If you drive south on Burton Avenue in Barrie, and wait until it’s really Yonge St., you’ll be driving along what was countryside just a few years ago. The “new” Steckley Gooderham Funeral Home, McDonalds, Tim Horton’s, and the tremendous housing development along Lovers Creek and in Painswick have all changed the landscape of Barrie’s south end.
Anyway, between Coxmill Rd and Minet’s Point Rd, on the east side of Yonge St is a house and a shed that are surely slated for demolition as our housing craze continues. It was bought by a developer and is currently rented.
When those two buildings are levelled at 557 Yonge St., it will be the end of the artistic studio of one of this century’s most prolific artists. From what now looks like a shed, for a quarter century was the very busy studio of Conyers Barker, an artist whose accolades from the art community are so numerous I could fill this column with just that.
However, this week I want to reflect on the life and renderings of Conyers Barker. Next Thursday (March 18) he will celebrate his 90th birthday from the studio he built in his home at 102 Shakespeare Cr in Letitia Heights in Barrie. Conyers, and his wife Ina, moved to the Shakespeare home a decade ago. But the studio on Yonge St. is very likely the location of Conyers’ most prolific work.
When Conyers was a young boy, his home was downtown Toronto and he attended both Central Technical School and the Ontario College of Art. He was only 18 in 1928 when his work was hung in the Art Gallery of Toronto (now known as the Art Gallery of Ontario). His paintings have come to life on walls in art galleries across Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and at the 1965 New York Worlds Fair.
His colleagues have selected him for a number of group showings. The AGO has purchased one of Conyers’ oils for its Canadian Historical Collection. From his Yonge St studio Conyers has recorded much of our historic past in this region. He’s perhaps most appreciated for preserving on canvas many, many barns on farms that are now under pavement in this region. To see a Conyers Barker barn picture is to step into the field and walk up to the fieldstone foundation, smell the hayloft, the grain bins, and see the sprinkles of sunlight captured in rays of dust streaming in each window and barn slat.
I remember a few years ago being absolutely arrested at the display window of Peter Northcott’s Dunlop St. photography studio when his enormous, beautiful, true capture on film of Conyers filled the entire window space. A truly spectacular work, Peter’s picture shows a diminutive man, twinkle of eye, trimmed goatee and cigarette in one hand… a photograph by an artist of an artist.
Conyers has painted in just about every medium there is and is perhaps most loved for his work in oils. While his abstract paintings are thought provoking, his interpretive work which captures on canvas the scenes that most of us miss are truly his gift during this century.
Conyers, like most artists, has plied his trade after earning his living doing something else. Crippled by polio as a child, his mobility is hampered by leg braces but overcome by a remarkable spirit. Before his marriage 35 years ago to Ina McGowan (a quick, Scottish saleswoman whom he met at Creeds in Toronto) Conyers supported himself by working in the graphic arts department at Imperial Oil. After that positioned he freelanced at the Toronto Historical Board. His sketching and painting in Simcoe County drew him in 1959 to join Ralph Snelgrove and his brother Bert in the fledgling CKVR television studio, whose tower on the top of Highway 27 was in the middle of nowhere. Conyers ran the creative department for a decade there before “retiring” in 1969.
Paul Miller, another fine Barrie artist, remembers being interviewed by Conyers when he was applying as a young man to work in the arts department at CKVR. “Conyers sized me up, asked what art school I went to, what I enjoyed about painting, and hired me on the spot!” Paul worked under Conyers direction for two years, and went on to head up a Creative Services department that numbered 20 before the new VR made changes in its local staff.
After 1969, Conyers became increasingly prolific, painting and sketching landscape wherever he
travelled… western Canada, Florida, Caribbean, and right here at home on Barrie’s waterfront. A contemporary of Canada’s Group of Seven, Conyers brings his own style and vision to each of his works, experimenting throughout his life with different ways of bringing to life the everyday scenes that most of us miss.
Today in Conyers studio are many preliminary sketches, unfinished, near-finished paintings and finished products. What he offers is an excellent teaching collection for growing artists who want to see the development of a piece from concept to frame. Those at the MacLaren say it’s one fine collection to have as a permanent memorial to one man’s output.
In the next week if you’re in the Yonge St. area, drive past 557 Yonge, tip your hat towards the “shed”, enjoy the thought that though those boards are slated for dust, the ideas, energy, and output of the man whose brilliance worked within will live forever.
Happy Birthday, Conyers!
On another note
It’s catching out there! Random acts of kindness, unplanned, spur-of-the-moment ways of doing good… Maggie Fritsch called recently to tell me of a snowplow operator who drove past her and her full driveway as Maggie pecked away with her shovel. The driver backed up, turned his equipment sideways and in one fell swoop cleared what was clearly a morning’s work for Maggie!
Mary Ellen Smith, principal at Central Collegiate, called to report on the results of a “Wish List” sent home to Central parents with student report cards last week. “There, in my office, delivered by courier were two secretarial chairs, four storage containers, a math game and a CD Rom learning tool, all items on the wish list,” she said. Central Secretary Shirley King put in a call to the courier who traced it to Business Depot who didn’t divulge the giver of the act of kindness. The store said simply that a woman came in, selected the items, paid for them and asked for courier delivery.
If you have received a random act of kindness, I’d like to share it with regular readers of this space. Please “fax your act” to 727-0550. You have to be the receiver, not the giver, to make this truly random.