In the Presence of Absence

Clifford George calls on his brushes to echo the emptiness

Lillian Simmons
Published on March 16, 2012
Sitting in front of one of his larger works, Whiteway artist Clifford George reads from his diary. The painting entitled “My Last Trip to Brigus South” will be included in his exhibit, “Presence of Absence” at Christina Parker Gallery in St. John’s, opening this evening. — Photos by Lillian Simmons/Special to The Telegram

For much of his life, Clifford George has felt the lure of distant images, whispering echoes calling to him over the expanse of time.

His upcoming exhibit, “Presence of Absence,” is a culmination of those images captured on canvas and sketchpad. The series includes poetry and prose and will run from March 16 to April 7, at the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John’s.

“All my life I’ve been collecting sketches and small paintings of what our Newfoundland means to me,” he says during a conversation at his light-filled loft studio in Whiteway, Trinity South. “You can’t include the whole 190 pieces in the exhibit, so you have to pick out the ones that describe the ‘Presence of Absence’ best. I leave that to my gallery, Christina Parker and her adjudicators. They have been good to me over the years.”

Dear Diary

The painter-poet uses a mix of mediums in his work.

“I find that I can’t just paint it, I gotta write it down.”

His diary containing his thoughts, sketches, paintings of old houses, is in itself a mini art show.

“I can’t put those in the show, unless they use the book, because I don’t tear pages out of this diary,” he says with a glance up from the journal resting on his lap.

Feeling the presence

George was inspired to add to his collection after a visit last year from good friends and fellow artists Gerry Squires and Tom Dawe, who encouraged him to continue the work for an exhibit.

So he packed up his tools and travelled the Burin and Avalon peninsulas.

“I went to a place called Red Cliff down around Bonavista — and I was overwhelmed by the presence of absence.

“There were old saltbox houses clinging onto the cliff and they were giving out a message. And I could feel the presence of the people who lived in them long ago, the times in the old schools, dances in the halls, people telling yarns to each other. Peacefulness and quiet serenity.

“Curtains blowing through broken glass out into the morning air. Woodstoves rusted, soup ladles hanging by the old chimney back of the stove from suppers long ago. I painted and sketched that town a lot.”

Other pieces in the exhibit go back to the early 1990s. At that time he says he was “unknowingly feeling the absence.”

Pat Murphy

George’s other passion is horses. His love of Newfoundland Ponies led him to a partnership with Dr. Andrew Frazer in 1976, the eventual protection of the species, and regulations prohibiting the sale of the Newfoundland Pony for animal and human consumption.

“I cut hay for my horses and when I’m cutting or I’m sketching those old meadows, I’m listening to ‘Pat Murphy’s Meadow’ by J.M. Devine and I’m humming it to myself.”

He went to King’s Cove, Bonavista Bay, to sketch the scene that inspired the song.

“My whole show is a lot like Pat Murphy’s meadow because what we have there now is a meadow that’s overgrown by wildflowers where once hay was cut to feed cattle. So there’s a series of sketches on Pat Murphy’s meadow.”

His paintings of houses bear the names of the women who made them home.

“I always go with the name of the woman who owned the house because in her lives the soul of that house, I feel.”

As an example, he picks up his diary and reads:

“Lucy Cluett’s house, sitting alone on that great meadow of long gully grasses with fields of uncut hay. Lucy, gone now, a cross in the graveyard back of her house where winds once blew tunes to her soul. The cross, alone like her, reaches out to the meadow and the sky, the cry of the loon in the gully. The place, once carefully built with level and square, now cozies itself as it sinks and sways with time to reach its final destiny.”

George says Cluett’s house (in Frenchman’s Cove), the houses in Grand Beach and all along that coast gave him “the quivers.”

“It energized my soul. I think I’ll be painting it for the next 10 years.”

One of his favourite houses once stood “up in the marsh” in Whiteway and belonged to “Aunt” Agnes, the widow of “Uncle” Eldred Drover. (Back when George was growing up, all older people in the community were referred to as “aunt” or “uncle,” a title of respect — less formal than Mr. and Mrs. and more respectful than using first names.)

“I compiled the whole history of the old house,” George says. “You gotta know who’s inside before you can paint them. I didn’t know I was composing this show, but it all came together later on.”

Back in the day

Growing up in outport Newfoundland came with advantages and disadvantages.

“When I was a little boy I used to be on the floor sketching and I didn’t know there were any other artists in the world because I lived out here, see. I used to go around collecting different coloured house paint from the neighbours so I’d have something to paint with.”

George was in his mid-teens before he had the opportunity to learn about art at school.

“But I knew I wanted to be an artist because of the reflections in the water in autumn. It would overwhelm me; it made me want to paint it. I’ve had the urge to be an artist all my life. And I’ve remembered the stories that people told me. It’s important to remember it.”

George recently turned 65. For 25 years he worked as a medical graphic artist (sketching anatomy) at Memorial University’s medical school.

“I was inspired by Dr. Falah Maroun, and Dr. Cecil Couves who came here to teach open heart surgery, and Dr. (Abdalla) Hanna.

“Then there’s the grand old guy, Dr. Nigel Rusted, who’s 104. Imagine buying a car with an extended warranty when he was 102,” George says with a soft chuckle. “Nigel is a special Newfoundlander.”

Rusted, who recently received the Order of Canada, spent some of his time as a doctor on the south coast and on the SS Kyle.

“He would sit and tell me stories for hours, about life long ago along the south coast of Newfoundland. He was one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.

“I worked with the pioneers that came here to teach medicine, characters from all over the world and I loved every one of them. I sketched everything and I saw everything,” he says, referring to his anatomy drawings.

He attributes artist and teacher Don Wright with having provided one of his best experiences in the art world.

“I was thirsty for knowledge and wanted to learn everything about the arts. He was truly an inspiration in my life, something I can look back on and be happy about.”

George had the opportunity to work with many of the early Newfoundland artists. He began exhibiting his work in the early 1970s.

“There wasn’t a big pile of (artists), but it was a big movement. It was a close movement and all those artists were my friends — Marjorie Dustin, Rae Perlin, Daphne House and Helen Parsons Sheppard and everyone like that.”

Last year he was asked to participate in The Learning Disabilities Association’s Blind Date with a Star fundraiser.

“Talk about presence of absence! I walk into that big room down at the Newfoundland Hotel and I look around and all those artists are all gone, with the exception of Mary Pratt.”

He was happy to see a few kindred spirits like Gerry Squires, Jean Claude Roy and Sheilagh O’Leary in the crowd.

“But when you think on it, it was scary that night, to walk into that room and not be able to see the people that started the real art movement in Newfoundland.”

George has had six one-man shows and has taken part in several group exhibitions in and outside the province, including two Canadian exhibitions in Japan with other selected artists and an exhibition entitled “When Cod was King, at South Street Museum in New York.”

At home he teaches art at the 50-Plus Club in Cavendish and helps out “any who need a little boost. If they got talent, you just nudge it,” he explains.