Birthday boy

Joan Sullivan
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Gerald Squires' friends gather Saturday to help celebrate the artists' 70th, and raise a few bucks for a good cause

It all started in a lighthouse in Ferryland. Gerald Squires continues to get and give joy from his drawing, painting and sculpture. Telegram file photo

This Saturday, Newfoundland artist Gerald Squires turns 70.
"I don't know how it happened," said Squires. "But I did the math, and it's true."
Squires spoke during a break from his booth at the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Christmas Craft Fair at the Convention Centre in downtown St. John's. His display area, one of the larger spaces and one of the first to greet visitors, was filled with his figure drawings and painted landscapes; works that, like his religious/spiritual diptychs and intimate portraits of friends, compass the spectrum of artworks that are embedded in Squires career, now firmly established at the top ranking the provincial and national echelon. The roots of trees, the dark sheer of Signal Hill, the forgiving sunlight on the barrens, the loneliness of the apostles and the laughter and longing of poets; such are the themes that are constant markers of his creation. He works in many media - clay-fired relief sculptures being a recent interest - and pays notice to many aspects of the human, natural and sacred world, but a "Squires" is always distinctly and definitely recognizable.
No wonder the arts community is celebrating his birthday by throwing a big bash.
"But there's a better cause," Squires hastened to add; all the money raised (plus the revenue from a four-colour lithograph he has donated, "Ferryland Lighthouse," which will be sold on tickets) go towards the CAPE Emergency Fund, which helps artists in dire straights.
It is nice to give a present to someone else on your birthday. But a 70th birthday is also a good, significant number, and a fine vantage point to survey an unfolding and noteworthy livelihood. Squires' work has been a central post under the tent of the Newfoundland and Labrador art scene for decades, and, while his technique has of course strengthened and individualized during that time, his focal points of naturalism and mysticism have not shifted, but honed and evolved.
"They haven't really changed, no," Squires said. "Maybe I'm no longer taking myself so seriously, and that's the big change. I still take my work seriously, but I don't take myself seriously - and maybe that's the secret of a successful life. Not in the sense of financial success. But in the sense of realizing that you're just part of the process. You're not that special. I'm just delighted to be part of the growth of our culture. I was one of the early pioneers in that, you might say."
You might indeed. Space does not permit a complete cataloguing of Squires' contribution to the Newfoundland and Labrador cultural flourishing that began, not coincidentally, around the time that he left a job as a graphic artist in Toronto to take residence in an abandoned Ferryland lighthouse. Among other things, this move would prove that you could be a fine artist and stay in Newfoundland, a hither-to-fore ludicrous presumption. But Squires does not want accolades.
"I do this work because it gives me joy. It always gives me joy. I don't think of it as a career. I don't think of it as a vocation. I just like doing it."
And, 70th birthday or no, Squires is hardly slacking off. Every day he spends five or six or 10 hours in his studio. "I'm a worker. I've got to be doing something." He starts work early in the day, turning his hand variously to drawing or painting or sculpture. Lately, he has been concentrating on a series based on the Virgin Mary, which now includes many watercolour studies, at least one big painting, and sculpture. These often involve text Squires has discovered in his research into some of the poetry and historic writings the Virgin has inspired.
"This includes a biography of her, believe it or not, because so little is known about her. Even in the Bible, she's scarcely mentioned. She's only in two gospels. But there is more imagery of Mary than there is of anyone else in the world; maybe it even outdistances images of Christ.
"I get the feeling that the image of Mary is not so much religious as it is secular. It is about the feminine, and the connection it has to worshipping the feminine. It goes back to the cave-dwelling days, with the Venus sculptures. In the Renaissance it was the most beautiful, in terms of the physical aspects of Mary. Of course, she was always beautiful. And, at that time, she was always subservient, with her eyes cast down, and never looking out at the viewer. It was the ideal at that time."
Clearly, Squires said, basing a suite of works on the Virgin Mary "is not an original thought. But what you do with it can be original. And the attraction is grasping the feminine in me." An exhibition of his Virgin Mary pieces might be held next year.
Another project he's working on is a collaboration with writer Tom Dawe on a book of poems and art. "I'm not doing illustrations, I'm taking the poetry he's written and matching it with imagery I've already created," said Squires. "If I can't find anything relevant, then I will make something up. So it will be a two-artist book, an art book that will hopefully also be read as a serious book of poetry." The book should see publication in 2009.
Meanwhile, anyone who wants in on the birthday party is welcome at the Majestic Theatre, 390 Duckworth, for a night of music, storytelling and poetry. Tickets are $20. The line-up includes Tickle Harbour, Pamela Morgan and Anita Best, Squires' daughters, Esther and Miranda, and Scott Goudie. And if anyone wishes to make a toast, they could not do better than Squires' own words:
"I've had a good life, a very good life, and I hope I continue to have one, as well."

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council Christmas Craft Fair, Convention Centre, CAPE Emergency Fund Majestic Theatre

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John's, Signal Hill Toronto Ferryland

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