Beatnik couple alive, well, painting in the bush

by Frank Jones

The Toronto Star,

Friday, December 18, 1987

PARRY SOUND – What ever happened to the beatniks, the hippies of the 1950’s.

Last week I met two of them. In 1952, right after graduating from the Ontario College of Art, Elena Zebrauskas and Bert Weir came north to Parry Sound, bought an island for $49 and built a cabin. They wore overalls, painted in the bush, and when their three daughters were born they called them Sky, Wave and Reed.

And today? They kept the faith. After a mid-life venture into the respectability of university live, Bert and Elena are back painting and drawing and photographing in the bush. And two of their grandchildren are named Rain and Leaf.

Bert knew the Parry Sound area because his family summered here. Coming here just seemed natural.

It cost them $425 to build and furnish their cabin, and they survived by working summers at the resorts and teaching on the side. But, as the girls got older, Bert and Elena opted for city conveniences. They moved to Windsor where Bert taught art at the University of Windsor.

Fourteen years ago the couple had their second chance to break away. “Our kids were through school )two went into fine arts, the third into psychology), so why work anymore? said Bert. “It’s a mistake to wait until you retire if you want to do something else.”

They drove west, looking for a spot to settle. Prairie skies attracted them, but it was only when they got back to Ontario among the rocks and the trees that they realized this is what they were really looking for.

Friends had warned them they would have a hard time surviving as artists. After all, they weren’t kids any more. Then they found the building in Parry Sound that made it all possible. Built slap up against the railway tracks in 1912, the structure had served as a Pentecostal hall, an annex to the high school, a motorcycle shop and a tire store. When they bought it was derelict, with all the windows smashed.

“What are you going to build on the lot?” people asked them. Elena and Bert weren’t about to tear it down. Even today the building is no beauty, but what they saw was that it had high ceilings and vast amounts of space – enough for them each to have their own generous studio space.

Doing the work themselves, they built a commercial studio out front where they sell their own and other local artists’ work. They cut down poplar logs to create the handsome, soaring living room where we sat in front of a crackling fire.

Local people were amused when they called their business Loon Studio, but today the loon has become the symbol of the north, and tourists are eager to spend their “loonie” dollars on loon paintings and drawings. It’s mostly the smaller commercial items that sell. Elena’s large sculptures, often reflecting fertility themes, and Bert’s great swirling semi-abstract oils (one of which was recently bought by Laurentian University) are more likely to be seen in shows.

And living in the north again has made Bert and Elena campaigners on behalf of northern artists. Canadian art has its roots in landscape, said Elena. “I think Canada has such a powerful natural environment you can’t escape it.”

Bert, at 62, has recently discovered the joys of sailing on Georgian Bay, and his paintings now reflect the rocks and gulls and sudden storms.

Now it’s coming up to their favourite time of the year. February, when the skies are radiant blue day after day, and they can strap on their snowshoes and tramp through the woods with camera and sketchpad. “Doesn’t matter what you do.” said Bert, looking back on their lives. “You get to someplace, you find a way – and you survive.”