Details of an Artistic Life (Rolph Blakstad: Part II)

Introduction

This is a sequel to the previous post, MIA: The Loss of a 20-foot Painting. In this post, we will sketch a few of the biographical details about artist, Rolph Blakstad, and his wife, Mary Isobel Blakstad (nee Leiterman), during their time in Vancouver.

Early Years

Rolph (aka Rolf) Kenneth Blakstad (1929-2012) was the only son of Peter and Olive Blakstad. Peter (1884-1967) and Olive (1897-1981) were born and raised in Norway and they later came to North America where they met and married. Peter was an architect, master builder and craftsman; Olive, as far as I can tell, didn’t work outside the family home.¹

Screen Shot 2018-11-22 at 4.02.45 PM

Ralph Blakstad (1947). The Island (painted in tempura). Image reproduced from Artmaking in Two Vancouver High Schools 1920 to 1950 by D. Wendy Louise Stephenson. UBC Ph.D. thesis, 2005.

Rolph was born August 24, 1929. He had one sibling, an elder sister, by the name of Gloria Solveig Blakstad (1922-2001). She married Rollie Pearson (an engineer who specialized in building bridges), and the couple made a home, with their two boys, in San Carlos, California.

Rolph grew up and attended public schools in Vancouver, graduating from Kitsilano High School in 1947. He was artistically involved there, producing art work for school yearbooks and being involved in the high school Decorating Club.  The school also gave him an entrée to the Vancouver Art School, located near the Marine Building downtown, on Saturday mornings. One of Blakstad’s pieces from his time at Kits High appears at right.

Early Fifties

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 8.25.47 PMAfter graduating from Kits High, Rolph began an undergraduate course of studies at UBC (B.A. ’51). In 1950, he designed the set for the UBC Players Club’s production of the Robertson Davies play, Eros at Breakfast. In 1951, he designed the set for another Players Club production, The Male Animal, a James Thurber comedy.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 12.47.28 AM1951 would be a ‘red letter’ year for Rolph. That was the year he graduated from UBC with an Arts Degree. He was also awarded the Emily Carr Scholarship (in the sum of $1200) which he would apply to studies of old master artists in Florence, Italy later in the year. He would leave for Italy in the Fall accompanied by his bride, Mary Leiterman (1929-1996), another UBC graduate, whom he married in August.

In 1952, Rolph and Mary moved from Florence to London, where he worked for the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments.

They returned to Vancouver from Europe sometime in 1953 and Rolph got work as a set designer with CBC Vancouver television station affiliate, CBUT.² In a letter from Mary Blakstad to her sister, Elaine Campbell, in May 1954, she mentions that:

Rolph has been working on a design for a mural for the entrance hall of the TV building. It will be above the switchboard – 6 x 12′. TV is the theme, of course, and he is doing it in a rather realistic style.

— Excerpt of a letter from Mary Blakstad to
Elaine Campbell (nee Leiterman), dated May 20, 1954.
Excerpt kindly provided by Sabrina Blakstad.

RKB Head of a girl Portrait of a Woman oil on canvas, signed and dated, Blaksted 56 Top right. 23.5x20 in. Sold 2011

Rolph Blakstad. Head of a Girl. Graphite on wove paper.

In 1955, Rolph was invited to submit a piece of his work to the National Gallery. The decision as to which piece he’d choose is described in a letter from Mary Blackstad to Elaine Campbell:

Rolph was very busy painting all over Christmas. He took time out to eat Christmas dinner and hardly time to open presents. He was getting some paintings ready for Lawren Harris to see. Mr Harris came up to see Rolph’s work and suggest two paintings to submit for the selection being sent from Vancouver to the National Gallery exhibit. Rolph had 2 nice ones finished. Both quite large heads of a woman in different styles. They are quite different from Rolph’s other work. These are much more realistic.

— Letter from Mary Blakstad to Elaine Campbell (nee Leiterman). Dated January 17, no year shown, but it seems probable it was 1955.
Excerpt kindly provided by Sabrina Blakstad.

He sold his Head of a Girl to Canada’s National Gallery in 1955.

Untitled Brock Hall Mural and “Kitsilano Garden”

cdm.arphotos.1-0028806fullBy late 1955 or early ’56, RKB had completed the 20-foot square, untitled forest scene that was purchased by UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS) – for $300, reportedly – and hung in what served as the AMS space, Brock Hall’s lounge, from the late ’50s until the SUB (Student Union Building) was constructed in 1972. It is this lost work that was the subject of the previous post. I’ve been able to establish the creation date of December 1955 or January 1956 for the Brock Hall mural with help from an excerpt of correspondence written by Mary Blakstad:

Rolph has been painting quite steadily and has his work in several exhibitions. He will be showing with 3 other Vancouver artists [Bruno Bobak, Joseph Plaskett, and Gordon Smith] in an exhibit at the Toronto Art Gallery early in the new year. And he has just finished a 3 man show [in addition to Blakstad, Herbert Gilbert and Ronald Kelly] at the University gallery [UBC] and has contributed to many other exhibits. He is also working on a mural for the university student lounge. (Emphasis mine).

—  From a Christmas card dated December 7, 1955
from Mary Blakstad to Janet and Olaf Pedersen (family friends).
Excerpt kindly provided by Sabrina Blakstad.

The Brock Hall mural has been missing for decades. The most recent direct reference to the mural was in a letter from the Chair of the Senate Committee on University Art to the Students’ Council president in May 1968. An excerpt follows:

At the last meeting of the Senate Committee on University Art which has the task of looking after works of art on the campus, the question was brought up of the disposition of the large mural by Rolf Blackstad now hanging at the south end of the Main Lounge in Brock Hall.

The mural was commissioned eleven or twelve years ago and was paid for out of student funds. My committee has therefore no jurisdiction over it but the Committee felt that this was a very handsome piece of work and that it would make an excellent focal point in a room in the new Student Union Building (it is our understanding that Brock Hall is going to be turned into offices, and therefore the mural will in all likelihood have to be removed from it present location).

— Excerpt of a letter from Sam Black, Chair, Senate Committee on University
Art 
to David Zirnhelt, President, Students’ Council, UBC. May 17, 1968.
Excerpt kindly provided by Tessa Grogan, AMS Archives Assistant.

The December 7, 1955 letter from Mary Blakstad to the Pedersens mentions the Brock Hall mural (the “mural for the university student lounge”) and also another painting which was apparently being worked on by Blakstad at about the same time (for the “exhibit at the Toronto Art Gallery”, today known as the Art Gallery of Ontario). This Toronto Art Gallery work appears below.

IMG_6275

Rolph Blakstad, 1956. Owned by Olaf and Janet Pedersen of Vancouver for many years. Known as the “Kitsilano Garden” painting by current owner, Sabrina Blakstad. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Blakstad. Note: the trees shown in the bottom right corner (in abstraction) look to me as though they were Monkey Puzzle Trees. Sabrina Blakstad has confirmed with her aunt, Phyllis King (a sister of Mary’s), that there were such trees in the yard of the Kitsilano Garden.

Verso of Blakstad's Kits Garden work

Back side of Blakstad’s “Kitsilano Garden”. Shows part of a ripped Art Gallery of Toronto label. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Blakstad. Elsewhere on the back of this painting, according to Sabrina Blakstad, is pencilled $85.

The subject matter as well as the remembered palette of the Brock Hall mural seem to have been very similar to that of Blakstad’s “Kitsilano Garden”. June Binkert, secretary to the UBC President’s Committee on University Art, who searched in vain for the missing work until she retired in the early 1990s, recalled that the Brock Hall mural was “in shades of pink, red, blue, and green”  — not unlike the palette that was used on the Kitsilano Garden shown above (UBC Reports. November 29, 1990, p. 10.) In the absence of a colour photograph that shows the Brock Hall mural, therefore, the Kitsilano Garden work may offer some clues as to its appearance.

Sabrina Blakstad’s aunt, Phyllis King, Mary Blakstad’s sister, believes that the Kitsilano Garden work is an abstract rendering of the mid-’50s home rented by Mary’s and Phyllis’ parents, Douglas and Mattie Leiterman at 3857 Point Grey Road. Rolph and Mary lived in the attic of this house when they returned to Vancouver in the 1953-’56 period. Phyllis and then-husband Allan King, also shared the attic of the home. Sabrina Blakstad reported a conversation she had with Phyllis:

Phyllis said she seems to remember the garden ran down to the shore – the house fronted onto the street, but at the back the garden was very big and the bottom of the garden got a bit wild and went down to the water.

— Sabrina Blakstad recalling a conversation she had with Phyllis King (nee Leiterman) in an email message to the author, November 2, 2018.

tumblr_mk82nweD9J1qc7pjjo2_r1_500The house that was attached to the Kitsilano Garden seems to have been the subject of another Canadian artist, Frederick H. Varley (shown at right). This work, called From Kitsilano was made in 1932, well before the Blakstads’ or the Leitermans’ time there.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 6.36.35 AM

Map Data: Google 2018.

The Kits Garden and the house were demolished not too long after the Blakstads left Vancouver to live permanently in Europe. The property was purchased by Jericho Tennis Courts and the home (and garden) was re-developed by the early 1960s into the area that today is populated principally by several tennis courts.

After Vancouver

rolph-blakstad-portraitIn 1956, Rolph and Mary Blakstad arrived on the Spanish island of Ibiza and remained there for the rest of their lives. Although he continued to create art in Ibiza, their move there seemed to prompt a real shift in Rolph’s interests. In the late ’50s and 1960s, he freelanced as a film maker. His last career shift entailed Rolph establishing an architectural firm in 1967 which today is run by his son, Rolf, and is called Blakstad Design Consultants.

Rolph Blakstad died April 2, 2012 in Ibiza.

Notes

¹I’m very appreciative of information generously provided by Rolph and Mary’s daughter, Sabrina Blakstad, about her parents and extended family.

²CBUT was founded in December, 1953. The initial headquarters for the CBC affiliate was at 1200 West Georgia Street (at corner of Bute) in a converted former automotive dealership called Consolidated Motors.

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