I read an essay recently in which the writer reflects on the first piece of art she’d ever bought as a young woman. The purchase of this large gaudy painting, she declared years later, made no sense then or now. She deemed the colours too bright, and the subject matter unaligned with her cultural identity. By the final paragraph, however, she concludes that the painting reflected her mood at the time of purchase.

It got me to thinking about the first art I’d purchased. It’s become such a part of my environ that I haven’t considered it for some time. The piece is a stone sculpture by George Henry. I acquired it around 1978 at the gallery in Whetung Ojibwa Centre of Curve Lake, Ontario.

When I was approaching middle-school age, my family rented a simple cottage every few summers north of Toronto. The week represented freedom. I’d bring a huge stack of books to read alone on the dock or walk short distances along dirt roads. Our one story 800 square foot home (without basement) didn’t allow for much privacy, so this opportunity for separation was all the sweeter.

The highlight of the week was a trip to Whetung Ojibwa Centre. I had jobs since seventh grade and so I’d bring a bit of money and cruise the aisles wistfully. The gallery paintings, prints, carvings called to me, but they were too precious for my pocketbook. So, I’d surrender to the jewellery section and choose bracelets, which I still wear today. 

While teenaged schoolmates splashed in backyard pools and made plans with friends, I read books and plotted my first art buy. The summer I bought George Henry’s carving, I’d returned to the gallery with over one hundred dollars, a hefty sum back when minimum wage at $2.65 per hour.

To my parents’ credit, they didn’t try to dissuade me. Try as I might, I cannot imagine art on our walls. Except for a frog picture my mother hung above my bed. Font at the bottom read, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the handsome prince.” (That’s a whole other essay.) We weren’t the sort of people who bought esthetic objects. We were the sort of people who bought things to eat or wear.

So how I arrived at this art dream, I’ve no idea. Why did it matter so much to me? Was I tearing away? I’m not like you, I’m like this.

Even without knowing the story behind George Henry’s sculpture, it spoke to me. It was the smallest quietest sculpture in its grouping under glass. And so was I.

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 The Last Hoffman  is a poignant family drama featuring a multilayered cast of tightly woven characters in a fractured northern community. It will restore your belief in second chances.

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