canadian Mint to be depicted as the Battle of Britain medallion in their Canada Remembers Medallion Set, commemorating Canadian participation in six major campaigns of World War II. The painting is now in the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. I feel very honored to have been a part of this project in company with five other prominent Canadian artists.
As a published artist, many of my aviation paintings, as well as other themes I paint, are reproduced as limited-edition prints, collector plates, and posters, often for special aviation events, such as the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 1990, the RCAF reunion at Centralia in 1992 and three annual fine-art posters for the Toronto Aviation and Aircraft Show. Over the years many of my paintings have been used on book and magazine covers, as well as inside, and in historical documentary films and on packaging material for aviation and automotive products.
In early 2000, I was commissioned to create a painting celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Snowbirds, Canada's military aerobatic display Team. The painting FLYING THE FLAG was published by the Snowbirds as a limited edition print with artist proofs personally co-signed by the entire 24 member Team. Since then I have painted and released a second Snowbirds' image DOUBLE DIAMOND RADICAL TWINS as a limited edition print. My association with the Team has been very fulfilling and created some lasting friendships.
My idea book' is bursting with possible projects, things which I would like to get to in the near future when I am not busy working on private commissions for airplane owners and aviation enthusiasts. I have so much to do that I never have to fear that dreaded 'artist's block'. In fact, to the contrary. I'm afraid I will never have a chance to get to all the projects I have in mind.