From the catalogue for Rayner's Retrospective at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, January 10 - February 21, 1979.
In becoming an artist, I believe my environment mattered most: it's whom you're emulating and what you're surrounded by. I was surrounded by art. Over the mantelpiece at home I remember a large, exquisite watercolour about three feet high, absolutely naturalistic and beautifully done by my father. It was a portrait of Anna May Wong, the thirties movie star you may remember from Shanghai Express. My grandfather was also an artist. He painted public school rooms in Toronto, green on the bottom and cream on the top. On weekends he painted memories of English landscapes, tiny canvases with all the leaves on all the trees and all the wool on the backs of all the sheep lying where every blade of grass was clearly defined. My great grandfather was a Squire in Yorkshire, made fine furniture and painted after the style of Turner. My great uncle's paintings hung in the Royal Academy.
When I was little, about three years old, I lived in the Pall Mall apartments on Yonge Street, in what would now be considered an Art Deco building with its curved corners and rounded windows. My father, Gordon Wesley Rayner, worked as a commercial artist, so there were lots of art supplies around; big pads of paper, pastels, and commercial artists' tempera paints, not the junk they made us use in school. Because of this I got a sense of the quality of good materials. It wasn't so much 'Gordon, you're a bad boy, go stand in the corner,' or 'Go to your room;' it was more a matter of 'Go somewhere and paint a picture.'
My father used to work at home in the evenings. There was a tilt drawing table in the kitchen. It was as much a part of the furniture as the chesterfield suite that he designed. In fact, my father designed much of the furniture in the apartment.
My mother always respected my father in somewhat the same way as I did: I found him heroic, almost a mythological figure. I remember that the big pinstriped Chicago-gangster pants he used to wear always had coins jingling in them, a sound that would have been at ear level when I stood up straight.
My father served his apprenticeship at Rapid Grip and Batten with Jack Bush. They were close friends and, though they apparently had a personal schism when I was young, they maintained a great respect for one another's work. After all, they were two of the best illustrators to come out of that generation. Shortly after my father's apprenticeship, he started his own business, Art Circle Ltd., and became well known as a first-class figure man. It was a small company in the penthouse of a great old building near the Stock Exchange on Bay Street. It's gone now, but had gold embellishments and a European-style elevator. At about the age of eight or nine I began visiting him there on Saturday afternoons (my parents were divorced by then) and I often brought a friend along from my neighbourhood. We'd make our own newspapers, because my father had a typewriter, an amazing machine for a boy. I'd take over a whole office desk on a Saturday when the staff wasn't there, with just my father and maybe a lettering man around, hitting those deadlines.
I'd make my newspapers, pecking away at the typewriter about what happened in my district or what happened when I went swimming the day before. We'd always need headlines and my father would come over and letter them in. they were really fantastic pieces because they were all rubbed out and had spelling mistakes and paste-in changes. Actually, this was my introduction to typography, layout and design. I cut out pictures from real newspapers and put them in mine; I suppose these could be considered my first collages, although I wouldn't have known the word then.
With my father and his younger brother, my Uncle Harold, there was always an emphasis on the natural life, the bush, the animal world, fishing, wood lore, the ways of the Indians. The first books my father gave me were Ernest Seton Thompson books on how to survive in the bush, such as Two Little Indians and Wild Animals I Have Known. North Toronto (Eglinton and Yonge), in what is now thick city, was surrounded by wild country. My uncle, who is also a commercial artist and a painter, made the most exquisite bows and arrows by hand. He taught me how to shoot and we'd lie in the snow with our bows for hours waiting for a rabbit to come out of its hole. There were even grouse and pheasants around then. We'd take the day's kill back to my grandfather's house and have roast pheasant for dinner. My uncle would use the quill feathers for arrow foils. There was a great sense of the land, wilderness, respect for animals, and what is now broadly referred to as eulogy.
After Yonge Street, I lived on Keewatin Avenue, a cul-de-sac that backed on a Jewish cemetery. At its end was what we called 'Sherwood Forest,' completely untouched wild bush. I had real bows and arrows but I was trained not to shoot friends or other animals out of season. I learned to keep my hunting knife sharp, build a good campfire, and tell one owl from another. We'd go out at night, sit silently in the bush and listen for an owl. I used to come home with quart baskets full of fresh watercress every spring from the little stream that flowed through there. Now the stream is polluted and the forest is a landscaped park.
Looking back, it seems the men in my childhood were constantly using their hands at one skill or another, while the women made magic in the kitchen. I lived with my mother, whom I love dearly. She was a true beauty, full of life, ebullient and always tolerant of my slipping in and out of her life at breakneck speeds. When I was eight she married a Toronto fireman, Frank Nash; unfortunately we didn't get along with each other. He wanted me to be a fireman. My ambition to be an artist made it impossible for both of us. By this time it was 1943 and my father had remarried. At age twelve, I took a matriculation year at Northern Vocational High and failed. I had been a bright kid in public school, skipped grades and was a top athlete. But by age fourteen I was running away from home. I also started to get interested in the phenomenon called girls and fell desperately in love regularly, not to mention sneaking drinks out of the liquor cabinet, and spending more and more of my free time at the local restaurant hangout, Chum's, where I was a hit because I could draw caricatures of my friends. Chum's was run by a one-armed Chinese man who kept a baseball bat under the counter. We'd sneak cheap rye into our lemon cokes and dressed in black satin Eisenhower jackets with zippers from the left hip to the right shoulder. We wore ducktail hairdos and green strides with canary yellow out seams that had forty-four inch knees, thirteen-inch cuffs and drop-loop gun pockets. A long furnace chain usually hung down to the floor with a shiv on the end of it. Add to this style a Sammy Taft hat and a long black Benny overcoat and you'll recognize the period. We were walking Al Capp cartoons. And we danced almost every night. You'd find us at school tea dances, or Catholic Church dances. We'd do the dirty boogie, the Fallingbrook Balmy. We'd go out to the Canoe Club in the East End, dance, drink beer and fight over girls. I can't remember anyone ever getting really hurt.
By the time I was fifteen, having flunked my first year in high school, my parents gave in. They took the position that art would at least give me a vocation. I loved art, I loved science, and I loved working in the carpentry and machine shops - all that satisfying uses of hands, putting it together, the building of things. As for my academic education, I continuously read and studied those subjects that obsessed me most.
I did well in the art course at Northern Vocational. Robert Short was my teacher. Over the years he's been an important influence on a lot of artists who emerged from that school. He was one of the first so-called liberal art teachers in that he encouraged students to experiment. For my generation this was extremely rare. I also remember Mrs. Curry, a sculpture teacher, who was something of a tyrant. But when I got my hands into clay and started mucking around, she softened and I learned a lot from her. Rodin was a particular enthusiasm of hers at a time when the Board of Education wouldn't have approved.
Because of an incident, which involved our gang vandalizing the school, I was expelled. This ominous turn of events embarrassed and hurt my parents. I am neither ashamed nor proud of it. I only mention it because it led to a complete change of the utmost importance in my early life. I was put into the hands of my father and went to his studio downtown. Art Circle had been dissolved and he had gone with Bomac Engravers as an independent illustrator. He also worked solo as a freelancer. I worked in his studio from nine to five doing lettering samples for three weeks. I loved it because it was like being grown up. Throughout my early teens my father taught me technique and I was getting more and more interested in art. By then I had decided I wanted to be a commercial artist. I had no real sense of fine art, even though there were paintings and reproductions around my father's apartment and he painted part-time. I wanted to do work that was partially abstract, like the jazz album covers by David Stone Martin. The na·ve dream of every young artist then was to do a cover for the Saturday Evening Post; not necessarily like Norman Rockwell, but of that quality.
The ritual then was to go out with your sample kit to job interviews and become a junior apprentice in an engraving house or an advertising agency. All this time I thought that my father, well known with lots of connections, would get me a job. The bright thing he did (though I didn't think so then) was to tear out three yellow pages listing Commercial Art Houses, hand them to me, and say 'Take your samples, start with "A", and walk.' So I did. Three pages later, at the very bottom, I landed a job with a company called Wookey, Bush and Winter. In the old puritan ethical way, I had learned a lesson. I found myself working with Les Wookey, a marvelous designer, Jack Bush, whom we all know, and Bill Winter, the charming painter of children. What an opportunity! I answered the phone, delivered parcels, and cleaned water bowls every morning. I was at the office before they were, made the coffee according to their wishes, cleaned out the ash trays and got used to saying, 'Good morning, Wookey, Bush and Winter.' I was of no use to them whatsoever except in this capacity. I was incapable of doing anything near their quality of commercial work at that time. When my duties were done, I was supposed to sit and practice.
Generous men, they paid me eighteen dollars a week to start, which was more than a fair salary for what they received in return. Wookey, Bush and Winter were to become semi-heroes in my life. I'd wander into Jack Bush's office, for example, and he'd be doing Harvey Wood's underwear ads for men and women, and we'd talk of the importance of drawing as the basis of all art. He experimented with different paints that were coming out at the time. Sometimes I'd stand for hours behind him, while he chewed gum trying to quit smoking, watching him do these marvelous illustrations. He'd talk and I'd ask questions. Once he put down his brush and said to me, 'Young Gord, if you are going to be an artist you must think of art all the time, it must be uppermost in your mind, you must rediscover your eyes, even when they are sleeping you must be looking!' I'd become bolder as time went by, learning the technical aspects of commercial art, all that it entails - printing processes, colour separations, what photographs can do, how to cut mats instead of fingers. All the while practicing, practicing. They gave me a raise to twenty dollars a week after the first year and allowed me to do bits and pieces in their ads: a little lettering, a little over-lay painting - which was encouraging. I started to wear suits. I was nearly eighteen and sophisticated enough to listen to a little classical music.
But even when I was fifteen I was somewhat outside my contemporaries because of an interest in jazz: Louis Armstrong, the Hot Five, Django Rhinehart. Bush was also a great jazz fan. Elvis wasn't around then, but I liked that kind of music too. Rock and roll existed in its roots under the name of R and B. I started to listen to the classics and broadened my scope with music as I was broadening my scope with experiencing the world of art.
In 1953 I would occasionally be asked to work late in order to serve drinks to a strange and gregarious group of people who congregated in Jack Bush's office. They loved to yell and scream at each other. I actually saw one of them, Harold Town I think, rolling around on the floor with Oscar Cahen indulging in fake fisticuffs. They must have been having fun. Pugilistic possums. They were the Painters Eleven. Little did I know the historical significance of these formative gatherings. During this period, Jack was changing from naturalistic art to abstract art, which of course had an enormous effect on me. It was an extremely exciting time though I was full of doubts about it, and about totally abstract art in particular - it had never been seen in Toronto. Shortly thereafter I left and got a better job, on Jack's advice. He said, 'You're finished your apprenticeship here and now you've got to get out into the world and start making some money, and some art.' I got another job for something like thirty dollars a week doing lettering and silkscreen posters. The members of Painters Eleven never said much to me beyond, 'Get me another drink, will you boy!' They had the door closed. But I heard rumbles and mumbles as they wrote, wrestled with the group statement for their first exhibition announcement; and talked in a new exciting code, with words such as 'non-objective,' 'action-painting,' 'stream of conscious,' and 'abstract!' At that time Tom Hodgson was one of the youngest, most brilliant painters.
I'd started to paint more and more on my own. My works were still illustrations, but they started to get expansive and more experimental. I was living alone in a studio. I had left home and had a little garret. I previously painted imitation Van Gogh's and I took my new work back to Jack Bush for critiques. I know now that the works were atrocious. Bush gave me great advice, while at the same time encouraging and confusing me. He said, 'Take a look at the work of this young guy, Tom Hodgson, and paint like that.' I said, 'I don't want to copy anybody.' He replied, 'You paint like that now, because you're not going to for long, you've got to break through; you don't know what you're doing; Tom is young, like you.' (Tom is a little older than me but not all that much, and he has kept a unique youthful vitality in his work to this day.) Bush said, 'You're a young guy, paint like you are!' So I did. I took him literally and went and checked out all the Tom Hodgson paintings that were at Roberts Gallery. I'd never met Tom; he was already a practicing designer and an illustrator. So I started to do a few 'Tom Hodgsons'.
In 1956 the movie Lust for Life with Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas came out. Moulin Rouge had appeared before it in 1952. This had to be it. If you're a commercial artist you've got deadlines; it was the day of the grey flannel suit. I was still working at commercial art, doing more design, layout, lettering, developing a cartoon style for TV animation. But I realized that I wanted to do more insane things than applied art allowed. I'd never really got along with the bosses. I never really liked getting up early in the morning. I never liked deadlines. So I began the syndrome of painting into the early morning hours. Because of Life magazine Bernard Buffet was a hit. It was easy to emulate that stuff.
The first exhibition I had was in the upstairs lobby of the now-defunct Odeon Toronto movie house at College and Yonge. About this time, I met Dennis Burton and because of his studies at the Ontario College of Art I became friends with a variety of young artists including Robert Markle, Rick Gorman, Marlene Markle and Larisa Pavelchenko who were all in the same year at the college. I was fascinated by children's art, certainly a different world of vision than that studied at O.C.A., and the art of Paul Klee. Klee and Ben Shahn, my other influence then, had something in common in a graphic sense. Shahn was another artist tempting to imitate, especially as I had had training in the graphic arts. Once you fell in love with Ben Shahn's work you just had to follow his lines. Half the people I knew at that time were doing Ben Shahn. When I met Graham Coughtry a couple of years later he was a Ben Shahn expert. When I met him I asked him, 'What do you think of Paul Klee?' He said, 'See that guy over there, he's a Paul Klee expert, go and talk to him.' The person he was speaking of was Mike Snow, who was influenced in his early work by Klee. By this time, 1955-56, Burton, Robert Smith and I shared the upstairs loft in an old Victorian house called the Villa Crispin. We talked incessantly about art, music, and women. One thing that brought Burton and I together as close friends is that we were both jazz fanatics. We also had a mutual interest in classically based music, and the stirrings of a form called electronic music. Anything that was new, or unfamiliar, would be debated. It was during this time that I learned a great deal about historically traditional art through self-imposed study. I used to take what we called 'The Ontario College of Art Lessons,' from Dennis Burton; that is, the exercises he received as homework from teachers such as Fred Hagan. I'd never heard of things like flattened perspective before. Burton literally taught me. I'd ask him and he's explain it. Also I had the advantage of seeing his expert examples. He was a fantastic student. He won several prizes at the school. Despite some tough arguments there was never any animosity. We were, however, branching away from one another, as our individual styles began to develop, slowly, surely. I went through a period of Rico Le Brun influence that came through Dennis. I found out later that Robert Hedrick (whom I hadn't yet met) had studied with Le Brun in Mexico. Dennis studied with him in California. The facts leave a web that would make a marvelous graph if someone could ever put it together. About that time Painters Eleven mounted a major show at Hart House. Burton and I attended enthusiastically. What knocked me out were Bill Ronald's paintings. There were two or three of them - they burned into my brain. I didn't like Jack Bush's paintings then; they seemed awkward. The Tom Hodgson's were impressive, but to a lesser degree. I couldn't understand the work of Hortense Gordon but Alexandra Luke's work evoked a certain tingle.
After seeing the show Burton and I turned on our heels, hurried back to the Villa Crispin into our individual studios, and did our first 'giant' abstract paintings, probably on four-foot pieces of masonite. They were somewhat similar and Ronald-like. Did we feel good! Somehow, there was some kind of relief. Still, for months, or maybe years, we were quietly nervous about the significance of such work - 'is abstraction really art?' - that kind of question. We always argued and discussed it. One night two senior painters, Cleeve Horne and R. York Wilson, came to visit. They were fantastic, so generous, genuinely interested and so encouraging. They had spent the evening priming pieces of masonite for their own work, and took it upon themselves to see what the young pups were up to. They talked for hours. They looked at our work, and never said anything negative (though I'm sure they must have thought it) but somehow managed to say 'keep going'. They were kind human beings, not authoritarian Victorian squashers.
I was invited to Cleeve Horne's studio to meet his wife, Jean, who, much to my surprise, had a welding sculpture studio. Turns out she was the first person in the country working with welded steel. She said, 'Do you want some of that?' 'Sure do.' She said, 'Go to night school and learn how to weld and then come back.' I went back to Northern Vocational High and took the plumbers' night course. I left after the first six weeks, as soon as I got a good bead. I knew how to weld. I went back to her and she let me use her studio. I did my first few pieces in welded steel. She helped me a great deal.
Around this time I got a place of my own and worked on Yonge Street below Bloor over a second-hand shoe store. I sculpted in steel out on the roof much to the landlord's dismay and made a large mess and a small sculpture. It was the first work that I know of that was accepted into an Ontario Society of Artists exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto, the first piece of steel sculpture by a Canadian to be shown there. It was suspended from the ceiling. Then I started to work larger. I made a thirteen-foot fountain that actually functioned for Elise Meltzer's garden pool in Rosedale. I was sure I was a great sculptor when my fountain was installed in place of the pissing cherub. To walk into her house and almost literally trip over a Henry Moore, the first one I'd really seen, was an unforgettable experience.
By now I was sure about the significance of abstract art. Dennis Burton, Ross Mendes and I went to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and we saw our first New York originals. Burton said, 'De Kooning! You can't do that. Everything I've been taught says you can't do that.' I said, 'But Denny, he did it.' I'd never seen a Mark Rothko before except in reproductions. There was one at the end of a hall and Mendes turned to me and said, 'You know, I think I could walk up to that and put my arm into it up to the shoulder.' Those kinds of reflex actions are still valid today; they're very moving experiences. I also saw my first real Jackson Pollocks, my first Clyfford Stills, and the paintings of the great master Hans Hoffman. There was a Francis Bacon; a very good painting, quite moving, but for some reason, it didn't have that slam effect that the Americans did. Too melodramatic. The only thing it had going for it (and for his work in general to this day) is that it was nicely painted in an almost American way, but the subject matter was terribly illustrative of emotions rather than revealing the emotions themselves.
By this time I was living at 18 _ St. Mary Street, another old Victorian building split up into apartments, which is now some dull high-rise, and through Ross Mendes I met Al Fleming, a great designer who loved paintings and reminded me that it was possible, even maybe a responsibility, for artists to love all art forms as long as they were excellently executed. When Ross saw I was doing steel sculpture he introduced me to Gerry Gladstone who had also begun to work in steel, and we would talk all night long and longer. We'd have jam sessions. I was playing drum brushes on the back of beer cases, Gladstone was playing flute, Coughtry was singing the blues and Mike Snow was already playing brilliant piano. This music has been more of a social tie than our private art. We always had that in common, the fun, the gatherings; not when we were alone struggling in studios, but when we got together at those great parties: people pounding garbage cans (they were metal in those days) and singing the blues.
In my paintings, the big change came after that Albright-Knox show. The Painters Eleven exhibition prior to that had caused a major alteration in my work from natural imagery to abstraction, and the confirmation of those ideas became resolved through the Albright-Knox abstract expressionist show, trips to New York City, and then much more study through reproductions. We were the art magazine fans of the world; we all had subscriptions to Art News. We read every page and discussed it all. De Kooning was my favourite artist at the time. Before I had reached this stage both Time and Life magazines came out with spreads on Jackson Pollock. I was infuriated. I was certain this wasn't art. I was ready to picket with a banner in front of The Museum of Modern Art saying 'You're being fooled,' but I was intelligent enough to realize that if I was going to fight against this aberration I had to know my facts, accumulate ammunition. So I started really to study it, read about it, went to Buffalo to see it. Within one year, I was a complete convert. I had become the number one de Kooning fan in the world not realizing there were only about 50,000 artists in the U.S. doing second-string de Koonings. I even did a series of paintings that were of women grinning with big teeth. What really happened, of course, was that by emulating so literally the de Kooning techniques I learned an enormous amount in a very short time. But I was just realizing that there wasn't enough Rayner in my work. The only difference was that I had left-handed instead of right-handed brush strokes. So, I consciously tried to break with the de Kooning influence while trying to maintain the essence of everything I'd learned. One way to break was to look more deeply and thoroughly into other artists' work. My paintings started to get gentler.
Around this time Barry Kernerman opened the Gallery of Contemporary Art, and came to my studio. He was looking for young blood; I was very nervous. He said, 'Those great big women you are painting are de Koonings.' I said, 'How did you know?' By this time, however, I'd already started to edge away from this overwhelming influence and consciously ask myself who I was, what were my particular interests. Instead of painting large angry women, what about still life? What about the north? The land? Where's your sense of humour?
The north to me had always been a place I visited for purposes other than painting. I thought the north, if it was to be painted, should be painted like the Group of Seven. Barns were to be painted in the manner of Syd Hallam or my father. Barry Kernerman picked out one of my newer pieces, and put it in the show. He generously put one of the semi-de Kooning things in too. Meanwhile, around the corner was The Greenwich Gallery where Av Isaacs was then building a stable. He already had Gerald Scott, Mike Snow, Gerry Gladstone, Graham Coughtry, and Robert Vavarande. My friend Coughtry recommended me to Av, so he came to see my work and said, 'I've got another young person I 'd like to show, so I think it might be an idea to have a two-person show.' The other person was Joyce Wieland. So, when I was twenty-three, I had an exhibition with Joyce Wieland at The Greenwich Gallery.
At that time, I lived in the Rosedale valley, with my wife and daughter. My life was like a soft-focus French film with statues leaning in greenery, trees full of raccoons and my child's record player playing jazz. I was painting all night and commercial-arting all day. I was awarded my first Canada Council grant, thanks to Harold Town's recommendation. Then a most significant change happened in my life. I'd been to Europe once before, when I was twenty, and had taken the train from Paris down to Ibiza to visit Graham Coughtry. This time I went with my wife and my daughter, Daphne, to Germany to meet my in-laws. We went to the Louvre and, via the Prado in Madrid, to Morocco. Most of the time was spent painting in a tiny house in the Balearic Islands. We lived for a year, quite well, on $2,500. Then I had to come back, give up this fantasy life, find a job, find a place to live, pay the rent and all that. By then I was spending more and more time staying up at night painting, and started to lose jobs. The truth is I started to not care about the jobs. There wasn't the slightest doubt in my mind that I was going to make it as an artist, and I was going to be a full-time professional by the time I was thirty. I wanted to be able to give up advertising art, not to have to work that way for a living. Although I had and still have the utmost respect for fine designers and illustrators, I was aware that the painting of certain artists suffered because of commercial art influences: the fashionable tricks of the hand, the clich?s. I could see it, and I didn't want it. I got out by the time I was twenty-nine. When I was thirty Robert Markle and I were approached by Dennis Burton, Robert Hedrick, and John Syme. They wanted us to teach; something I'd said I would never do, nervous that teaching would drain the energies directed toward my own work. They had started a new art school in 1965 and proposed a method of teaching that was very enticing. We were told we could teach art in any way we cared. Markle and I said we'd try it for a year. It was also additional income. After all, we hadn't much from living off freelance work.
Few of our paintings were being sold. Av Isaacs, friends and wives helped, but it was a financial juggling act. To my surprise and delight, teaching invigorated me and the close association with dedicated young artists kept me from becoming insular; it forced me to verbalize ideas and ideals that otherwise might have remained foggy and vague. It was during the early teaching days that my obsession with the Ontario North took hold.
During my early to mid-twenties, while shedding the de Kooning influence, I started to spend more time up in the Magnetawan district near Parry Sound. I came to the realization that for the last decade I'd been reacting against the small oil-on-masonite paintings of barns, bush, ponds, rivers, and streams that I'd done with my father in the early days. I re-examined the significance of the northern landscape, and realized that there was a subject there for me. It had been in front of me all this time and was yet another means of getting away from the self-consciously urban paintings that the Abstract Expressionists were doing. Franz Kline was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, and de Kooning was inspired by the peeling green and pink wallpaper of the old buildings on Tenth Street in Manhattan. Mark Rothko, the more mystical of the group, was still urban in substance.
It was during this time that I began to do more work up north in Charlie's cabin, an isolated hunt camp, once owned by Charlie Clifton. His father bought the land in the twenties after the loggers were done with it. They took out all the virgin growth, the giant trees, but then it was growing again. I first went there with my mother and stepfather when I was between the ages of seven and ten years old, and the place hasn't changed a bit. There's an almost impenetrable three-mile road; you can't get a car in very often, it's that muddy and wrecked. I had to get a case of beer, a block of ice, a bag of groceries and a lady on the back of my motorcycle and get in there. That's another reason why it's virtually untouched. Unfortunately, there are more and more canoe trips coming down the river and the cabins are being broken in to.
Now I do two kinds of painting. The first is a kind of citified, urban painting, more cerebral, less influenced by my actual surroundings. In other words, I'm neither painting nor influenced directly by the back alleys of Spadina Avenue. But when I'm up north my palette changes automatically and the method by which I paint changes, the aspects of touch and colour are more affected by the environment. I began to paint the peculiar light that exists only in northern Ontario. Part of the lure of the north is its strange Pre-Cambrian light and the reflection off the thousands of lakes that exist there and the jungle-like growth. The sky is, even in the hilly country up there and with the density of the bush, overwhelming. I'm sure these features were major attractions for the Group of Seven. As for those members that went to the Rockies, Fred Varley and Arthur Lismer, their paintings changed considerably when they were in a different environment.
The light, and also the density of the bush where I am, is similar to Algonquin Park. I'm just fifty miles further north. I have coloured slides of the Magnetawan River, taken in steaming August, that look like the Amazon. The bush and greenery come down and overhang the large river. It's a jungle! It's difficult to walk through that bush unless you stay close to the shore. I pretend Charlie's Place belongs to me even though I'm a squatter. I fix it up and believe it's mine every year. Charlie Clifton died about fifteen years ago. His wife, Myrtle, was magnificently jovial and rotund, a five foot tall, bleached blonde from Florida. She learned all the methods of skinning animals and filleting fish from the local trappers and Indians, and taught them to me. This teaching added to the tradition wood lore I had learned from my father, establishing a kind of continuity in my life.
I originally went to Charlie's as a boy to fish the river with my parents on their holidays. It wasn't until my late teens, when I started to go away with young ladies on weekends, that I realized it might be possible to rediscover this paradise. The first art I made there was in my first notebook, a few sketches from nature. I soon began to spend every summer there, back in the bush, enjoying the company of friends like Burton, Coughtry, Markle and sculptor Nobuo Kubota.
We found rusty implements, marvelous pieces of junk, where the loggers had passed through years before. We would make found-object sculptures, place them in the fields and deep in the bush, like silent, sacred totems, only to return the next year to find them crumpled, tilted and fallen. So we'd reconstruct them differently, giving them a new existence. Some are still there, rusting in the elements.
In my late twenties I began to pack in boxes of paint, bolts of canvas. I would go into the bush and seek out young poplars, to make an easel out of them, always using the local elements. Sometimes I'd utilize the wooden window shutters or the cedar shingle siding of the cabin, stretching the canvases over them. Consequently, I would get an indelible impression of what it was I was painting upon, soaking through the canvas. Up north I paint in the daytime, simply because at night I live by the light of coal oil lamps. I've tried working at night in the cabin and had some fun with it, with fifty candles burning at once; I nearly burned the place down. The colour, of course, is entirely different when you see it the next day. I concluded I couldn't do major works in the dark. So I began working in notebooks - collages, drawings, cartoons, ideas, prints, poems. Working in what we now refer to as Charlie's Books became a communal activity. Coughtry, Markle, Kubota and my friend John O'Keefe, the writer-sea captain, would visit and occasionally stay for a month at a time. Every evening, after a delicious dinner, the big square table would be cleared. There would follow the inevitable elbowing for room to draw, as everyone tried to grab more lamplight than the next guy. It was a delight; instead of playing cards or reading to pass the dark night, we'd be doing these books simultaneously. Occasionally we'd work in each other's books; the overlaps are pretty interesting. There was much playing of chess, drinking, talking, and laughter; but mostly we busied ourselves, entertaining each other with those marvelous books. And there was always music, thanks to a battery-operated record player -- I spent more money on batteries than on art supplies.
Unfortunately the Charlie's Books are too delicate to be exhibited; but as historical documents, with their cross references of (for example) four artists drawing each other at the same time, I'm convinced of their unique value. Within these pages are the sources of ideas that were later developed into major works. Hundreds of hilarious collages, outrageous puns and cartoons, loneliness expressed in the feminine curves of a glass lamp-chimney, recipes for pickerel bouillabaisse and wild rabbit stew, blood-covered pages decrying the kill, love letters to our ladies, indecipherable poems, cries, giggles, marks and angles; the beginnings of something.
It was about the time the Artists' Jazz Band was organized, eighteen years ago, that I first began to live at Charlie's during the summers. I took the AJB there a couple of times and I'll never forget the tiny rowboat struggling across the river, barely above the waterline, laden down with the complete band, including a saxophones, trombones, a contrabass, and a whole set of drums. During the night I would walk down to the river for a couple of buckets of water and I'd hear the wonderful improvised music emanating from the cabin on the hill, filling the wilderness with sounds that seemed to flow naturally with the wind and the river.
Luckily, this Magnetawan paradise is still available to me, and each spring I disappear into it, wanting to be swallowed up by its dense greenery and crashing rapids, to feel the look of it again. It has become a touchstone, a tool by which, in my travels elsewhere, I am able to measure and evaluate. I know the Mediterranean light in comparison to the Magnetawan light. The impenetrable Pre-Cambrian rock underfoot allows me a deeper insight into the nature of the mountains of Guatemala and the Andes of Peru. I have a greater sense of the tropical vegetation of India and Nepal because of my familiarity with the birch bark and trillium of Ontario.
I love living in Toronto where the action is. And, needless to say, I love the north bush and traveling to other countries. But, thanks to the Canada Council, who helped me immeasurably throughout my formative years, it must be said that all my ventures and adventures abroad have consistently reminded me of the beauty and greatness of Canada, my home.
And so it goes. I intend to continue with this life, these investigative pleasures, discursive discussions with friends, to make music, to keep looking and to keep painting.
My friend Coughtry once said he continued to make art because there wasn't anything better to do. When you think about it, it's a profound statement. Painting is a remarkable unending adventure, full of risk and commitment. The joy is, there will always be new ways to bring home old truths, other ways to rediscover your eyes.
T.S. Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
-- October 1978
The Gordon Rayner Retrospective toured to the following galleries between March 2, 1979 thru September 1, 1980: London Regional Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Windsor, Rodman Hall Arts Centre (St. Catharines), Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Sir George Williams Art Gallery (Concordia University, Montreal), The New Brunswick Museum (St. John), The Art Gallery of Memorial University of Newfoundland, Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Fredericton), The Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery (University of Regina), Southern Alberta Art Gallery (Lethbridge), and the Art Gallery of Ontario.