Bernie Moore painted the halls and stairwells of Cannery Row on Tenth avenue in the ’90s. Bernie was from London, a survivor of Dunkirk and guild-trained as a painter pre-WWII. Among the many things Bernie would speak of, were the steps of how to ox-blood stain a pine floor, what saturation boar hair bristles had or simply how to plot out a cavernous space. He hardly spoke about the war, Dunkirk and the horror. Bernie moved to Calgary in 1949, happy to leave England and started a painting business in 1950.
Almost a half century later, Calgary was neither boom nor bust in 1994. It seemed affordable, and my studio on the second to top floor was generous. Every morning when I saw Bernie I invited him for coffee. He would never come. One day he did.
Bernie never made my space a habit after that first day, especially without an invitation, but one day he was at my door early in the morning. He asked if I was busy and if he could show me something in the building’s basement.
I had known Bernie about nine months at that point, admired his physicality. He was around 75 years old and could scaffold a ladder like it was nothing. He stood erect and with overalls on – the white ones – looked militaristic – (although I know he would have hated that metaphor) – the brush or roller or something else in his hand, weapon-like.
Bernie lead me down the stairs to a room that he said was his place for a number of years. I gathered that this was his quasi-retirement office/workroom/storage…to keep a foot in the world beyond the room he had in his daughter’s house. He unlocked the door of a room 8′ x 8′ but with tall ceilings and turned on a single light. The periphery of the room was lined with bookshelves, filled with books, top to bottom. The books were all on painting. Not painting in terms of art, but painting – the verb – technical guides, recipedic how-to’s and every associative manual to do every associative task. In the one corner was various equipment, neatly cornered.
In an opposite corner across from the door between book shelves leaned an object that to me then, and I would not hesitate to write now, was art. Perhaps more artifact than art, but certainly a blend between the two. It was a piece of plywood, hollowed out in the centre, eight feet high and fifteen inches wide. It had a same second part attached by a piano hinge. It was ‘old’, had a used patina and an all-over tint of yellow. A hammer had also hit it many times.
Bernie read me instantly. My interest, or more than that, my coveting glare. Our instant exchange of words is hard to recall, but he told me what it was.
At the time, I was in the studio those days trying to make a painting that one could order over the phone. Trying to make a painting that had nothing to do with art, that was adroit and may have a narrative but really its language could easily be conveyed from one person to another with not too much effort or gift of description – not an anti-painting, just one that could be a painting but with no canon.
Bernie told me that the plywood was a stencil or template to line roads. He had made it in ’49 or ’50 when he arrived in Calgary. It was designed to spatially regulate the line – four inches wide by whatever length – eight or sixteen feet. Further, the hinge allowed it to ‘clip-clop’ keeping it on its path. It was simple and beautiful. Equally in importance to me though, it was ‘a way’.
To balance off the serendipity that seems to be a part of any creative expression, process or production with being ready or open to receiving direct or indirect cues, clues from life has always been a goal. A ready-to-receive-state-of-mind. Further, to leave behind past work and head in one direction is not without its questions…and to commit to one project, life-long, is folly or fortuitous.
Bernie gifted the template to me that day.
With this object began the line marker project – connections to a paint material and a schematic language non-art in its genesis. The template would be the form that would enable the beginnings of what would first be self-described as a post-aesthetic process and as a shotgun start to historicities.
What really occurred (all these years later looking back on that day) was an opportunity to understand and value the importance of leading a life of rigour. As my father demonstrated to me all of my life, the template was a remora, a personification of all the people one meets and who are reminders that subject and content are within them.