Apple of his eye

Joan Sullivan
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Artist Ron Pelley shared more than a birthday with Olivia Brown

Olivia Brown sits with some of the images Ron Pelley gave her each year as a birthday gift. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

When Olivia Brown was born April 4, 1995 at the Grace Hospital, family friend and visual artist Ron Pelley had also been admitted there, as he was having an operation on his hands — he had rheumatoid arthritis. Olivia’s mother, writer/director/performer Lois Brown, brought her newborn to visit him. They discovered, along with the coincidence of being in the same institution at the same time, that Pelley and Olivia also shared a birthday (he was born in 1945 in Bishop’s Falls). “He decided that he was going to make a painting for Olivia every year until she was 16,” said Brown. The works would show apples, and the number featured would match Olivia’s age.

Pelley made 13 pieces before dying of complications from his illness. On this birthday, Olivia’s 16th, there will be a private showing of all the “Apples”.

They are, as the title suggests, all centred on apples, but the range of composition and style is lovely, intriguing and exhilarating. The first is a single red apple, in acrylic on paper, a realistic still life. Then Pelley turned to digital techniques, bringing all his artistic training to this new, and arguably under-appreciated, medium. Previously he’d created portraits, landscapes and still lifes in acrylic, egg tempera and watercolour. (He was represented by the Mauskopf Gallery on Duckworth Street, and his commissions included projects for the Johnson Foundation.) Unable to do brushwork because of his arthritis, he harnessed the potential of a Pentium 1-200 and his imagination, and his generosity, grew from there.

In the third piece, three green apples glow pristinely, framed as a stamp. In the sixth, a half-dozen candied apples stand on crinkling silver foil. Later images pair apples with jesters, harlequins and Alice in Wonderland. The apples are juggled, set in rocky landscapes, crated like neon-hued marbles, or suspended and orbiting in a low constellation of fantastic moons. There’s lot of play of patterns with patterns, some whimsical references to the earlier pieces, and gorgeous palettes of sleek and lustrous colours.   

“By the time you reach 16 you have a certain amount of maturity, a certain amount of knowledge to go out into the world. And you become an individual.” Rhonda Pelley

Why apples? “It was the tree of knowledge,” said Rhonda Pelley, Pelley’s daughter and another visual artist (they had shown work together). “By the time you reach 16 you have a certain amount of maturity, a certain amount of knowledge to go out into the world. And you become an individual.”

“Certainly, the kind of man he was, he would be aware of every possible symbolic meaning,” said Brown. Without doubt, these apples possess many aspects. Their shapes are classic for still life, but can be configured into many scenarios. Their surfaces unblemished and fresh; these apples are all future.

The first “Birthday” pieces came “before anyone considered digital work an art form,” said Brown, pointing out that early photographers met the same critical reaction. “It took a long time for people to understand the artistry he brought to the work he was doing. So this is also a history of his progression. I refer to them as paintings. I don’t feel I have to explain using that term.”

“They really are paintings,” said Rhonda Pelley. “He used all of his painterly techniques, digitally.”

As for Olivia, she feels no need of qualifying her response. “They’re all pretty amazing,” she said.

Pelley always intended to exhibit them all together. “It always seemed that 16 was so far away,” said Rhonda Pelley.

A public exhibition of the works may come later; in the meantime Pelley’s family continues to catalogue the thousands of images he has left behind. These can be seen at http://ronpelley.mosaicglobe.com.

“His work is really underacknowledged,” said Brown. “He had such a passion for creating.”

Organizations: Grace Hospital, Mauskopf Gallery, Johnson Foundation

Geographic location: Duckworth Street, Wonderland

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  • Geoff Meeker
    April 05, 2011 - 08:02

    Ron Pelley was a talented, if under-recognized, artist and, as this story demonstrates, also a wonderful person.