Creative Curious Connected
Conversation with Bentley LeBaron

Conversation with Bentley LeBaron

 

Lyn  How did you develop your interest and skills in painting?

Bentley: I used to draw as a kid. I asked my dad if I should study to be an artist.  He said he didn’t think there was a livelihood in it, better choose something else. In those days I was planning to be a farmer, or a rancher anyways. I was raised on a farm, or you could call it a ranch, in the foothills of Alberta. Raised with animals, and I wanted to continue doing that.

I liked to draw as a kid. I knew that I could capture an image. But when I went to university, I was interested in being a Foreign Service Officer. This was the days of the Cold War, and Kruschev, and I thought maybe I should learn Russian, and be in the Canadian Foreign Service in Russia, and talk some sense to the Russians.

Once I got to university I soon disabused myself of that idea. But by then, I realized that I was really interested in some philosophical questions that came up. I started out in politics, and gradually moved toward philosophy. I was interested in the history of political thought, the questions that keep getting asked over and over through the centuries, that are still being asked. We still don’t have the answers to some of the big questions. The biggest questions really interested me, not necessarily political questions. But ethical questions, intellectual questions, questions about theory of knowledge, what we could know for sure and what the limitations of knowledge of any kind are. Those questions ended up being the ones that interested me, as I completed my studies and got a teaching job in Ontario.

But at the same time, I carried on hanging out with artist friends, and hanging out in the art department watching what they were doing, and thinking, “I’d like to do that too if I had time”. Eventually I found time, while I was still a student, and then when I was a professor.

I found time to learn clay. I set painting aside, for the time being. I had a pretty good idea that eventually I’d want to have a different life than being an academic. I thought it would likely be in clay,  as I figured I could make a livelihood in clay. Which turned out to be correct. And I wasn’t so confident that I could make a livelihood as a two-dimensional artist.

So I went to clay, and found I had an aptitude for sculpture, and I liked sculpture. And that turned out to be good, along with the pottery. So that was part of the reason I didn’t stick with academics, I was really interested in working with my hands.

The big problem with academics for me, was that it wasn’t active enough. Too much head work, not enough hand and body work. I would have liked to stay in academics if I could have had a half-time position. Been a half-time artist, half-time intellectual guy. I was a professor in Brock University, a new university at St. Catherine’s, Ontario. I put that proposal to my bosses at university, And they said, “No, it’s full time or nothing.” So I said, “Right, it’s nothing then, goodbye”.

Then I came out to British Columbia, bought a farm, started a family, and started working toward a career in clay.  It was in Errington, just down the road from Parksville.

Bruce Was this fairly early in your academic career, then, you decided to be an artist? 

It wasn’t a matter of deciding, it was a matter of a hunch, that this was where I was going. I wasn’t sure. But it felt like I was tending in that direction. I was only a full-time teaching university professor for 6 years,  so I was already starting to transition.

Another factor was I wanted to live on the west coast  I wanted the climate, I wanted the mountains, I wanted the forests. I wanted the political climate out here. A little bit less conservative, thought you’d never know it at the moment.

I liked the feel of British Columbia, and I wanted to live here. Conceivably, if I’d found a teaching job  that suited me, out of University of Victoria, I might have moved there, and hit them up for a half-time position. But positions didn’t come up, so my transitional mode was actually a consultant. I spent  6 or 7 years being a consultant, while I was transitioning to clay.

I was producing in clay, but I wasn’t good enough, or prolific enough, to make a livelihood at it, so I reinvented myself as a social & environmental consultant. For a number of years I travelled around the province and Yukon, doing impact assessments for projects being proposed at the time. . . .

Lyn  While you were doing this traveling, did you have time to do any farming, or ceramic work? 

Not much farming, the farm turned out to be not a very good farm. A little bit of gardening, a few animals and so on. And yes, I was doing a bit of clay work, but I didn’t have my own studio set up, so I was working with a friend in nearby studio. It was a dance.

Lynette  When did that phase end? 

It ended when I moved to Denman. By then I had enough skill, that I figured I could do it as a potter.

Lyn  How did you come to be on this Island?

I knew of the Island, because my brother who’s lived longer on Hornby than I’ve lived on Denman. So I used to come across Denman, like so many other people, to visit Hornby.

The transitioning to clay, and art in general, took a number of years. The germ of an idea, and the first stages of learning, were 20 years –  before I was ready to try to make a livelihood at clay. Even after I was doing some functional pottery, and selling, I was still aware that my skills weren’t as good as they should be. I still needed to tune up, and refine my skills. I looked round, to see who I most admired in the field of pottery, and who I felt I could learn the most from. And without any question it was Gordon Hutchens. Of all the potters I knew. I knew some very good potters then, and knew of a whole bunch more, because we’re wealthy in potters, BC is loaded with really good potters, all the way from Victoria to Campbell River. I knew of their work, and thought, who would I really like to learn from? It was clear, it was Gordon Hutchens. So I approached him, and I asked if I could work in his studio for awhile, and learn from him, and he said yes. So I worked two seasons for him, meanwhile establishing my own place here.

I didn’t try sculpting at first, I just hung out my shingle as a guy who made functional dinnerware. I got commissions to do dinner sets for people. The first two or three years I did that, worked hard at my throwing skills. To be fast, as well as good. Make things people wanted to buy. I worked so hard at that, I started to get carpal tunnel in my wrists. So I had to switch gears again, and say, “Now what can I do. I can’t keep throwing dinner plates.”

So I started sculpting. Hand building. Which is easier on the body, in a whole bunch of ways. It’s easier on the back and shoulders as well as wrists. And the sculpting worked! I started doing masks, human figures, animal figures. People liked them, would buy them. So eventually I was able to make more money as a sculptor than a potter, and that suited me just fine.

 

Bruce   It also makes you stand out from the crowd.

There’s a steady market for functional ware. Sculpting, you never know whether something is going to catch on or not.  Fortunately, and serendipitously, I started making dragons. Mostly because people asked for them.  I made one dragon, and people saw it and said, “Make me one.” I said, “No, I’d have to charge more than you want to pay.”  I thought maybe simpler things, like cats and bears and so on, horses.. But dragons have so much detail, and are intricate. They said, “No, I want a dragon”. So I made dragons, and they sold. People did pay what I wanted for them. So I learned how to make them, as fast as bears and horses and so on.

I never looked back. Actually I once tried, I thought I was finished with dragons. I told my customers, “No, I don’t want to make dragons any more.” There was such an outraged howl of protest, so many people kept asking for them, that I said, “Oh, all right”, and I was back in the dragon business again. So you never know.

I still like making them. I wasn’t quitting because I didn’t like it, I was just quitting because I thought enough already, I thought that phase was over.  Apparently it wasn’t.  But things do go in phases, like that. For example, there was a phase in unicorns for a while. I couldn’t sell a unicorn now, to save my soul. for the last five or ten years. But for a while, there were lots of unicorns moving around.

Similarly, with images of the goat god Pan. You’ve seen I have a few images of him out there, and I like him. He was a big seller, for probably six or eight years. For some reason, everybody wanted Pan. Women wanted Pan for their altars.  This was right in the height of the goddess movement, I guess. Pagan women wanted Pan, as well as the goddess figures. And where that’s gone, I don’t know. It’s gone somewhere else. It’s either evaporated, or gone somewhere I don’t know. Because nobody’s asked me to sell them a Pan image for the last five years, I don’t think a single one.

Lyn I love coming in the drive, and see Pan and other sculptures in the woods, do those represent past phases of your sculpture?

Yes, they do. A handful of those images I like so much, they’re not for sale. I like them around, I want to keep them for myself. Some of them really are one of a kind, I won’t ever do them again.

Lyn Where then did painting resurface?

It was always there, bubbling below. Eventually I got my mortgage paid, and my kids raised. I could afford to be a painter. I could afford some down time, as it were. There were a number of years there, when I was working pretty hard, and pretty long hours, to pay the bills. Growing kids, and house all paid for. I have three kids. But now I’m living with a woman with three more, so I have six.

Eventually things eased off, and I looked around and saw, I’ve got a little surplus. I don’t have to work as hard as I did. I can afford to take time to do something else. So, what do I want to do?

I wanted to do that show, that historical show. The show that started with the cave paintings, and followed the goddess imagery, for example, from the earliest goddesses to Marilyn Monroe, or whoever the latest one is. So I did a painting of images of the thinker, I still have it. There are some Paleolithic images that remind you of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. And I knew of some other images that had the same feel, of somebody really thinking really hard, with his chin in his hands. So I did a composite of that, for example. With the biggest image being the Paleolithic one.

And the idea of the human person with horns on his head, the composite animal. With something emanating from the head, that’s one’s still out in the studio. Michaelangelo’s Moses has horns on his head, why is that, and how does it relate to those earliest Paleolithic shamans with horns on their heads?  It’s a recurring theme that comes down through the ages, of humans with horns. And if not horns, something else: sun disks, or sun rays, the third eye, the idea of an eye in the middle of your fore head, what’s that ? How does that relate to horns sprouting from your forehead? Why does it recur, and why are they so similar and so evocative of the other over centuries? Why do artists keep coming back to same themes, over and over again? Those are questions I wanted to explore in that show.

Bruce: Right now, there’s a deer directly behind you! It looks like one of your paintings, a deer with horns behind your head.

Bentley: Oh, that’s too much! People will say you made that up. You’ve got the deer, as well as the rack.

Bruce So that was like the philosopher in you, coming out.

Yes, the history of ideas, which is basically where I wanted to go, with philosophy.

I moved to portraits of people, I wanted to capture images of people, and … see how good I can be at realistic painting, I think that was next.

Lyn While you were doing these paintings, were you continuing to do your ceramics?

Yes, I still am. I don’t do it near as much as I did, but I still go out to the ceramics studio still, keep the shelves full, keep people coming back. It’s easier to attract people with clay, than with paintings. I’m not quite sure why that is, though I can speculate. I figure that I probably wouldn’t get much traffic, if all I had to offer to tourists was my paintings.

Way more people know me as a clay worker than a painter because I’ve been at it longer, and had my sign out. They come to my studio, and have told others about it. Painting is relatively recent as far as most people are concerned, and has a more limited audience.

I’m interested and excited about the painting.

Bruce  You seem to be exploring more ideas through the painting, than may be possible through clay.

Well, been there, done that over the years in clay. Explored a lot of ideas in clay. Right now, I’m having the opportunity to play with painting. And it’s coming back to where I started, because I actually drew and painted before I was in clay. But not professionally. Not to try a livelihood with it, just to see where I could go with it. And now I have the luxury to do it.

And another factor is the Parkinson’s. You wouldn’t think so, but with Parkinson’s and the tremor, clay work is actually harder for me now than painting. I thought that it might be the end of my painting career, because my hands shake. Holding a paint brush, as well as anything else. But it’s easier to compensate, find ways to compensate than it is with clay. With wheel work, you’ve got to have steady hands, or you just can’t do it. The wheel won’t do what it has to, without steady hands.

With painting, if my hand starts to shake and I make a mess, I can paint over it. I can paint over it when my hands are steady again, or I can brace them.  Or I can lean against a canvas, there are more different ways to skin the cat, to compensate. It’s more forgiving than wheel work is.

The hand building is still forgiving, too. With hand work, in clay, if it doesn’t come right the first time you can take it apart and redo it. Or brace yourself, or wait until your hands are steadier. There are various things you can do with hand building. But the wheel is unforgiving. It’s either now, or never, to throw that perfect form. Without a wobble.

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