Brushes with Destiny.. Arthur Lismer

Family, friends and patrons have asked me over the years to write memoirs of my experiences and travels. I was always flattered and bashful by their interest. The strongest advocate has always been my mother Eileen May Burkitt Sabourin. I dedicate this first memoir to her. As my work continues to gain respect and as Marcus Aurelius coined it.” You better get at it man, the mind is first to go”.

Pierre A J Sabourin


My father Robert Patrick Sabourin was one of the great hockey players from Sudbury, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs before free agency in 1949. My mother Eileen May Burkitt was finalist of the 1948 Miss Toronto when she met my father, at that time he was playing hockey for Saint Michael’s College and were wed in Toronto 1953.  My family of three younger sisters respectively Renée, Micheline, and Nicole traveled extensively pursuing my father’s hockey career. In 1963, Bob was playing for the Seattle Totems in the state of Washington of the Western Hockey league.

 We were moving to Seattle to be with my father. We took the Canadian Pacific Railway train from Toronto to Vancouver with private compartment, lasting four nights. I remember being so excited about the wilderness landscape across Canada. When I saw Lake Superior for the first time I sent letters to my neighborhood friends in Sudbury trying to communicate the experience running to find the mailbox at the train station stops along the way. My cultural experience was enriched further by the first African-American man I had ever met, our train porter Sam a southern gentleman. He introduced me to shrimp cocktail while passing through the golden fields of Saskatchewan. When we hit the Rockies, It was breathtaking and exhilarating sight, I did color drawings of what I was seeing and feeling, I remember being so frustrated with not having the ability or colors to convey what I was experiencing.

 When we arrived in Vancouver we were greeted by my great uncle Lester Burkitt. Uncle Les had retired from the oil fields of South America and was raising his family in New Westminster, B.C. To my surprise Uncle Les was an artist. He asked to see my drawings from the train and picked out his favorites. He then showed me his seascapes and nudes, I remember Aunt Kay suggesting I was too young to see nudes, however uncle Les reassured us it was art. He continued to show me his works describing the application and mediums providing brushes, water color paint and encouragement.

Wintering in Seattle reunited with my father.  I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time, experienced snow tubing in the Rockies and went up the Seattle space needle. That spring after hockey season our family drove by car across the northern United States. We stopped at all the great canyons, parks and lookout points on our way back to Toronto.  In six months I had traveled two thirds of the continent twice, in two different countries attended four schools and was now enrolled in Cottingham Elementary in Toronto to complete my fourth grade.

 It was here that I met Arthur Lismer who came to our class to teach art. I remember class mates telling me in silence that Arthur was a famous artist, his art was weird but everybody liked him. We drew and painted landscapes and flowers. To my surprise Arthur became interested in what I was painting and encouraged me to use more paint by providing a substantial amount of paint to my palette. I remember feeling exhilaration with the ability to manipulate color. I was at ease with his commonwealth dialect and jovial inquisitiveness. He asked me about my family and of course hockey became the topic. I remember he openly questioned the class teacher about my family confirming openly to the class who my father and mother were.  Pierre is here on special circumstances to finish his school year said the class teacher. Lismer then questioned me about my travels which I proudly recounted including the art experience with uncle Les. He asked me to paint places I had seen. I did a series of scenes from Lake Superior, the prairies and Frazier River in the Rockies. I remember telling him how difficult it was to get the yellow of the prairies and how frustrated I became because it took special colors. He then asked me to paint sunflowers. He later openly praised my drawings to my teacher and classmates.

 After all these years, what was it that bonded, why would I always feel a yearning desire to connect somehow.  He took me aside after school holding both my arms said to me “Pierre you have the ability to be a great artist” and asked me if I understood what he was saying. I remember my reluctance and shyness. To the best of my knowledge and understanding this is the logic Lismer used with me;

Art that comes from the soul is of the highest truths, it is the best of who you are, therefore the most valuable. Do you not think you are valuable? Your paintings come from your soul.

 At first glance this seems quite a sophisticated maxim for a nine year old to digest but I understood the soul. My religious education had been French Catholic, my first communion was completed and I practiced the sacrament of confession.

Lismer then said “were painting pictures of Canada. Would you like to help?  You could learn about colors and how to paint larger paintings”. Enthusiastically I agreed and Arthur gave me a note for my mother. The following day Lismer came to my grandfather’s home Ron Burkitt Senior on Marlborough Ave to enroll me in private art lessons for the summer. Money became the issue during the first meeting two hundred dollars is what Lismer requested for the summer. My Grandfather a Welshman from the coal mines of Wales and wounded Canadian veteran had a much grittier approach than I expected. But the romantic version of my grandfather prevailed and the option was left open for me to attend pending the approval of my father.

During the second meeting the following day I was asked to leave the room, when Arthur left I followed him to the front door he said your father is coming to pick you up and take you to your grandparents up north. I asked him what I should do instinctively, he leaned down to me touched my arm and said keep doing what you’re doing and don’t give up. My grandfather intervened with a protective character. The boy has grown fond of me Lismer said to my grandfather. It appears that way he replied. I remember the apologetic look in Lismer’s eyes as he departed somehow foreshadowing changes to come.

 There was heated debate in the kitchen that evening over my lack of consistent education and a push was made by my Grandfather and Uncle Ron to keep me in Toronto for the summer. My grandfather and uncle both offered to pay the two hundred dollar fee. I remember feeling so frustrated with my inability to convey Lismer’s philosohy with a vocabulary of a nine year old. My grandfather, Uncle Ron and family friend Joey Bargar put so much pressure on my mother she became hurt and angry and said I was going north and that was final and left the room in tears. My mother my biggest art supporter I remember feeling sad because she was crying. I could not believe this was happening. I saw the sadness in my grandfather’s eyes and knew I was doomed. Later in an effort to console me, my uncle Ron said Lismer was a hack, his art was garbage and at best, a mediocre teacher and that in his opinion I would find a better teacher. I knew he was wrong and told him so. Ron then handed me two hundred dollars and said it was mine if I could get my father to agree. Ron and Joey both told me about exhibitions where they had seen Lismer’s work. They told me they were big landscapes with lots of weird colors. This only intrigued me more.

   Surely my father will certainly change his mind. My father is an artist I watched him paint an oil painting of an Arizona canyon sunset during a winter stay in Quebec City not two years earlier. I know he will change his mind. Upon my father’s arrival from Sudbury the following day I was quickly admonished for even thinking about art let alone the audacity of spending $200 dollars on a nine year old. My grandfather Burkitt a cultured man who gave me an appreciation for opera wished my father well with my education in the bush. I remember the tension as I was whisked off to the West Arm of Lake Nipissing to my Sabourin Grandparents

 I can recall seeing my father once that summer and my Grandmother Marie scolding him after they saw Lismer’s notes on the back of my drawings. My father claimed it was too expensive. To my shock my grandmother a former school teacher told him he was full of shit and a cheap bastard and that my uncle and grandfather had offered to pay for the art school. It was the only time I ever heard my grandmother swear. My father squirmed with embarrassment and laughter through my tears and said Pierre I want you to be a hockey player just like me. My father who is now 80 remembers the scolding from his mother and we laughed.  He now tells me he did not know I liked art that much but he knew I had talent. That is quite an understatement from someone who invites you to lunch with Scotty Bowman.

 *After three encounters with Arthur Lismer my life had been completely altered.  I was no longer living with my family in Toronto and exiled to a summer of solitude, exploration and a whole new bundle of emotions. I hid those drawings in my room until I was twelve and discarded them when my family moved to Florida for hockey in 1967. I remember reading the notes with a pondering anxiety that I would get another chance at this; the Sun Flower was not that good it needed more paint.

 Arthur Lismer resonated with me for many years; he gave me the understanding that art was something valuable. He advocated spirituality in art and made me feel proud and confident of my creativity. He fearlessly commanded respect for art and promoted it. Lismer was a great recruiter with impeccable credentials and I can only imagine the social morays he encountered, the difficulties he faced, his motivating factors and the lives he changed as he certainly influenced mine.  I did play hockey until I was twenty one, then went on to study Fine Art in 1976 at the University of Ottawa. I saw Lismer’s paintings for the first time in the National Gallery of Canada and realized my childhood mentor and his friends the Group of Seven.

Yes I do believe in the synchronicity of a higher power

 When I returned to Canada to live after a thirty year hiatus, my intention was to paint. On the second day of my arrival I received a private invitation to view the Arthur Lismer Mural in Humberside Collegiate in Toronto. I believe this was not a coincidence. The great epic mural of Canada coast to coast, portraying heroic history and culture completed in 4 panels over an eight year period. The Mural was entirely purchased by the students of Humberside and placed in the school auditorium Arthur Lismer Hall. This was proof of Lismer’s charismatic soul and easily crowns him Canada’s greatest art educator.

 Last June I hosted a painting class for the Sudbury District Catholic School board at Sunset Rock in Killarney. The class consisted of thirty, fifth and sixth graders with one special needs student who was partially blind requiring an instructor. *The class underway the special needs instructor approached and asked me to spend time with his child whose painting was underway but had come to a halt. I walked up looking at his painting I said holy cow that looks just like Claude Monet. Do you know who Claude Monet is; No he replied. He is the Father of Impressionism. As a matter of fact I learned how to paint impressionism by squinting my eyes so I could only see shapes and forms. Then I would color them in afterwards with brush strokes. The teacher said to me is that true.  That’s how I learned impressionism I replied. You know the famous Greek philosopher Plato always said simplicity, simplicity, simplicity and left it at that. During the final evaluation, I said holy smokes that looks just like Claude Monet and expressed my interest in his composition and color application. Then I yelled out to one of his classmates, most gifted of the class.   Come here please. If you want to learn something about art you can learn it from this lad right here.

 The next day the director from the outdoor education centre came to my home to thank me.  Back at the school the entire class rallied around the special needs child to look at his painting and learn his technique. It was the biggest confidence builder his instructor had seen in the lad and made note to thank me. That experience emotionally resonated with me for days and I discussed it with my friend Ed  DeDecker superintendent of the London District Catholic School board. He agreed it was one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as an educator. I replied I would not trade that feeling for anything in the world; all I did is what Arthur Lismer did to me.  It appears destined that I would follow the Canadian school of Painting as I had just come full circle with one of its founders.

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