I was 24 when started painting professionally, and exhibiting at Master’s Gallery in Calgary, Alberta. Since I most loved doing portraits, I decided that I wanted to contact, meet with and do the portraits of Canadian Artists that I was inspired by. In the early 1990’s, I wrote letters to artists such as Alex Colville, Yousuf Karsh, Roy Peterson, Norval Morrisseau, W.P. Kinsella, and Karen Kain.
While some artists declined my offer to paint them, W.P. Kinsella said that if I was ever in White Rock, to call him up and he would sit for me. I wanted to do his portrait, because I had just seen the movie “Field of Dreams,” which was based on his novel “Shoeless Joe.” I thoroughly enjoyed that movie (it remains my favourite), as I could identify with the main character, Ray Kinsella, who pursues his dreams despite the impracticality of his vision.
Besides W.P. Kinsella, and Roy Peterson, the other artist that responded to my letter was Karen Kain. I chose to contact her after reading an article about her in Maclean’s magazine. This quote literally jumped off the page to me, as I was feeling that obsessiveness and perfectionism were destroying my love for painting.
“People expected a great deal from me, and I didn’t think I could live up to their expectations. I was starting to question everything I did. I wanted to make it better so I started to analyze it—to take it apart. But in doing that I destroyed my love of dancing. I learned to know deep inside myself that I really did have something wonderful to offer,” she said. “I’ve learned to love my work again. I’ve learned to love the struggle of it again instead of letting the struggle defeat me.”–Karen Kain, Maclean’s Magazine, November 28, 1988.
As it seemed to me that if a great artist like Karen had worked through this problem, that perhaps I could also - so I wrote a letter to her and asked her if I could do her portrait.
She wrote me back, and said that if she was touring through Calgary again, that it might be possible to meet. A couple of years passed, and I got a phone call from Karen saying that she was in town performing her final farewell as the Swan Queen, a Pas de deux with dancer Serge Lavoie, and we could meet the next day at the Jack Singer Concert Hall before her performance.
The next day was totally surreal, as I went from a shift of packing groceries at the Calgary Coop to meeting with Karen. I brought with me a canvas that I had just completed of writer W.P. Kinsella. Karen looked over the painting, and asked me how I would like to portray her. I wasn’t sure, but I had brought my camera, and I took a few photos of her warming up on the stage with her partner. My photography skills were terrible (still are). I took some blurry photos of her and Serge Lavoie, and Karen asked me if I got what I needed. I confessed that I didn’t think so (I was using a film camera at the time). Time was running out, so Karen suggested that she would get changed, and I could take some photos of her as the Swan Queen. There was no light handy, and I didn’t know how to operate the flash on my camera, and I was incredibly nervous. Karen suggested that she would do some moves standing on the table of her dressing room with the lights pointing down on her.
I didn’t know much about ballet and it’s history. Margot Fonteyn had passed earlier in the week. Margot Fonteyn had mentored Rudolph Nureyev, Nureyev had in turn mentored Karen, and now the orchestra was warming up, and I found myself in a tiny room with Odette from Swan Lake, spinning on a table, before one of her final performances.
Fast forward to the summer of 2017. My wife and I are visiting my son and his wife in Oshawa, and we about to go into Toronto for the first time. I have my sketchbook, and I get the notion to contact Karen, and ask if I can sketch the dancers practicing at the National Ballet. Karen agreed, and my wife and I spend two days taking photos, and sketching amongst the Company Class, which has just resumed after the summer vacation.
Since that time, I have been putting together an exhibition of works that is both a tribute to the Art of ballet, and also to the great Artist, Karen Kain, whose encouragement of me being an artist has carried me through the years.
Okotoks, Alberta, 2019.