It was a collection of booklets from the Metropolitan Museum in New York given to him as a boy that led David Blackwood, one of Canada’s most celebrated printmakers and painters, to snitch bed sheets from his mother’s clothesline behind his house in Wesleyville, Nfld.
They hung there, snapping in the brisk sea air, irresistible really, so big and white and square. In those booklets, he had read about the advantages of stretching cotton or linen over frames for painting. He took a bed sheet, cut it, and made it into canvases for his first paintings. But he told no one. He was one of 10 children. The family eked out a living from the sea. There was no money for anything beyond the essentials. “Oh, that God-damned goat,” spat his father, a grumpy man with a wizened face, thinking that the neighbour’s goat was eating the sheets. David would wait a week, a month, whatever time seemed reasonable, before snitching another, and allowing the bleating goat to take the blame again.
I am casting lines of questions on a crisp November Sunday in Port Hope, Ont., in a graceful three-storey brick house, hoping to lure a few of these, David Blackwood’s childhood memories, to the surface.
He has schools of them.
Born nearly 60 years ago in 1941, he left the island in 1959 when he received a scholarship to attend the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He has lived in the white-bread bourgeois world of Ontario ever since, as artist-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Erindale College in Mississauga, and then, since the seventies, in Port Hope, in this meticulously decorated and ordered house, surrounded by a wide clipped garden with a tall cedar hedge. During the latter half of the sixties, he had come to know the Port Hope community when he was teaching drawing part-time at Trinity College School.
But the childhood years he spent on the barren, flat, tundra-like Bonavista North area of Newfoundland exist just below the present, just under his white-picket-fence life, as fresh as yesterday. He admits a daily preoccupation with them. The Wesleyville of his youth has informed his work for four decades.
What’s surprising is that Blackwood does not come to mind as quickly as other Atlantic Canadian artists, Alex Colville, Christopher Pratt and Mary Pratt, even though, as one critic recently put it, “Blackwood is not just a Canadian artist; he is extraordinarily Canadian.” Perhaps now that will change. This September, Blackwood and his wife, Anita, donated 242 works, including final prints and proofs of well-known images, letters and other research materials to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which will become the “collection of record” for Blackwood’s work and a centre for the study of his prints. The AGO has long had an interest in Blackwood’s work and asked him if he would donate the materials.
In his etchings and paintings, Blackwood mythologizes the landscape he grew up in. It is unforgiving and timeless, one that, paradoxically, forces both a struggle to survive and an acknowledgment of one’s insignificance. One of his famous images, Fire Down on the Labrador (1980), shows a cross section of the ocean and contrasts a giant whale, swimming below an iceberg, with a tiny ship burning on the surface.
His imagination may be storm-tossed, but he is calm and shy. Wesleyville was founded by Methodists, and there’s still a hard-working, almost sombre, ethic about Blackwood. Short and stocky, he is seated squarely in a wooden chair, dressed in formally casual clothes, grey flannel pants, a black shirt, his feet, clad in perfectly polished Oxfords, firmly planted on a Persian carpet, his hands, pudgy and white, like balls of kneaded dough, resting in his lap. Recollections of his childhood, once you get him talking, tend to change his professorial manner to that of a boy, still in awe of the people he knew and the stories he heard. A smile pulls at the corners of his mouth, exposing a gap between his two front teeth.
“It was Gothic,” he sighs when asked about his family. Even the name, Blackwood, sounds dark, mystical. Everyone in Wesleyville knew them. They had known his grandfather, Captain A. L. Blackwood, and they knew his father, also a seafaring captain, who, in the summers, sailed a tall schooner, Flora S. Nickerson, across the ice fields to fish for cod off the coast of Labrador. They knew his mother, Molly Glover Blackwood, who was her husband’s second wife, the first having died during the birth of her fifth child. (David Blackwood was the first child of the second marriage that would also produce five children.) But they didn’t like her. She came from 17 miles away, from Bragg’s Island. They didn’t like outsiders. The mother-in-law, a formidable matriarch, didn’t think much of Molly either. She taught the children from the first marriage to ignore their stepmother. Molly, who was only 18 when she married, grew distraught.
Once, when they had returned from a family excursion, she picked up a broomstick and climbed to the top of the stairs in the house. She then walked down, smashing each window as she passed, one by one, letting the wind whistle through her prison. Not long after, she had a serious nervous breakdown and was captured by a group of men, put in a straitjacket, for fear of hurting herself or someone else, and carted off to an asylum in St. John’s. David was five, six maybe. She returned a year later, but was never the same again.
There is a lot of mystery about Blackwood himself. He is not loquacious. A question has to dangle for a moment, and the answer, or the story you sense is there, has to be reeled in slowly.
Blackwood often does series of works about one object. Through the seventies and eighties, he completed 75 paintings and etchings of a door on a shed he discovered in the Wesleyville area.
And what does he hope people will get from his work? “I have no expectations,” he begins. Pause. A little gap-toothed smile. “Sometimes, it can be quite bizarre,” he continues in a non sequitur. What can? “Why people collect,” he says. Any examples? He looks up. “Well, there was a gentleman in Labrador City.” Suddenly, Blackwood lifts his arms as though aiming a rifle. “Don’t you come near!” he says mimicking the collector. The man guards his collection with a gun? “Keeps them under his bed,” Blackwood explains. Is he crazy or something? “A school teacher,” he says calmly. The man once accosted Blackwood and his wife in the St. John’s airport. He used to call their Port Hope house late at night to talk to Blackwood. Has he heard from him recently? Blackwood shakes his head. “Maybe he has gotten rid of the collection.” He had a different one previous to owning Blackwood prints. And what was that? “A gun collection,” Blackwood says with a wan, mischievous smile.
Perhaps he prefers to keep his stories swimming about in his mind because they feed his work. Even the anecdote about the crazy collector affirms Blackwood’s sense that life is mysterious, and a little bit weird. Plus, he sees his work as “a visual extension of ballads, of telling a story.” So like a writer who doesn’t want to share his material, Blackwood cherishes his memories, guards them even, in order to pour them into his work.
Later, in his studio, which is situated in a separate building at the foot of the garden, Blackwood reveals the edges of a few more memories. It is his place of work, after all. There are photographs of family members — craggy, noble faces — and scenes from Wesleyville pinned to the wall, and on the second floor, shelves of books and personal artifacts, a museum-quality Eskimo doll, a model of a schooner, Inuit sculpture, and those early works of his, portraits of village folk, painted on the stretched bed sheets. He has so many memories, he tells me. He hasn’t touched some of the deeper, darker stories. “I remember as a little boy being lifted up to look at my great-grandmother, dead, in a coffin,” he says, standing for a moment on his tiptoes with his hands clasped at chin level as though he were still that boy. “She had whiskers and wore a little cap,” he says in a hushed voice. Memories about his mother, who still lives in Wesleyville, also have been largely unexplored. “Oh yes,” he says with a sigh and a far off look in his eyes. “I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of Newfoundland.”