By Jack Tynan
Photography by Cody Storm Cooper
Sideroads of Parry Sound & Area
Fall 2008 Edition
In the middle of a McKellar forest, a woman in a straw hat gently sways to the tunes of a cello. In the middle of the same forest the cellist, staring at a small square of twisting, intertwining shapes of clashing oil colours, gradually increases the pace of her tune. Around her larger paintings of similar twisting shapes – a mix of greens, red, yellows, purples and oranges – hang from trees, appearing to move within their frames as leaves overhead swing in the breeze casting changing shadows on the myriad of fiery contrasting colours. “I’m playing this painting,” said the cellist, Brenda Mueller, “To me, it’s the dark unseen force. Not dark meaning bad, but a very old unseen presence that’s in the forest.”
Gradually more people gather in front of Mueller as, apparently oblivious to the company, she sits in the forest, surrounded by trees, mushrooms, underbrush, quiet onlookers and the paintings of Bert Weir.
With a long, graying beard, paint-covered corduroys quick wit and an inquisitive gaze, upon first meeting, 83-year-old Weir is an imposing figure. But in West Parry sound district, where per capita, there is a higher concentration of artists than most other parts of the province, Weir could very well be the grandfather of the arts community. His recent outdoor exhibit “A Bush Walk” counts among hundreds of arts experiences Weir and his work have created for local and visiting artists and art enthusiasts. Over decades spend in the West Parry Sound District, a combination of an open-door concept, his staunch defence of the arts, a willingness to accept any interpretation or medium, a desire to constantly teach, and talent – lots of talent – have earned hi a reputation as a founder of art’s resurgence in Parry sound and area. “He’s the father of art in Parry Sound,” said poet Wes Morris. “He’s encouraged everyone, poets, writers, painters, sculptors and dancers, to come together at his place. Its probably doubtful it would happen without his grounding. The artists were floundering 20 years ago. They’ve got their roots down now. As kindred spirits, we’re starting to survive.”
Morris was one of numerous artists who spent house in Weir’s Loon Studio when it occupied and old church on Church Street, near the railroad tracks, in Parry Sound. With his wife, Elena, a sculptor, who died 13 years ago, Weir operated a store, studio and art gallery in the building. Through its doors passed a myriad of artists, both from the area and from out of town, as well as other interesting characters, buyers, tourists and appreciative residents. Since moving back to the area in 1972, Weir has encouraged artists, held workshops for youths forged friendships, arranged shows, taught students and painted thousands of pieces of stunning artwork that differ so much from piece to piece over the decades, you might not guess they were done by the same artist. He founded Parry Sound’s Art In the Park festival and gathered artists, who once seemed to divide based on their mediums, into one cohesive and supportive group.
“His place was just an amazing place to visit.” said poet Katerina Fretwell. “You never knew who would be there, what would be going on. It was constantly filled with art and artists, someone doing a bust or a painting. With his talent, his organization skills and his personality he’s encouraged a lot of people.”
Weir was born in 1925 in Sandwich Ontario a small town that has sincebeen absorbed by Windsor. His father, a barber, and his stay-at-home mom did their best to make sure their children were barely aware they were growing up in tough times throughout the ’30’s. “I probably had one of the best childhoods a boy could have.” Weir said. “We went through the depression and I didn’t even know it was a depression. Being a kid, there was a vacant lot on the corner; no one had any work, so we would play three-up, three-batters, a kind of baseball game. The game would start in the morning and wouldn’t end until dark. Kids and adults and mothers would play.”
At home, Weir’s parents instilled an appreciation of small blessings, so Weir and his siblings didn’t realize the country was in economic turmoil. “They would say ‘guess what kids you’re going to have a special treat for supper, bread and milk and brown sugar’, Weir recalled. “Sugar! We would get so excited. My parents knew it was a depression but I didn’t know it.”
As a young man in his 20’s, Weir followed that perhaps unusual advice of his easy-going father who said “Bert, when I started my life, I played until I was 30, then I got married and worked for the rest of my life. I don’t expect you to get a job until you’re 30.” But looking for some spending money, Bert eventually took a summer job as a pattern maker, making patterns for sand moulds. At 19 years old, he joined the Canadian military, but didn’t see any World War 11 action, coming closest to weapons of war when crew was asked to dump ammunition into the ocean at the end of the war. “My navy services was not very dramatic, not very heroic, he said.
In 1946, when Bert was 21, his parents built a tourist camp in McKellar on a 165-acre plot of land with two and half miles of shoreline. From that point on, Weir fell in love with cottage country. “It was thrilling.” He said. From that point on, Weir fell in love with cottage country. “I was very happy. That’s why I’m still here.”
But in 1948, Weir left to start his adventure as an artist. Weir knew he liked art from the very beginning. “It just came.” He said. “I don’t know where it came from. If a kid’s going to be an athlete, he’ll be an athlete. I was an artist.”
In 1948, at 23 years old, he attended the Ontario College of Art. Over the next 21 years, he would work as a graphic designer, teach art at a Windsor school and raise three daughters. He returned to McKellar briefly, setting up his home on an island across from the land his parents bought. Bert returned to Windsor to earn a more reliable income teaching and supporting his family.
“By the time we came back, I had 25 years experience with the art business. 11 of that teaching commercial art, the rest as a self-employed or commercial artist. I figured after 25 years, I knew enough to start my life’s work.”
In 1973, Weir and his wife moved to Parry Sound and started Loon Studio, the studio that became a focal point for the area’s art community for decades. “We had an open-door concept.” He said. “When you went inside we had turned it into a gallery, work area and storage area. We represented about 14 local artists, ran 12 shows a year, and brought people up from New York, Toronto, all over the place.
One such event included a well-advertised reading that included two well-known writers including Marty Gervais, who is now publisher of Black Moss Press. “There was the two of them, my wife, myself and one other person. Weir recalled. “That was it, nobody showed up. They thought it was a big joke and did it anyway. That happens all the time in this business, but nobody took it too seriously, they had fun, enjoyed it – it was a festive thing.”
Over the last 35 years, Weir has hosted or been part of countless festivals, some of which have included small tight-knit groups of artists, but many of which have introduced area residents to the local art scene, one at a time.
“I thought everybody was an artist.” Said Reed, his youngest daughter, who is now 51. “Here in Parry Sound, you probably can’t find an artist that hasn’t been touch by my parents. Said Weir’s middle daughter Wave, 54. “People came and went through that gallery like crazy. There’s a whole group who see him as a teacher, a mentor. While there’s a group who see him as an old man on the street with a beard, there’s this incredible influence he’s had on so many lives/”
Weir has since moved Loon Studio to him home in rural McKellar, where life is somewhat quieter and he needs a little more sleep each day, but there is still an open-door concept. There, his appreciation for the area’s lakes, forests, meadows and rivers is reflected, not only as his inspiration, but also in his appreciation for the natural environment.
Weir and his current wife, Joy, whom he met while working on a stained glass project in the early 1990’s, live off the grid in a house built out of straw bales. They use a propane-powered hot plate and a small wood stove to cook on, they use a wood-fired masonry heater for the building and solar panels and generator for power. Despite being off the grid, the home looks state-of-the-art wired with a sound system, the newest in computer technology and with a spacious, open layout.
As an environmentalist in the ‘70’s, some people thought he was going overboard. Now, it looks like he’s ahead of the curve. “It’s survival – the beautiful land.” Weir said. “Why would we destroy it? We see the crazy things we’re doing without thought. The whole world now knows what’s happening.”
Whether it’s the environment, philosophy or the role of the arts, Weir is always ready for a debate, and participated in some that lasted hours, even days. “his brain keeps steaming away.” Said Joy. “When he’s sitting quiet, he’s thinking. I don’t know where he goes, but he comes back with all these good ideas. “I’ve got them all fooled.” Weir said with a laugh. “There are so many things going on, I don’t know how you can not be thinking. I think I feed off of people. Most of the people that come up here are doing things, most of the people that come up here are artists.”
Weir continues to debate, teach host, write and paint. He still lives an artist’s life in a way most other artists can only envy, combined with his “green” life most environmentalists would also envy.
Taking a break from a recent morning of painting. Weir paused amid his thoughts and, with a hint of sadness in his voice, talked about the “normal” people. “I know very few straight people. he said. “I think most people that are living a normal sort of life, I think, feel uncomfortable with me. I don’t know why that is, maybe they don’t understand how I’m living.”
The best explanation, one that might prompt jealously among busy “straight people’ was written by Weir in 2005.
“I am eighty years old and have been an artist all my life.” He wrote. “My work has supported me for 56 years. Now when I enter the studio, I become a cloud and float into my work with a sense of openness and wonder. What appears surprises and causes me to sing with joy. Pictures of little animals for children, poems and illustrations turning into handmade books, the making of drums, small oils that leak inner secrets to the world. All this happening for no other reason than the joy of doing. I am a fortunate human being.”
Sitting in his studio on the cool late-summer morning, Weir was working on the initial stages of his next project. Lined up in front of him, a series of small and colourful figures transform, painting by painting, from abstract, twisting shapes to graceful dancer, to storytelling profile. surrounding him is a collection of more oil paintings, books of poetry children’s stories and aert, homemade drums, stained glass, sculptures and other projects Weir and Joy have worked on.
“Some people do it for a living.” Weir said. “I’m doing it as a way of finding out how I approach life, how I understand life. The whole thing is a search and this is a vehicle to search. I’ll never stop, because the research never ends.”