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Artist painted tribute to swissair 111 victims

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Wed April 12 2006, 07:47 AM
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Artist painted tribute to swissair 111 victims
David Whitzman: A lifetime devoted to painting
Ability to draw key to good work, says lover of landscapes, portraiture
By ELISSA BARNARD Arts Reporter

Halifax artist David Whitzman is still painting at the age of 90.

"You don't just stop, you know, you keep going hell or high water," says the affable painter, having a solo exhibit at Zwicker's Gallery.

His secret to longevity, he says, is "eating fish," especially salmon, but it could also be his lifelong passion for painting.

Whitzman has kept at his art since his Grade 6 teacher marched him off to the Nova Scotia College of Art to try out for a scholarship. "From that day on I never paid for a lesson in my life."

His father, who came to Halifax from Europe and then brought his mother over, worked in scrap iron and metals. The family lived on Maynard Street behind the Armouries. "I was lucky my parents could afford to let me go to school. I didn't have to work."

Whitzman studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art under artist and principal Elizabeth Styring Nutt, who came to Canada from Sheffield on Arthur Lismer's recommendation to the Victoria School of Art and Design in 1919. She changed the school's name to the Nova Scotia College of Art in 1925, and left in 1943 due to ill health. Nutt died in Sheffield in 1946.

"She was an elderly lady when I encountered her," says Whitzman. "She was very influential in my life; she was the first teacher I ever had."

Whitzman taught drawing and painting at the college for four years, and also studied with Lismer in Montreal, and Caven Atkins and André Bieler at Queen's University. In 1946 he studied for a year at the Art Students' League of New York with teachers including the legendary teacher and illustrator Frank Reilly.

"Reilly was a great teacher, he really was. He was a man I enjoyed. He was a fine commercial artist. He was commissioned for Philadelphia Whiskey ads and one day he took me up to his studio and showed me how they designed the layouts."

The key to being a good artist, says Whitzman, is the ability to "draw correctly."

"Most of the people you see today, they do this weirdo stuff. They can't draw so they do a cover-up," says Whitzman, who likes the work of Tom Forrestall and Alex Colville. "If you can draw you can do anything."

Though he is Halifax-born and bred, Whitzman has never wanted to paint urban scenes. "I painted a couple but they don't appeal to me like landscape "” the sky, the trees, the water and the sun."

Whitzman's landscapes are vigorous light-filled paintings with dabs of paint for an overall dazzling jewel-like effect in strong, clear colours. His scenes, whether they are from Cape Breton or Sunnyside, appear to be, as he says, anywhere in Nova Scotia.

"This is me. I'm a Nova Scotian. What am I going to do "” paint New York City?"

Whitzman, who donated a painting of waves breaking over rocks to the Keshen Goodman Library in honour of his late brother, also exhibits three portraits including a self-portrait and one of golfer Mike Weir. "That's my favourite subject, portraiture. People are of special interest to me. I enjoy meeting people."

This exhibit includes a painting of a boulder by the sea, and on top of the boulder is a smaller stone. This painting is an homage to the victims of Swissair Flight 111, which crashed off of Peggys Cove.

"The Jewish people have a tradition that when you go to a graveyard you pick a stone off the ground and put it on top of the tombstone."

Whitzman has a painting on the easel at his west-end Halifax apartment. "I never run out of material. I could paint forever."

"Painting's magic," says Whitzman. "I've never seen anything like it. I can look at something and the painting says to me, ˜Look, Buddy, if you don't do it the way I show you the painting will fall apart,' and it does."

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( ebarnard@herald.ca)