Ross Beard: here and (not) gone

I never met Ross Beard, but his influence is still felt in ‘my’ Welland. This is both literal, in terms of his mural on East Main, on the old Welland Tribune building, which I often pass when out walking in the Rose City. However, in a more permanent manner, I know a number of artists (either currently in Welland, or who spent time there) that list him as a mentor, as someone who both supported and helped grow their own practice.

Over his career, he painted three murals in Welland, though only two are still standing: he attended Niagara and Sheridan College, and began painting full time in 1976. His works have often been described as surrealist, with a ‘mysterious serenity.’ If you can get your hands on a copy of the book produced to accompany the Welland Murals (A Festival of Canadian Art: Welland’s Outdoor Giant Murals, which has some lovely reproductions of the many murals, some of which no longer exist, and many of which have become worn and neglected shadows of their former selves), you must do so. In that text, Beard is described as ‘creating panoramic scenes that draw the viewer into the paintings…blending earthy Welland landscapes with his own ethereal symbolism. Ross often bases his paintings on a feeling, triggered by a song or memory.’ This resonates with me, as the first piece of his I saw in the flesh, so to speak, Upbound at Midnight (his mural at 228 East Main in Welland), I experienced as dusk was falling, on one of my many roaming walks through the city. ‘Using various shades of blue, this night scene features lights reflecting softly on the water as a ship proceeds south, at Mile 19, along the Welland Canal. The bridges and lights of Port Colborne can be seen in the distance. As the scene demanded attention to lighting detail, Beard decided to paint it in bright sunlight, the harshest light.”

The rich blue darkness of the mural takes on another life, in the evenings, and perhaps even a sense that Beard didn’t intend, as the dereliction of care for this work ‘reflects’ the urban scene around it, like a ghost, or a ‘landmark’ (in terms of the bridge, and all it symbolized in terms of Welland’s past, and present, but in contrasting stances) that is no longer ‘accurate.’

A bit of a disclaimer, or perhaps more accurately, a statement: in speaking of the bridge – which also loomed softly, a hazy silhouette, in the distant sky in Beard’s mural The Pond – New Year’s Eve (previously at 188 East Main but removed). It is an icon, but often one so overused as to be empty of true meaning, here in Welland. My caveat is that having recently curated an exhibition of Sandy Fairbairn‘s images of Welland (from 1973 – 2019), Sandy and I spoke of how there are no ‘straightforward’ images of Bridge 13, the Welland Canal bridge, in that show at AIH Studios. It makes its presence felt, however: in some, the shadow of it stretches across a street, or in another, the top peeks from above and behind a building, or in another it is reflected sharply and cleanly in the window of a derelict space. This unintentional ‘exclusion’ of the stereotypical ‘portrayal’ of Welland, in Sandy’s exhibition Welland: Times Present Times Past, has made me more aware of how communities represent themselves, whether by proliferating or eschewing ‘expected’ or easy ‘symbols.’

Alternately, it has also made me aware of how these symbols change, and can define one narrative and then be harbingers of the failure of that narrative, as a rebuke, if you will, to it, and insisting on another story. The Welland Murals are, in some ways, indicative of such a ‘flip’: what they depict, in their diversity of artist, execution and subject matter, is less relevant to people in the Rose City than how they have declined and degraded and been destroyed: and that it might have been prevented…. Many of these ideas flitted through my head just last week, as I walked by Upbound at Midnight.

A side note: a recent vandalizing of another of my favourite artworks in Welland, Emily Andrews‘ mural at the Black Sheep Lounge, is sad not just for the loss of that wonderful work, but also as it exposed what might be another legacy of the murals. The conversation that happened on my FB page in response to sharing the above news link was rife with inappropriate tones of ‘well, you should have known better’ or criticizing the artist, mixed with a dose of ‘we can’t have nice things in Welland.’ I’ll return to a comment made by Sandy Fairibairn, that “I don’t think the town, its present and its history get the respect they deserve.” Pity when that comes from within, not external, but seeing works that are wonderful and significant to Welland allowed to slack into ruin or be destroyed (as with Beard’s murals, and that of many others here) can’t help but feed a disrespect of place, a sense of self loathing……and this is wrong.

In researching Beard, this comment echoes – or expands – my observations above: “Past times haunt his work making it more about when, than what.” That so many of his scenes seem to hover at times of day that are darker, as night falls, suggest nostalgia, but not in a sentimental manner, but with sentiment and feeling.

Beard’s works, though drawn from his community, are often empty of people, or they appear as simple dark shapes: in this sense, they invite you in, but also offer quiet moments of contemplation.

This absence is also fitting: I’m not really writing about Ross Beard so much as his legacy, as manifest in his artworks and how they intersect with Welland history and community. His widow, Diane, still maintains his FB page, and posts and shares many of his works, and this is a highlight of my social media feed, and makes him very much alive to me, and many others who actually knew him. Years ago, when I curated another show about images of a community, the idea that you create / capture images of your place to reflect and communicate what it is, to you, and to others (or shifting how others see it), was a sentiment that inspired many of the artists in that exhibition. It is very true here, with Beard’s images of Expecting to Fly (1974) or 17 (Train Bridge, also from 1974) or Unbound (1985), which all have subtle and moody tones.

It’s difficult, often, to speak about an artist’s work after they’ve passed, but in this case it’s both less, and more diffcult in specific ways. His widow keeps Ross’ images alive, by maintaining his FB page, so many can see images anew. This is the positive aspect: less so is that his two remaining murals are not well preserved, and only two of the three commissioned by the city of Welland are still intact. This is why I’ve only shared one image of the Welland Tribune mural, and this primarily due to my encountering it when I spent a significant amount of time in the Rose City: in that respect, that image is more about the best aspect of public art – a moment of unexpected joy at something beautiful and resonant, even if it comes tinged with ruin….

In conversation with Diane, I asked her to choose for me some of her favourite images from Ross’ prolific legacy: this also seemed an appropriate tonic to the absence of images of the murals, and I share several of those here, too.

You can read an obituary of Ross Beard here, and his aforementioned FB page, which is how I came to know his work, can be enjoyed here, too. The book I cited earlier, that tells the story of the Welland Murals (and I suggest as it depicts the murals in fine form and before the subsequent neglect is titled A Festival of Canadian Art: Welland’s Outdoor Giant Murals and I found a copy at the Welland Public Library, and I encourage you to visit there, and see the images of other fine artists who were part of that project). My personal favourite (perhaps because I encountered it first, and see it regularly on my walks in Welland) is his mural on East Main, as seen in the header for this piece. Go see it.

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