The Langley Years
A large portion of my father's life from the 1950's on into the 1970's was concerned with providing a home on a frequently unpredictable artist's income, at first for the three of us and then, after 1959, for just us two. Money his mother left him when she died in 1955 was a welcome and timely gift, as it allowed him to purchase a rather wild and swampy, and hence reasonably priced, five-acre parcel of land in Langley, B.C. Basically, he saw it as a beautiful little pocket of rainforest with potential. He was right. It had previously been owned by Alwyn Buckley, who had used a small southeastern section of it as a lily farm, and who would now be our "next-door" neighbour. Apart from this small area, our new property was uncleared of dense brush, and contained a rich variety of well-established evergreens and deciduous trees. Cut by a ravine and rampant with indigenous growth such as salmonberries, skunk cabbages and ferns, it also embraced an impressive array of wildflowers. The calls of pheasants, the singing of birds, the chattering of squirrels and the chorus of frogs and crickets after dark could be heard from within the canopy, and the air smelled wonderful.
Dad was intent upon keeping a good portion of the property natural and unspoiled. He enjoyed drawing up his own plans, and a model, for a rustic home nestled within the trees.
He sought out a fledgling firm called Lewis Construction to build it, and then set to work that spring, mostly on his own, opening a clearing for the house. Those were the days before freeways connected Vancouver with "The Valley", and the drive back and forth from Langley to West 19th via New Westminster was significant. Dad continued to paint whenever he could.
It was a typically damp, west coast spring. I remember the challenges that confronted him: the multitude of nettles and brambles, the mud and the tangle of roots that made the clearing difficult, the lengthy trench he dug in hopes of draining off some of the excess water, and the piles of stumps and brush that were set ablaze in the process. Dad dug a well and built a pump house adjacent to it, but the murky, rust-coloured water it yielded was a great disappointment. As a family we went shopping, and settled on a fifteen foot Shasta house-trailer for week-end accommodation on site. A little red hauling-trailer helped with the clearing and also turned out to be good for collecting much-appreciated rainwater for washing faces, brushing teeth, etc.
By the end of June it was time for the three of us to move from our small, rented house in Vancouver, and enter into full-fledged trailer living on site while the house was constructed. We planted a little vegetable garden where the lilies had grown, and felt like homesteaders in a new frontier. Mr. and Mrs. Buckley were kind enough to offer us the use of their home for the occasional bath, and advised us in future to dig a well at a greater distance from the house where there was an artesian spring.
Always present but never openly discussed was the increasingly concerning fatigue felt by my mother, and an underlying feeling of urgency about the completion of the house. I remember how very hard Dad worked, and how relieved and gratified he was to see my mother's "dream home" built over the course of that hot, dry summer in 1958.
The house was constructed almost entirely of cedar, rustic and fragrant, and there was a big fireplace in the living room. That autumn it often crackled away with hand-split alder culled from the property. Dad's studio was attached so that he could be close to home when he was working. see My Father's Studio
Can I Forget You? a recording by Peter Ewart. Press play () to start listening.
When my mother died the following year, my father was faced with the daunting task of supporting and raising me, his young daughter, on his own. He took it on with the best he had in him. In Jesse, our red, 1956 Willy's Jeep or Susie, our 1940 Ford convertible, he would head out two or three times a year with his camera and camping gear on work-related trips to connect with his subjects and collect photographic materials.
The first winter we were on our own, Dad took me with him on a trip to the Cariboo, venturing into new territory: the as-yet-unrestored "ghost town" of Barkerville. Curious to see the old buildings before they were revamped, we set forth in the Willy's. I recall the feeling of adventure surrounding the trip, and how snowy it was. Near the town of Wells, it was disconcerting to find upon rising early for breakfast that the temperature had dipped during the night to an impressive -55 deg Fahrenheit. When we tried to start the Jeep it was not to be. The motel where we had stayed did have a block heater, and after a bit of a wait Dad was able to "start her up". Lesson learned. We did make it to Barkerville. The photos he took of the old buildings still remain in his collection of slides, and the pencil drawings are a wonderful record of a time in B.C. history now past. [see Cariboo buildings sketches]
If the Rockies were his destination, Dad would take the Fraser Canyon route up to Revelstoke and Golden, then through Rogers Pass to Lake Louise and Banff, perhaps up to Jasper via the Icefield Highway. In the mountains the qualities of the light were paramount. After stormy weather or fair, the sense of each season, the haze or the clear air, light and shadow and the way they played on stone or peak or valley were always present on his canvases. In the Cariboo he looked for old log buildings, horses standing or grazing, fences and gates, cattle, streams, interesting foregrounds, hills, autumn trees, skies, cloud effects ... The areas around Ashcroft, land along the Thompson River, the Nicola Valley, Spences Bridge, Merritt, Kamloops, Wells, Lillooet, Clinton, Quesnel, the Chilcotin, Williams Lake and others were rich with possibilities.
Sometimes, when school was out for the summer, Dad would take me with him and with his help and encouragement, over time I learned to look at the landscape with appreciative eyes. In the Jeep, he would drive with the "top", and doors and windshield down, look for unpeopled places where we could camp under the stars or in our little yellow trailer, build campfires, submerge and cool our home-made root beer in rushing streams, sing as we drove or hiked along, and slide down snow-fields in much the same way that he and his father had done when he was a boy. In Rogers Pass, Mount Abbott with the lively Illiciliwat River rushing through, the marmots sunning themselves on rocks and the amazing views of Mount Sir Donald and the pass from the summit, Glacier Crest, was a favourite stopping place.
At home in Langley, determined to set a good example for me, Dad was a devoted single parent. An especially vivid memory for me is the way he would play the piano and sing for enjoyment. I often drifted off to sleep with the sound of his playing, and I'm sure this practice planted the seeds that grew steadily into my own love of music and song.
Passing by a recording by Peter Ewart. Press play () to start listening.
His father's early training in woodworking "came in very handy" for all kinds of carpentry at home. One summer Dad built for me, across the ravine, sheltered under the trees but within clear view of the kitchen, a remarkable little playhouse. Generous by playhouse standards - 64 square feet - it sported such things as a shake roof, Dutch doors, woodpecker knocker, veranda, window boxes, shipdeck flooring, even the antique Franklin stove from his Granville Street studio complete with functional stovepipe and miniature pots and pans. He even played with the idea of building more for sale under the name "Susan Jane Playhouses" after my mother, but that remained a dream when the costs and headaches outweighed both the practical and creative aspects.
original silkscreen card
My father's annual 'fall exhibition', always held from late November to mid-December, ate up a fair amount of his personal freedom at that time. Even so, every Christmas my father faithfully produced silk-screened cards. Often frenetically in mid-December he would be working for the deadline of Christmas Eve, and I remember some December 24 evening runs in the Jeep, delivering freshly signed cards to the friends who lived within a reasonable radius. The others had been dropped in the mail with a prayer that the post office was working at peak efficiency for Christmas. When I was in my early teens, Dad taught the process to me, and twice helped me cut and screen my own creations. It was then I began to fully appreciate the intricate process and to realize the quality of his own designs.They were exceptional.
by Peter Ewart
My father involved himself when he could in community activities. With four of his friends he helped build and set in motion the Langley Arts Centre, which eventually became the Langley Community Music School. Our home was host to friends who enjoyed playing two pianos/four hands, as for a time he indulged his desire for grand pianos, and we had two. (To balance this financially he had the same vehicles for 20 years: The 1940 Ford and the 1956 Willy's Jeep served us very well until 1969. Dad did purchase a 1952 Korean Army Jeep being sold as war surplus in 1968, and we used it when we took friends for the occasional ride through the woods ... ) He sang with the Maysfield Singers, attended church and kept the home fires burning.
In the summer of 1967, and in his own inimitable style, Dad embarked with me and, for my company, my cousin Esther, upon a cross-country road trip. Our goal: Expo '67. I think he hoped it might be comparable to the cross-country trip he had experienced in his youth. In the Willy's Jeep, pulling the fifteen-foot trailer, we wended our way along the Trans-Canada Highway, across the provinces to Montreal. Initially, we were part of a familiar caravan, but it dispersed after the first night's camp, due to the fact that our vehicle was considerably slower than the others. The patience my father maintained throughout the journey was commendable, as managing two teenaged girls was not exactly his natural forte. He felt the tremendous responsibility of keeping us safe. We returned home a month later with rich, humorous and philosophical memories. A high point for my father, I think, had been the drive across the prairies and stopping to walk into a field to crush some wheat between his fingers. The scent of the grain called back images of threshing and stooking, and he could feel the essence of his early days, and those prairie summers in Meota.
While skiing at Whistler in the late winter of 1968, my father had a heart attack on the chair lift- a concerning event. After a couple of months of recovery time he was back in commission again, with a view to cut back on his cigarettes and limit his consumption of bacon and eggs.
Dad continued to work as a free-lance painter, and show his art, mainly with Alex Fraser Galleries in Vancouver, but also with the Sheck and Gainsborough Galleries in Calgary, the Downstairs Gallery in Edmonton, the Harrison Galleries on Granville, Humberston Edwards Fine Art in West Vancouver, Daniel Izzard's Gallery of the Golden Key on Richards in Vancouver, Jack Hambleton Galleries in Kelowna, and the Pegasus Gallery on Salt Spring Island.
When I enrolled in the Department of Music at U.B.C. in 1969, my father had more time to devote to his work and art, his music and his interests. He made several more treks - to the Tonquin Valley and to Lake Assiniboine and the Lake O'Hara region in Yoho National Park - and was enthralled with the amazing blue of the lakes, the brilliant gold of the autumn larches and the exceptional clarity and grandeur of the mountains. He went to O'Hara eight times over the years; four times alone and four times more with companions. When he went on his own he could revel in the richness of solitude, and "be one" with nature, as he truly loved to do.
In 1971, Alex Fraser wrote in the program for that year's exhibition:
"It was in the late 1940's that Peter Ewart was captivated by the ever-changing moods of the Cariboo hills and by the aura of imperturbable peaks in the Canadian Rockies. He has chosen them as a source of inspiration and challenge to Peter Ewart, the artist and the man. The choice was rewarding. "The artist" gained inexhaustible subject matter from the vistas spreading before him - the technique that became his very own through his conscientious efforts to capture the evasive light on sagebrush or mountain - his vision and concept sharpened on the timeless contours of his subjects. "The man" gained humility and strength from the magnitude of nature - and the friendship of the people of the land.
We the public have also gained. The enjoyment of the results of Peter Ewart's profoundly personal involvements is ours. Looking at these latest of his paintings before us, we see with deep satisfaction the fulfillment of the promise so evident in the early years of Peter's career. The increasing appreciation of his work bears witness to the fact that he has answered the challenge successfully. This is the 20th exhibition of paintings by Peter Ewart in the Alex Fraser Galleries. It is our pleasure to present it to you."
In 1972, Alex Fraser arranged a showing of Dad's paintings at the Alwin Galleries in London, England and the two, especially Fraser, enjoyed touring the city. As a native of London, Fraser was in his element, re-acquainting himself with old turf and friends.
In 1975 and 1976 I was living in Vancouver, and busy with my teacher training.
In a letter to me Dad wrote:
Saturday night, September 18, 1976
After all the disappointing weather on the other trip to Lake O'Hara, it was a most wondrous experience that I have had the past two days. So beautiful with the sun shining and the mountains soaring up to those thousands of towering feet... Tonight I am up in the foothills west of Calgary, and if it is fine tomorrow the colours should be spectacular, as all the trees have turned a brilliant yellow. For supper, I had some corned beef hash, corn, a very limp tomato and some stewed dried fruit! Really gourmet with a small 'g'. However, it did taste good and at least was home cooked ... Now I think I'll turn in as I want to be up before sunrise.
Monday, Sept. 27th
It is eight o'clock in the evening, and I am sitting in my van parked right beside Lake O'Hara! This is very unusual and it happened this way: On the way through Golden, I stopped in to say hello to Doug at the Golden Rim. I told him I was going in to Lake O'Hara and that I would probably have to back-pack in the eight miles. Just on a sort of spur-of-the-moment thing I said that I had heard of "special vehicle passes", and had wondered about the possibility of my getting one. He said "easy - I know the ranger and will phone him". Well - in a few minutes he came bouncing in and said to see the said ranger in Field, and pick up a permit and the key to the gate!
The weather was terrific, and I rolled on up the road, stopping to take pictures at will. I had wanted to camp out on the Odaray Plateau, and this seemed like a good time to try it. So, I packed up and started out. That pack must have weighed forty-five pounds and it was a tough climb. Arrived and located a nice place to pitch the tent just about dusk. Ate a can of beans for supper and put on everything: Long Johns, sweaters, pants, long wool stockings and a toque and eased into the sleeping bag. Well, the temperature dropped well below freezing during the night and at times I wondered if I was going to make it. About 6 a.m. I couldn't sleep any more so I thought I'd get up, have breakfast and catch the sunrise. Cooked a bowl of porridge on the little stove, and looked around for the famous "first light." It was nowhere to be seen. The sky was studded with stars and the mountains formed a towering amphitheatre outlined against them. It was eerie, but somehow very beautiful. [view painting] Then, at 7:00 I could see that the sky was lightening a bit and everything was covered with frost. I started out for a vantage point where, eventually, I saw a sight never to be forgotten. Sunrise on the peaks from 7000 feet up. I soaked it all up, recorded it indelibly in my mind, and went back to the tent to prepare for my exploration of the plateau. The sun finally swept the whole area with its warmth, and I had just a magnificent day.
About 3:30 the sun was going down behind the mountains (they're so tall) and I packed up, and carefully descended the trail. Some places I wondered how I ever got up, and I fear I just tottered the last hundred yards..."
Over the years my father shared his love of hiking and camping with his good friends, Keith and Marilyn Lamont. As a result they became avid outdoor enthusiasts as well:
"It is to Peter that we owe our love of the 'great outdoors'. It was summer, 1970, when he first talked us into accompanying him on a camping trip to the Cariboo - one of the areas made famous in his paintings. Rather reluctantly, we agreed. On the first evening we camped out in a beautiful draw, cooked our beans and boiled our cowboy coffee over a roaring campfire, soaked up the beauty of a gorgeous sunset on the rounding hills, sang songs around the campfire accompanied by Peter on his accordion, slept in the open under a full moon and awoke to birds singing and geese honking in a nearby pond. It was an unforgettable experience, and one that was repeated many times in the years to come.
When Peter got us hiking, we began with small walks that gradually extended until we hiked with him to Mount Assiniboine on a challenging two-day hike over Assiniboine Pass. It was a trip filled with magnificent scenery, photography - mishaps and happiness. Despite Peter's love of the mountains, as evidenced by his startlingly gorgeous paintings of the Mount Assiniboine and Lake O'Hara regions, he did have an unexpected fear of heights. In 1979, on a trip to Lake Oesa, we decided, against Peter's better judgment, to return by All Soul's Prospect on a narrow trail with a precipitous drop-off on one side. Peter actually crawled along some of the steeper spots. (To be fair, his fear may have been warranted in-as-much as one misstep on the shale slope could have resulted in a thousand foot drop.) After passing the Prospect we inched down a sharp descent. When we finally reached the valley floor Peter dropped to his hands and knees and kissed the ground - a scene causing much hilarity, and which will never be forgotten.
One of Peter's ambitions was that four of us perform a madrigal on the rocks above Lake MacArthur. He printed out the words and music to "All Ye Who Music Love" and, before our September camping trip, we duly practised our parts. The Lake O'Hara region is known for its unpredictable autumn weather. When the appointed time was finally upon us, we stood on the rocks above Lake MacArthur in a blinding snowstorm and proceeded to sing our madrigal in spite of the weather. When we had finished, there was suddenly a great round of applause from somewhere beyond our vision! Several hikers had been as brave as we were to venture out into the storm and were quite taken by surprise to hear this music coming seemingly out of nowhere! Peter's dream had been fulfilled."
In the spring of 1976 Peter took a second trip to Europe, this time entirely on his own. He visited London and Paris, and made a special trip to Zermatt to take in the Matterhorn, a peak he had always admired greatly and wanted to see. Insightful and humorous stories and memories resulted, and of course, paintings [see the Cityscape paintings gallery].
Hiking with Linda, Lake Louise
In 1979 he bought a fifteen foot sailboat, fulfilling another dream. He enjoyed the challenge of sailing in local bays and lakes, amused by and learning from his own mistakes. Also that year he travelled to Nova Scotia with his daughter, Linda, to introduce her to the Maritimes and to revisit his childhood haunts in and around Barrington. They flew to Halifax and then rented a motor home for a week, exploring and searching out interesting places to share. Yarmouth and Sebim were two of these. There were the forts and small hamlets, Cape Breton, Louisburg ... and the red soil and sand beaches of Prince Edward Island.
That year Peter discovered that he could make "Mountain Miniatures". Taking "actual pieces of the Rockies" he developed an ingenious method of creating rock sculptures. He became so involved in this new project that painting took a back seat for a while. The carport and kitchen became hubs of activity and miniature mountains and their makings could be found throughout the house. He wrote in a promotional draft:
"In the course of my many field trips in the Canadian Rockies, I made an interesting discovery. It was that the forms and characteristics of a mountain thousands of feet in height could often be seen repeated in small sections of the rock itself. Recently I have employed this discovery to develop a new means of communicating my mountain experience. It is a unique concept. Mountains in miniature, reproduced with startling realism and artistic integrity. As one examines these mountain miniatures, something happens. In imagination, one is high above timberline, where rock and snow combine in patterns to delight the eye, lift the mind, and make the workaday world seem far, far below."
In 1980, the opportunity came for Peter to sell his home and property in Langley. After a flurry of house-hunting and packing, he moved to a house on just under an acre above a deep ravine in Crescent Beach. He was pleased with his move, and was elated to have found a house and property with some qualities similar to the Langley "homestead". There he set up another studio and continued to live, work and putter much as he had in the past.
In 1981 there was a trip back east to revisit New York, Montreal and Boston. While travelling, he contracted what he believed at the time to be influenza. In reality it was a viral pneumonia which, upon his return home went unrecognized for several days, and we very nearly lost him. After a stay in hospital his health returned, but his inner ear and equilibrium were altered enough that he never again felt totally comfortable walking or hiking on uneven ground. After one more trip to O'Hara his regular treks into the mountains for the most part ceased. Peter did continue to go on trips for pleasure and photography, but was more often content to spend time closer to home, enjoying his surroundings and friends and being selective in his activities. He continued to paint. In addition to his exhibitions he was commissioned to create a likeness of Calgary for the XV Olympic Winter Games Collection, and in 1986, a triptych of Vancouver for the Expo '86 Collection.
Peter very much appreciated the acknowledgement he received from those who offered it, and many did. He kept the letters that were sent from buyers, as the personal connections meant a lot to him. Included here are some examples of sentiments expressed by many who had purchased or been given his paintings:
October 17th, 1963
Dear Mr. Ewart,
I was presented yesterday for opening a shopping centre in Victoria - with your painting of Mount Sir Donald, and I feel impelled to write and tell you how much I love it. It seemed a very happy chance in some ways, as nobody here could have known how much I love the subject - the snows and the mountain peaks have always melted my bones with their beauty, and your painting of both has given me a treasure which I shall love to the end of my life...
December 23, 1964
Dear Mr. Ewart,
Thank-you for the painting. It is even lovelier than I had hoped and that is saying a great deal.
You must have other talents as either a mind-reader or a magician. The description I sent Mr. Fraser was most inadequate, but the picture could not be more what I wanted if you had taken me around the Vancouver waterfront and given me the pick of all the spots that you thought were worth painting.
Thanks once again. It was a bonus to receive the picture just before Christmas and I do appreciate it that you completed it in time...
December 10, 1970
Dear Mr. Ewart,
Just want you to know your pictures bring me more joy than any other painter's. I don't move in the "arty circles". I don't know the language, but I do know what moves me. It is a phenomenon, but when I see one of your night scenes - starry skies - lights out on the snows - my heart sings while my eyes cry - don't know how this can be - I think it's called happiness from within.
Dear Mr. Ewart,
Now that I have recovered from my surprise, I want you to know how delighted I am with the beautiful painting you so kindly did. As you know, it is our most favourite view at the ranch - and to have it always before me in the den is happiness indeed - especially knowing that the figures in the foreground are our family enjoying a day's outing.
David and I have long been admirers of your work, and so to have you as the artist makes the gift a double treat.
Many many thanks for what I know must have been the extra time and research and trips to the ranch to make this a most perfect gift for me.
October 19, 1986
Dear Peter Ewart,
Among many other lovely things, your painting "Clearing Weather, Near Golden, B.C." speaks of solitude and company, clarity and mystery, motion and stillness.
With poignancy and peace it draws the promise of a new day out of the clouds, having the balance, the beauty, the buoyancy of being. In a word, it is inspired ...
Thank-you. I shall treasure it.
November 9, 1987
How does one begin to express one's gratitude for such generosity?
Barbara and I have long admired your art; well over twenty-five years. It was through a casual comment to David Edwards (Humberston Edwards Fine Art) on our first meeting with him... that we asked about your work. You can, therefore, imagine our surprise when he informed us that not only was he receiving some of your paintings but that he would arrange for us to meet you.
The surprise was enhanced when we found ourselves the proud owners of three of your paintings. As we study them, our appreciation and pleasure continues to grow. Our enjoyment is further increased by having met you and obtaining the background to the paintings you provided us.
When I requested you to note some background on "Moonlight Stillness - Ashcroft Area", I had hoped that you might make a simple comment on the back of the painting. I certainly did not expect or even hope that you would write such a detailed statement. We were all the more astonished to discover that you also prepared a similar description for the painting purchased by our neighbour... as a Christmas present for her husband. She has also requested me to convey to you her thanks for the signed copy of your watercolour painting of Calgary, her birth place, which you have given to her...
The wine is the total extent of my "creativeness". I hope it provides you with a small measure of my appreciation for not only your art but also your generosity.