Bert Weir goes home to his art
by Paul Vasey
Windsor Star, December 30, 1975
The winter’s wind bears an illusory, warmth from somewhere in the west, far out beyond the prickly-backed islands anchored in the bay.
The clouds are more honest with you, scudding ominously over the island pines, black-hearted prophets of a snowy all-night blow.
Bert Weir, paunch to the west, long mud-brown grey-tinged hair afloat ehind him, stands open-coated and face to face with the edge of the storm…smiles like a cheeky kid…and cements his stufy, bandy legs to the dock, as though sending his very roots down throug it to curl among the boulders below.
His eyes dart from the island to the light house to the farther shore and back again, savoring it all, as though the approaching rage will destroy it and rob him in the worst ways.
The old barn of a place is right by the tracks, just off the main street (pretty well everything, mind you, is just off Parry Sound’s main street.)
It doesn’t bear any resemblance to the motorcycle-repair shop, or something, that it used to be and doesn’t look much like the Pentecostal chiurch it was before that.
It doesn’t really look like an artist’s studio, either…just like a nearly-tumbledown warehouse.
It’s been a year and a bit since Bert and Elena hung that sign outside the door of 53 Church Street, causing townsfolk to wonder, mostly politely, what was going on: a year and a bit since Elena tackled the tangle of weeds and shrubs around the building, much to the relief of the neighbours, and Bert started pounding away inside, much to the amazement of the building inspector, to turn the ramshackle old place into a studio and a home.
Shoring up the sagging roof, bracing the walls, building a new floor, installing a bathroom and kitchen.
Cleaning up a place for a gallery in front and living quarters behind that and a studio behind that.
Causing a lot of smirks and head-shaking and the placing of bets, most likely, in the local beer parlors.
Knowing there isn’t much sympathy for losers in a place like Parry Sound – the sort of place where strangers’ dreams are stillborn more often than not.
Not after kicking the traces in Windsor, packing all their earthly belongings (one part furniture, three parts paintings and books) into that rented 12-ton truck and heading north.
Determined to paint the paintings, sculpt the sculptures left undone these 198 years, sell them all and make it, on their own.
Already within a breath of their dreams.
You want to get into that, to root around in their minds, find out how they kept hold of the thread, yanked on and salvaged their dreams, got down to their art, at last.
Bert Weir, apparently, sees all that coming – the questions which come to close too fast, tugging him back into his past, making him much around in the happiness and sacrifices, disappointments and the heights, demanding that he sort it all out.
Just now he has other things on his mind.
Like hot dogs- two for you, two for him.
And then he wants you to meet “my lady”- the woman who has put up with him these 25 years and still elicits a kid-like grin which tricks the corners of his mouth into a smile.
And then, when the shy and lovely Elena goes back to her pottery students, Bert Weir wants to show you about, as much to get you within range, probably, as to show you the place they love.
Through the tin-walled studio (whose sides will soon have boards); through the storage area next to that and up some stairs to the room where he mats and frames his paintings and through that into a room littered with spooky watercolors.
Back downstairs and out, eventually, to the over-cooked hotdogs.
And, finally, when it comes naturally, into the gallery to the rows of paintings, mostly his.
Not the important ones. Not yet.
The little ones, the ones that don’s strip away so much of himself all in one blow.
He spends a minute of so finding one he especially likes.
A Little landscape. Three witch-like island pines bending before the wind beneath a sullen pouting sky.
“Yah, I really like it. There’s a lot of motion in it. But it’s a little dirty. The dog walked on it.”
Bert and Elena Weir and the dancing trees of Georgian Bay go back a long way with each other.
Back to the days when, 25 years younger, newly married and fresh out of the Art College of Ontario, they headed north to the land which had inspired the startling art of another, older, generation – the Thompsons and the Jacksons and their breed.
Found themselves on an island building a little log home where they could paint and sculpt and start their family and grow together and alone in the way people have to do.
Bert Weir, before long, had a couple of one-man shows in impressive places, like Toronto’s Isaacs Gallery.
Things went fine – for seven years.
Then they changed.
The children – Sky, Wave and Reed – were old enough that an education had to be considered, that they need friends and the taste of another sort of civilization.
So one day Bert Weir took to looking in the want ads and before long found himself a job.
Teaching art in Windsor – the city where he was born.
Bert and Elena packed up their possessions and their kids and headed ot the flat and unlovely southern tip of Ontario.
For the next 18 years, Bert Weir refused to sell a painting.
Bert Weir is cutting up some lettuce and carrots for a salad.
Teeny pieces which he thinks are too small but which Elena thinks are just right.
Listens, without looking up, as you ask about the past, wonder aloud what forces finally came together to carry a man and his wife back to Parry Sound.
The talk drifts, as it had to, onto education – the occupation which consumed his time and talents all those years= despite his warning that to get into that makes him boil inside.
The bitterness surfaces. Barely-contained seething over a system run, he think, rather stupidly; a system oppressive enough to destroy ambitions and desires; a system of mob thinking when only individuality should count for something.
You can see clearly now, that one day Bert Weir was simply forced to tape a piece of paper over the glass in his class room door-shutting out the system and its sergeants.
Elena appears through the kitchen door and knows, senses , something wrong.
She looks up and pokes his paunch.
“Talking about the Past? Or the Future?”
Bert Weir finishes the salad, silently.
Elena prods her potatoes, absent-mindedly, and wonders in her soft-worded way what would make someone travel so far to ask them what they’re up to, these days.
It isn’t a leading question.
Simply a sense of wonder that anyone would find them remarkable in any way.
People breath. They eat and sleep.
Some lay bricks. Some paint, some sculpt.
Still, it looks different from the farther side.
She shrugs at the suggestion and dabbles with her dinner.
When the dishes are done and the sudsless water has gurgled away, Bert Weir leads you into the studio.
Clear the students’ pots and jars and jugs off the bases of the three towering easels.
Yanks the huge canvasses from the racks.
Places one panel – seven feet hight, four and a half wide – on the easel.
Goes back to the rack and brings the other half of the painting.
He assembles another and another, until three huge landscapes loom around you.
The culmination of 18 years of waiting.
The accumulation of 18 years of feeling for this land.
Bleak haunting vista of snow-covered land, black-green-blue gashes of woodlands piercing winter’s purity ad deepening its sombre mood.
Bold bulges of granite, defying the elements of centuries past, submitting at once to the artist’s hand.
Simmering, shimmering springtime woodlands, afire with the colors of nature released from snow-crowned bondage.
He goes back to the rack and carts out six more panels, leans them in front of the others.
As though strangely separate from that which he has created, Bert Weir stands and stares.
At the vindication of all the visions held down too long, in a place too far from this land which deserved to have him see it, give it another sort of permanence.
The product of everything he ever knew about painting.
You know, before he gets them all put away again, why he never sold a painting in all those 18 years.
What he was preparing himself for.
What he was saving himself for.
Strolling slowly down the little side street, Bert Weir listens to the question, again.
The bare-armed winter-brittle trees rattle in the now – icy wind.
He walks half a block before answering.
“It was just a matter of responsibility. The children came first. That was my first responsibility. Now they’re grown and gone, they’re on their own. It’s time to get on with another part of our lives.”
Eighteen months out in their new world, Bert and Elena Weir aren’t getting rich.
But, then, that wasn’t the point in all this.
The little gallery, filled with her ceramics, his paintings and the art of some of their friends, did very well last summer.
Paid the bills.
Most of them.
Didn’t leave enough to save Bert Weir from the personal agony he endured last autumn. Sitting day by day, no paint and no money to buy some, knowing that nature’s brightness its hues hints and heart, were fading.
You have to expect that sort of thing, fresh out in your new world.
Pay your dues.
Next year, things may be different.
The one-man show in Sudbury just now; the one coming up next February in Toronto’s Gallery One; the on after that in Amherstburg’s Gibson Gallery may be stepping stones to a horizon beyond which no paint must suffer for want of paint.
“I’m trying not to get too optimistic”.
Down beneath the train trestle, where the road dips and dives toward the bay, Bert Weir bends and unleashes his old paint-stomping dog.
She races ahead into the blackness, becoming shadow-like a few feet away.
The bay, frenzied and frothing, lashes out at the dock.
Bert Weir stands again in the face of the wind.
Eyes strain against the blackness to make out the silhouette-island.
The waves roll in, leap high and gasp sputtering onto the dock.
There is a smile on Bert Weir’s face.
“Beautiful, isn’t it” he roars against the wind.
“And look! No one else on the dock. Just you and me! I don’t understand. Seven thousand people in this town and no-one else comes down to watch this”.
The terrible-beautiful dark-hearted dance of nature’s witner wrath.
“Crazy isn’t it?”