SECRET LIFE OF DONALD FLATHER"
Written by Daniel Wood, Photographed by Ron
reproduced in the Article:
Just click on the images to see them in detail.
David Flather, then 28, stood in the doorway of his grandparents'
Vancouver home four years ago, he was struck by a sense of
erieness. His grandmother, Grace, had just died. His grandfather,
Donald Flather, had passed away in 1990. Together with his
aunt and uncle, David was there to begin the task of emptying
the cluttered home of 54 years of occupancy. His grandfather
had been a Vancouver school teacher and packrat of the first
magnitude. His grandmother had rebuffed every effort to clean
the house after her husband's death. She wanted nothing moved,
believing her husband was still there, still inhabiting the
place. And in a strange way, she was right.
The livingroom walls were covered with Donald Flather's paintings
--- large, abstracted landscapes that had a familiarity David
couldn't quite define. A half-dozen more paintings were stacked
--- like a firescreen --- in front of the fireplace. In the
hall, in the diningroom, in the bedrooms, every wall held
more of his grandfather's artwork. When he pushed open the
door to the upstairs studio, where David on occasion had watched
his grandfather paint, he paused and asked himself: Where
do I put my feet? Dozens of large, framed landscape paintings
stood on edge, filling the room from wall to wall. They leaned
against each other and against the room's shelving where hundreds
of slide trays, jammed with Flather's travel photos, were
stacked among the musty collection of art books. In the corner
by the north window stood Flather's easel. For the first time
David could recall, it held no painting. When he'd been a
boy, he'd stand near the easel watching his grandfather: bald,
portly, wearing a smock against the splatter of paint, intensely
immersed in his art. "His strokes were flowing and certain,"
David says today. "He knew where the brush was going to go
the moment it hit the painting."
His uncle, Barrie Flather, a Surrey, B.C. doctor, joined David.
There were, he informed his nephew, hundreds of more paintings
in the basement. They were everywhere. It was incredible.
It was also a dilemma. The house was being cleared out, its
contents dispersed. Donald Flather was a completely unknown
artist, a modest man who eschewed self-promotion or publicity.
If he'd sold more than three paintings in his lifetime, they
didn't know about it. He never discussed his hobby and seldom
bothered to show his work to his family even. He often simply
finished a landscape and stored it in the basement darkness.
Yet, the paintings seemed too beautiful to destroy. What to
do? Was there a market for them? Would a gallery be interested?
And where did Flather fit in to the development of Canadian
art in the West? Overwhelmed by the number of paintings and
inspired by their similarity to those of the Canadian Group
of Seven, David decided to rescue the imperiled collection.
Flather was born in London, England in 1903 and immigrated
as a child with his parents, members of the pioneering Barr
Colony movement, initially to the Canadian prairies, then
to an orchard on B.C.'s Shuswap Lake where his lifelong fascination
with nature was cultivated. In the 1920s, his family moved
to Vancouver to operate a greenhouse. He met his wife, Grace,
a home economics student, at teacher training college and
in 1927 he began teaching secondary biology and science in
Vancouver. The couple had three sons. Barrie recalls that
as a child the family went on endless nature trips, collecting
--- in his words --- "all sorts of pondlife." The family house
on East Boulevard in Vancouver's upscale Kerrisdale district
gradually filled with Donald Flather's disorderly collection
of animal bones, microscope slides of amoeba, roadkills, fossils,
rocks, mushrooms, and shells, the volume of specimens gradually
overwhelming Grace's fierce penchant for order.
Barrie remembers his father in his upstairs studio, his slide
projector on, a landscape from a recent trip on the portable
screen, and him in deep concentration as he reworked the projected
image onto Masonite. Barrie could see that his father took
painterly liberties with reality, distorting the scene in
a slightly surreal way. At the time, the early 40's, the names
that were occasionally heard around the house; Lawren Harris,
Fred Varley, W.P. Weston, Emily Carr, Jack Shadbolt, A.Y.
Jackson - didn't mean a thing to him. They were people his
father knew through his work as secretary-treasurer of the
Federation of Canadian Artists. At that time, Barrie had never
heard of the Group of
While the European and American art world had gone through
a dramatic transformation in the two decades on either side
of 1900, Canada had remained stuck in an colonial back eddy,
its painters churning out landscapes-by-formula: realistic,
romantic, grandiose, and dull. Art, the prevailing view held,
was meant to be morally uplifting. In 1920, a fraternity of
seven young artists from central Canada opened a show in Toronto
that challenged the conventions. Influenced by French impressionism,
cubism, Art Nouveau, and a northern mysticism from Scandinavia,
the Group of Seven announced that they were dedicated to producing
a truly made-in-Canada art form, unhindered by the insipid
landscape traditions of the British academy style. For a while
they painted Ontario, but soon grew restless with the limits
imposed by the low relief of the Canadian Shield. By 1928,
four of the Group of Seven were making annual summer pilgrimages
to British Columbia. A fifth member, Fred Varley, moved to
Lynn Valley in North Vancouver in 1926 and began teaching
art. They were drawn westward by the province's extraordinary
scenery, dominated by verticality, clouds, the rhythmic repetition
of ridges, huge rainforest trees, and dying native coastal
Lawren Harris, Canada's most influential artist, first brought
his ideas to B.C. in 1924 when he began his regular, summer
painting trips to the Rockies. (He moved permanently to Vancouver
in 1940.) Like several other members of the Group, Harris
was deeply affected by Theosophy, a turn-of-the-century mystical
belief which held that spirituality was present in all things.
The massive, glaciated mountains of B.C. dwarfed the human
intruder, confirming his view that the land itself was divine.
His paintings- with the landscape whittled down to the bone
- became metaphors for archetypal truths. Peaks became abstract
triangles, symbolic of paradise. Clouds become emblematic,
flying saucer-like ovals. Light shafts equalled transcendence.
A burnt tree stump represented death and redemption. In his
paintings, the land was elemental: the place where nature
and spirit met.
His influence on artists in B.C., was enormous. He told a
frustrated Emily Carr in 1927 she should not- despite years
of rejection -give up. She didn't put down her brush until
shortly before her death in 1945. He affected W.P. Weston,
the best-known B.C. landscape painter and art teacher of his
time, who learned to simplify the overwhelming complexity
of the province's terrain. He argued passionately with a young
Jack Shadbolt who felt Harris's symbolic religiosity was too
geometric, too pat. Shadbolt, in defiance, began painting
exploded natural forms. Harris organized music evenings in
his home in Vancouver's Kitsilano district. He led regular
horseback and hiking trips to sketch in the Coast Mountains
around the city.
Photo of Bess Harris and Grace Flather at Bert Binnings
1949 Federation of Canadian Artist's Tea Party (both serving
It was into this milieu that Donald Flather, an untrained,
hobbyist painter, stepped with his 1941 offer to help Harris
found the Federation of Canadian Artists. He became the nascent
organization's secretary-treasurer. At that time, there was
in Vancouver - and in Victoria - not one commercial gallery
showing contemporary art. British Columbia was a resource-exporting
province, predominately blue-collar, proud of its starched,
British heritage and smug in its parochialism. The artsy 'Lotus
Land' moniker lay 30 years in the future. Serious painters
like Victoria's Emily Carr lived in poverty. (Jack Shadbolt
recalls Carr holding up two of her landscapes to him, saying,
"You can have either one for $15." He demurred and spent his
money on an artbook instead. He enjoys the irony that had
he bought one of Carr's oil paintings then, he'd have realized
a 500,000 percent profit today.)
Flather's landscape paintings, showing the influence of Harris,
Carr, and Weston, soon began appearing in the annual, juried
exhibits of B.C. artists at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In
the shows' catalogues from the 40s his name appears just above
Harris, Lawren. The catalogues list the prices - all under
$100 - of paintings by Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, Toni Onley,
Jock Macdonald, and Arthur Erickson, each unknown then and
each famous a generation later. Flather's work was inexplicably
unpriced, as if he wasn't interested in selling his landscapes.
By about 1950 -for some unknown reason - Flather stopped exhibiting
What Flather's paintings show is the same gradual shift from
realism to impressionism that occured among the Group of Seven
a generation earlier. Like Varley, his brushstrokes become
thick and textured. His trees evolve into feathery, Carr-like
flames. Without buying into Harris's mystical Theosophy -
Flather was, after all, a science teacher and a dedicated
member of Kerrisdale's Ryerson United Church - he begins reducing
landforms to abstractions. Dead snags are burnt-out candles.
Talus slopes are inverted pyramids. Like Harris, he revelled
in painting blue shadows on snow and the coruscations of light
on moving water. His storm clouds -like Weston's - are transformed
into malevolent cocoons.
But in the art world of the late 40s and early 50s, the tectonic
plates of convention were shifting. The landscape painters,
the impressionists, the figurative artists all soon found
themselves on the wrong side of the faultline that lay between
them and modern art trends. Realism was out. Abstract expressionism
was in. Flather - like Shadbolt - tried his hand at complete
expressionism at that time, but his surreal paintings, without
any horizon, become groundless, colourful patterns that reveal
nothing of the artist's deeper feelings.
It may be that it was so ingrained in Flather's unassuming
- even reticent - nature that he simply couldn't express himself
artistically other than by imitating styles explored earlier
by those who challenged convention. He was not an innovator.
So, for over 40 years, he'd retreat several times a week to
his upstairs studio and quietly paint, either landscapes drawn
from photographs of recent travels or flowers taken from his
garden. If friends or relatives came by, he'd offer them a
painting. He gave away about 100. Other than that, he was
tight-lipped about his work and artist friends. Says Barrie
of his father: "Painting was his escape. He painted all the
time and never talked about it. He was an enigma. He spoke
through his art: it was his emotional outlet. He revealed
himself through his paintings."
Flather's next-door neighbour for 47 years, well-known dance
teacher, Kay Armstrong, remembers him not for his painting
at all, but for his seemingly boundless creative energy. She
could hear him playing the organ in his livingroom... or sometimes
the violin. She knew he had an elaborate pottery workshop
in his basement with wheel and kiln for making ceramics. She
could see the handmade birdhouses he hung in his backyard
to attract songbirds. Sometimes in the early morning he'd
stand on his porch whistling and sometimes she'd she him prowling
outdoors with his camera taking pictures of dew on spiderwebs.
But his most visible hobby was gardening. Around his castle-like,
stucco house - with brick fretwork framing the windows and
a weathervane-topped turret above the front door --- Flather
publicly pursued his horticultural obsession with the same
enthusiasm he pursued his painting in private. His backyard
was filled with chrysanthemums and fruit trees. He was proud
of the apple tree on which he'd grafted branches producing
35 different species of apples. Clemantis and wisteria grew
upward on trellises - over the house's eaves and electric
wires. Across the street - he'd secretly drilled a water pipe
under East Boulevard - he planted a garden on the abandoned
B.C. Electric right-of-way. There, he grew household vegetables
and bizarre flowers in such an abundance that Armstrong grew
accustomed to his gift of fresh produce on her doorstep. Grace
Flather put the vegetables up in meticulously labelled Mason
jars. Armstrong didn't know that Donald Flather was preserving
the flowers, too: in dozens of Georgia O'Keefe-style paintings.
Says Armstrong of her neighbour of almost a half century:
"You wouldn't have had any sense he was an artist. He never
talked about his paintings - never. You'd see them. The place
was bulging - BULGING! - with them, but he didn't talk about
them. They were, I guess, a personal thing to him, his babies."
After his retirement in 1968, he had even more time to explore
the land that he - like his Group of Seven predecessors -wanted
to define in paint. Sometimes, he'd head in his camperized
GM pickup to his Crispair Farm on Shuswap Lake near Celista,
B.C. to photograph and sketch and tend the orchard there.
Sometimes, Flather and his wife would set off across country,
collecting scenes for possible future reference. The Maritimes,
Ontario, the Prairies, Northwest Territories, Baffin Island...
Donald Flather took thousands of photographs and his wife
took extraordinary - and useless - notes recording every single
purchase (and the price) of every item bought along the way.
But Flather's great love was British Columbia. In dozens of
road trips and hundreds of hikes into the province's backcountry,
he saw it all. As his paintings testify, he had a special
affinity the yellowing, autumn aspens and willows of the Chilcotin,
the high lakes and peaks of the Rockies, the dead snags and
pines along Howe Sound, the snow-covered terrain of the northern
Okanagan, and the dramatic spire of Black Tusk near Whistler.
He tended often toward the overtly romantic, toward Art Nouveau-style
natural patterns, toward cliches. He paints an innocent doe
in a field and tiny snowdrifts caught in the bare branches
of red osier dogwood. He paints sunsets. He paints flowering
wherever he went.
When he died of cancer in 1990, five of his landscapes were
hung at the funeral service in Ryerson United Church. Most
of those in attendance had absolutely no idea Flather painted.
David Flather and his uncle Barrie decided the long-hidden
collection of artwork deserved recognition and removed 318
paintings from the Kerrisdale house for storage after Grace's
death. Except for a dozen currently on display in two B.C.
art galleries, the rest are stacked - along with Flather's
thousands of slides - under blue plastic tarps in a warehouse.
On the back of each painting, in the same bold print he used
on school chalkboards, Flather has succinctly recorded the
artwork's history. When Flather's slide images are compared
to the resulting paintings, it's clear what artistic liberties
he took with reality. It is also clear whose art styles he
tried to emulate.
His spare, almost stark 'Sunset Beyond the Sunshine Coast'
(Autumn, 1979) shows a view westward past Howe Sound's Anvil
Island. An unnatural dagger of wind-driven clouds, the emblematic
silhouetted ridges, the coppery sky and water reflections
are so Lawren Harris it would be easy to confuse the two painters'
works. 'Aspens in the Early Spring' (Loon Lake) is an ominous
grey-green landscape of swirling, feathery trees and reeds
which mimick Emily Carr at her most surreal. 'Pulpit Rock'
(Entrance into the canyon of the South Nahanni River) shows
a brooding, Northwest Territories landscape that bears in
style a great similarity to the paintings of W.P. Weston.
Often, the warehouse paintings appear unsigned. But in close
inspection, the name D.M. Flather is seen, concealed amid
swirls in the lower right-hand corner.
Expert opinions of those who have seen photos of the paintings
today are varied. Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian art at
Ottawa's National Gallery, feels Flather is like many other
good amateur artists in the country. Jack Shadbolt admires
Flather's fortitude in painting.
Photo of Jack Shadbolt and Grace Flather at Bert Binnings
1949 Federation of Canadian Artist's Tea Party.
The artist's of the Era frequented functions like this
and New Year's parties at Lawren Harris's house.
Vancouver art dealer, Robert Heffel, knows of only one example
of an artist who was discovered posthumously. His name was
Vincent Van Gogh. For many artists, however --- W.P. Weston
and Emily Carr come to his mind --- significant fame and sales
occur only after the painters have died. "He's good," Heffel
says as he inspects photos of Flather's paintings. "He's an
amateur, but I wouldn't call his paintings amateurish." He
considers it possible that Flather, too, could be recognized
after his death. After all, W.P. Weston's work went into critical
limbo for a half century. But at one of Heffel's recent annual
art auctions, a 1932 Weston landscape called 'Jotunheim',
showing identical brown, roiling clouds to Flather's 1972
'Pulpit Rock' painting, sold for $71,500.
Whether Flather's reputation as an artist will survive the
criticism that comes with showings, whether the paintings
sell, whether they come to form a missing piece in the province's
cultural history is, to Heffel, less important than Donald
Flather did what he did. He painted for over 50 years, totally
unrecognized, every week, every month, every year. That he
appeared to conceal the paintings from scrutiny makes his
dedication more bizarre. "He was trying to express the beauty
he saw," says Heffel today. "He painted just for the love
of painting. From that point of view, that's a good story.
On Kerrisdale's East Boulevard today, Flather's curbside ginko
tree still sends out green shoots from its base each spring.
His lilacs still bloom along the deserted train line nearby.
His clemantis turns pink each summer and his apple trees produce
fruit each fall. The place where his old, clandestine pipe
passes under the boulevard's grassy median on its way to the
illegal garden across the street --- still tended by the Armstrongs
--- is deep green year-round from a subterranean seep. It
is sort of like Flather's lifetime of paintings --- hidden
from sight, quiet, fecund, and hinting at the resilence of
by permission of Daniel Wood