MIA: The Loss of a 20-foot Painting (Rolph Blakstad: Part I)

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UBC 1.1/2648-2. The Brock Hall Lounge on UBC Campus. Chamber Music concert. 1960. No attribution. This photo shows the complete art work discussed in this post on the far wall. (Note: A crop of the artwork from this image appears below in this post).

This is a tale of discovery. Of learning what a painting was called, who created it, and, perhaps, what became of it. The story began with the photo shown below.

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Canadian Congress of Corrections meal at UBC, May 24-29, 1959. Fred Sunday photo. Author’s print.

I have a peculiar passion for Fred Sunday’s panoramic images. I don’t know why, exactly. More often than not, they don’t have much of a historical story to tell (at least, not to me). They are principally group shots of huge numbers of people, quite often taken on the steps of the Vancouver Courthouse (today’s Vancouver Art Gallery).

But the photo of the Congress of Corrections meetings (a gift from my old friend, Wes) was different — initially, mainly because of where the image was made; later because of a bit of an art mystery buried within it.

Sunday identified the photo as having been made at UBC campus, but didn’t specify the building. I am familiar with many of UBC’s buildings as they were in the early 1990s, when I was doing graduate work there, but I did not recall a space that matched the one portrayed in the panorama.

Clues

So I approached UBC archivist, Erwin Wodarczak, who has helped on other occasions to identify images of structures on campus. He knew immediately where my photo was made: Brock Hall

cdm.arphotos.1-0028806fullWhile I was ‘batting a thousand’ with Erwin, I inquired if, by chance, he could identify the art which was just visible on the far wall of the image. Sorry, No. But he had a suggestion: Contact the staff at UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS) Archives.

I heard back the next day from Tessa Grogan, Archives Assistant at the AMS. She wasn’t able definitively to identify the painting or the artist. But she did point me in the right general direction² with the first article I saw that seemed to refer to the painting. It was in The Ubyssey, March 9, 1956. It is reproduced in part below:

Polled Students Hate New Painting

The most favourable reaction to the new painting hung in Brock lounge is apathy. In a poll of Brock Loungers, taken at noon Thursday, the mildest comment received was “I can’t stand it.”. . . . One student excused the artist saying “it’s so big he couldn’t get close enough to see what he was doing,” while another congratulated him, saying “he deserves commendation for his salesmanship.”

The fact that the painting is title-less inspired many aspiring young art critics to attempt naming it. Possible titles ranged from “Drunken Peacocks During Mating Season” to “Navel Contemplating Tangerine Orange.”

Several students said that, due to a sign hung directly under the painting, they were under the impression that the title is “Lounge Will be Closed at 1:00 p.m. Today . . . . “

I’m not a huge fan of abstract art, but I must say that my reaction to the painting couldn’t be in greater contrast to that of those mid-’50s students: I really like the piece! 

The paragraph which includes the typically ‘studenty’ witticism about naming the piece “Drunken Peacocks…” made me wonder if they might have been referring to the painting that appears in my photo. But before I could take my “wondering” any further, I’d need more evidence; and, ideally, it would be good to discover the name of the artist.

In Search Of . . . the Artist

I went to UBC’s Open Collections website to search for other mentions of ‘painting’ or ‘Brock’ around the mid-’50s. It didn’t take too long before I hit pay-dirt by finding this wee blurb in the 1955 Alumni Chronicle

“UBC graduate Rolf Blakstad, B. A. ’51, will take time out from his C.B.U.-TV designing [at the time, C.B.U. was the local CBC station] to paint a 20′ mural for Brock Hall . . . .”

Ubysseynews-1.0124923This was a breakthrough. But not conclusive. So I kept plugging away with my search. Now, however, I was equipped with a possible artist’s name: Rolf Blakstad.

Next, I found a write-up in the September 20, 1955 issue of The UbysseyIt is shown at right. The article revealed that the Blakstad painting was square and very large (20 by 20 feet). That seemed to link up with the painting shown above.

By the time I’d finished reading the September Ubyseey article, I was all but certain that the Blakstad painting and the one that appeared in the first images in this post were one and the same.

But I wanted more than ‘all but’ certainty, so I began to see what information I could glean from the other end — about Mr. Blakstad. Was it possible that he was still living?

Rolph-BlakstadFrom to a Google search, I learned that Mr. Blakstad had been living (since shortly after painting the “untitled” image) on the island of Ibiza (just off the coast of Spain).  It seems Blakstad had been in business as an architect on the island for many years and, most recently, had been working with his youngest son, whose name is Rolf (as opposed, confusingly, to his father’s apparently new-ish name spelling of Rolph). Mr. Blakstad, Sr.  (b. 1929) seemed still to be living, so I tried sending an email message c/o his son at Blakstad Design Consultants. Sadly, I have since learned from his son that Mr. Blakstad passed away in 2012.

Eureka

So I pressed ahead with whatever I could learn in Vancouver. I had sent an email to UBC’s art gallery, the Belkin Gallery, at an earlier stage of my research — before I thought I knew the name of the artist. I decided I should update them, now that I had Mr. Blakstad’s name. I had a reply from Jana Tyner at the Belkin saying they had found nothing, yet, to help me with my search, but they appreciated having the artist’s probable name.

Meanwhile, I spent most of a morning at VPL at the task of looking up art auction records from the 1970s and ’80s. Nothing.

I was looking in newspaper databases to see if there were any clues there, when it occurred to me that I hadn’t done a check of the UBC Open Collections website using Blakstad’s name. So I tried that. There wasn’t much on the results page that I hadn’t seen before, but there was one entry from November 29, 1990 which I’d never seen. I didn’t have high hopes, as 1990 was from a period substantially after Blakstad had left Canada for Ibiza. Chances were that it pertained to another Blakstad, unrelated to the artist.

But the article proved to be the big eureka moment of the search:

I read it. And then, not quite believing what I’d read, I re-read it.

June Binkert had been, it seemed — a year before my wife and I had arrived at Vancouver and 28 years before I’d laid eyes on a photo of the art work — every bit as obsessed as I’d become with tracking the thing down!

I inquired of Jana at the Belkin Gallery if Ms Binkert were still living. Alas, no. Apparently, she’d made no headway in her 1990 campaign to unearth the painting.³ And nobody else has taken up the case since her retirement that year, evidently.

But Jana did have a copy of a piece of correspondence which Ms Binkert had sent around to multiple contacts on campus, asking if anyone had seen the art work. With that I will conclude this post.

Perhaps I will have cause at some point to write an update to this post, should someone someday unroll Blakstad’s officially untitled “stylized forest scene” within some darkened storage space.

For now, this will need to remain an unfinished story.

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From the records of the UBC Art Committee. By June Binkert, Secretary to the President’s Committee on University Art. n.d. (1990).


Notes

¹The chamber group was playing in what was then called the Brock Hall “lounge”.  Sometime in the 1970s or ’80s, the lounge was modernized and divided up into office space for counselling and other services. Erwin has said that in the last 10 years or so, the partitions were removed during renovations that served to open up the space again. What was originally called the lounge can serve, once again, as a social/reception area.

²One of Tessa’s helpful services was directing me to several photos that better showed the entire painting. Those images included the first one that appears in this post.

³According to a follow-up article in UBC Reports in 1991, the campaign didn’t turn up any good information on the painting. Binkert is quoted: “No one seems to know what happened to it. I would have thought that someone would have seen it after all these years.”

Note: For a sequel to this post, see here.

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2 Responses to MIA: The Loss of a 20-foot Painting (Rolph Blakstad: Part I)

  1. Oooo, what a juicy mystery this is! I hope you can find more info on it!

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