Gershon Iskowitz Painter of Light
Book by Adele Freedman
Merritt publishing Company Limited
ISBN-13 : 978-0920886168
January 1, 1982
It was Coryell who finally engineered Iskowitz’s escape from the frustrations he was experiencing in Toronto. One day in 1954 he decided to take “George,” as he knew Iskowitz, up north to “Bert’s place.” Until 1958 Bert Weir ran a summer school for painting and sculpture at McKellar, 24 kilometres north of Parry Sound. Weir and his wife, Elena, had both graduated from the Ontario College of Art. They would invite their friends from the art school to stay at the lodge at McKellar, located on a picturesque site between two lakes. In exchange for room and board and whatever they made from teaching, these artist-friends gave lessons to people who rented cabins on the property; and they had the chance to exhibit thir work at the lodge. ‘George always wanted a place to show his paintings,’ Coryell said, ‘and Bert showed them.’
As Coryell expected, Weir and Iskowitz quickly became friends. ‘Bert’s a great person for opening people up and getting them to paint.’ is how he explains it. The warm environment was just what Iskowitz needed and before long he related to the Weirs as his surrogate family. Bert and Elena had two daughters Sky and Wave (Reed was to follow), of who Iskowitz became very fond. Bert’s mother, who did all the cooking, used to bring him tea in the afternoons while he sketched and painted. ‘He was very shy and polite; he didn’t talk much at first.’ recalls Elena; Bert remembers him as a ‘gentleman’ who always shaved in the morning. Weir’s school was by no means overrun with students or artists, but there was always a few on hand to compare notes with. Tom Gibson visited, as did Gerald Scott and Bob Cowan, a painter from New York who had studied under Hans Hofmann. ‘It was beneficial for everyone.’ says Weir. ‘We lived as a unit, talking all the time. It was a beautiful time. Gershon usually sat back in a corner and listened. Then he would throw up his hands when he couldn’t stand it anymore and go back to his painting.’ In this friendly, relaxed atmosphere Iskowitz flourished. ‘When he first came,’ Weir remembers, ‘we had the impression he could hardly put his brush to the page on account of his nervousness. As he returned year after year, you could see him quietening down. He needed the retreat from the city – a place where he could always be sure of enough food and a place to sleep.’
From 1954 to 1957 Iskowitz was a regular guest at McKellar, one year spending six months with the Weirs and often visiting during the winter too. It was at McKellar that he began to get ‘closer to nature and people.’ He became a student of the Otario landscape, learning its movement and colour and rhythms. ‘That man painted all the time,’ says Weir – seven or eight sketches every day, and drawings and paintings at night. He painted nature directly and emotionally, on pieces of masonite and the backs of Weir’s discarded canvases. His painting Midnight (1955) is one of the best of the McKellar group. He painted it from the studio window, very quickly, using bold black and white strokes to define a large tree to the left and concentric yellow and orange rings to convey the tortured beauty of the moon rising over the lake. The deep blue background is flayed by streaks of light, as the images threaten to burst their black outlines. Midnight is charged with the excitement Iskowitz felt at discovering a new world.