Michael Fantuz saw his own life in the abandoned communities of Newfoundland's coast
“The Resettlement of Grand Bruit” includes 16 oil paintings, scenes from the south coast community more than one visual artist has called the loveliest place in the province. Painter Michael Fantuz worked these with palette knives; not just any old instruments but tools that belonged to his grandfather, Gus Fantuz, an Expressionist painter who came to Toronto from Italy in the 1950s, and taught at the University of Toronto. Clearly, the talent runs in the family; Fantuz said his father, an architect, also paints. But Fantuz, on the cusp of his debut exhibition at Christina Parker, hasn’t followed a predetermined arc in his own painting career.
“I don’t have formal training. I went to an art school when I was younger, but I don’t do well with a formal curriculum. My interest is in exploring, in learning on my own, making my own mistakes, not having anything handed to me. I’m too individualistic.”
Fantuz was born in Guelph and grew up in Calgary. A work opportunity brought him to Gander (he’s in air traffic control). “I’d never been here and I wanted to see it, and I totally fell in love with it. Now my wife is here and my kids are here, this is home.”
Despite the disconnect with art school, Fantuz had always painted and had stacks of work in his garage, such as landscape paintings, linocuts and high realism portraits. He credits his wife with giving him the confidence boost to begin to represent and market his work. Then, seven years ago, he inherited those palette knives, as well as his grandfather’s easel. “Everything came together. I’d been doing the same types of scenes, but with brushwork. That was more restricted, very tight, it was not realistic but it was tighter. The palette knife freed me up a lot.”
The knife was so liberating partly and quite simply because of how it allowed him to move his arms. “It’s like an extension. And the knife is very easy to keep clean. You can work quickly without having to interrupt the flow. You can wipe off the knife and move to a different palette, a different area. It’s an instant transition without a psychological transition.” That “flow” is integral to his painting method, which he describes as reflexive and reactive. It allows him to respond to the resonance he finds in these Newfoundland scenes. “When I moved here, that’s when I found myself. And I see parallels with the outports; they are abandoned but they are still so beautiful, they are sincere, their way of life is so sincere. I identify with that.”
Fantuz had learned that Grand Bruit was going to be resettled, and when the official date of June 30 was announced, he and a friend drove nine hours to Port aux Basques, another 45 minutes to Rose Blanche, and then went three and a half hours by ferry to Grand Bruit. He spent about a week there. But for all the immediacy of these paintings on exhibit, he didn’t paint there. Instead he snapped lots of photos and did a lot of sketching, compiling a lot of reference material.
“I’m not a plain air painter. At all. My paintings aren’t an indication of actual conditions. They’re imagined. The lighting sources are manipulated, the scene is how I want it. I change it to find different focal points.”
The painting “Whose Habitations Are Now Locked Up,” for example, is actually a four-panel work, a crosshair of dark lines suggesting a view through a window. “It is also symbolic how the town is breaking up and moving on,” said Fantuz. “And it gives the ability to take on different focal points. There’s one in each panel. At the same time the whole is a cohesive image.”
He favours earth tones, like umbra and sienna, and Prussian blue. “In my painting I try to contrast the light and the dark, not so much as to make it a chiaroscuro, but to provide enough depth that you feel you are in the painting, you are engaged in the scene.”
Fantuz paints every day, when his children are in school. “It’s almost meditative for me. The conditions are ideal all the time, because the weather is always nice indoors.” He understands why other painters need to paint outside, it’s just not for him. “I don’t paint fast enough. Impressionism is about capturing the light, and the lighting conditions here change so quickly. My lighting conditions are artificial. They are not what you actually see. You can change the depth, the focal points. That is the blessing of painting.”
Michael Fantuz, “The Resettlement of Grand Bruit,” is up at the Christina Parker Gallery Nov. 20-30.