|Gerard Pas sits in his home studio before a recently
finished portrait, using tweezers to pick at a fly that has been caught in
the wet oil paint. He exorcises the body of the bug from the canvas, and
looks at the other 11 paintings before him that will be the centre of an
exhibit later next year at the London Regional Art and Historical
|Photo by Vincent
|Gerard Pas puts the finishing touches on a new
Amused at the little cadavers stuck in his work, the London
artist explains that it's important not to pick them out before the paint dries.
"I always leave the legs, because to get the legs out is too much trouble
-- you have to cut the paint."
Pas enjoys the playful break from what is otherwise a very serious project
before him. He is putting finishing touches on the 12 paintings, collectively
called The Saints, which depict figures with various prosthetic devices such as
braces, crutches and respirators. One painting is his take on a famous Rembrandt
-- entitled Woman in the Golden Helmet, it shows a New York fashion model
wearing a "halo helmet," a leather cap for handicapped people with a
propensity to fall on their heads.
For Pas, the paintings are not an academic exercise; afflicted with polio
as a child, he suffers from an atrophied left leg. At the age of 10, Pas was a
Timmy, the poster child for handicapped kids. Now 44, he tries to evoke an
empathy in his paintings that draws upon the life experiences of an artist who
"The whole prospect of The Saints is about realizing the human
condition. We all have to carry a burden -- but after a time, you realize that
it is the burden that makes you human. As with death, when you see death, or how
death has hurt you, and you feel the absence of that person, it is much easier
to be empathetic. Empathy is the hug, the embrace ... It says, 'I know, I have
been there, I know the pain that you are feeling, and let me tell you that there
is hope.' "
The subjects in his work range from historical figures, such as Albrecht
Durer's mother, to Pas' own healthy children, Nicole and Joshua. In one
painting, the now-quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve is shown as Superman, but
here with a tracheal ventilator and blow-ability switch, the device that enables
control of his wheelchair.
"I think that is the most beautiful paradox of all. It is that here is this
ideal, this modern Greek hero, this Odysseus or Ulysses, yet now when people see
him he is the epitome of frailty. He can't even move. He is paralyzed."
The use of crutches, canes and wheelchairs has been a part of Pas' moral
and esthetic imagination for over a decade. The paintings and sculptures that
have resulted from his exploration have been met with much critical acclaim.
There have been exhibits across North America and Europe, and his work hangs in
various collections in Holland and Canada. But the difficult themes Pas engages
have kept gallery dealers at bay: as Pas puts it, the complex issues raised in
his work mean that he is not the most accessible artist to clients looking for a
nice landscape to match their sofa.
Over the years, Pas has had to rely on the support of his wife Maria, and
grants from the Canada and Ontario Arts Councils. Dwindling funding from the
government in recent years has left Pas a bit perplexed at how to remain
committed to his art without taking on a vocational job.
"I have to eat, and this government situation is like the church in
the Renaissance telling Michelangelo, 'Sorry, we're getting out of the arts
To make ends meet this year, Pas took on a gardening contract at a local
monastery. Pas says that stepping out of the studio to work in nature has made a
nice complement to his intellectual pursuits as an artist. With like-minded
spiritual concerns, he has become like family to the nuns of The Sisters of the
Precious Blood. But Mother Superior Eileen Mary says he hasn't quite left his
esthetic sensibilities behind at the studio.
"Gerard takes pride in his work. Some of our visitors have remarked
to us that they see our grounds have been kept by not only a good landscaper,
but an artistic landscaper."
Pas is reflective on the irony of his day job. "I always sort of
thought that I'd end up working for the Vatican -- that is, painting a cupola
somewhere, or a dome somewhere -- but I never thought it'd be like this! But
cutting grass for the Pope ... well, it's got a nice little twist to it I
Gerald Vaandering, also a London artist, works alongside Pas at the
monastery. He says but for a few senior artists in the community, earning a
trickle income from other jobs is just the way it is for someone inspired to
create. He observes the benefits that working in a garden bestow on people like
himself and Pas.
"You work at a meditative pace here, which allows a legitimate relief
from your obsessions in the studio. There are psychological dividends; the work
doesn't mentally wear out the artist. It has allowed Gerard to be incredibly
productive; he keeps a steady pace back at the studio. It's a pace he practises
perfectly ... He is somebody that keeps moving along and before you know it,
he's got a large body of work again."
Vaandering has been following Pas' work over the years, and he sees an
intellectual maturity in his new work. But there are other artists in the
community who have not been as receptive to Pas' exploration of disabilities and
physical and emotional challenges -- themes that have recurred since his early
days as a student at H.B. Beal Technical School. Some have called the themes
overly obsessive, and look to see his talent move on to explore other concerns.
Yet Pas sees his work in a larger frame, where returning to a subject over
and over brings clarity, and brings deeper connections together. As with Van
Gogh, he says, emotional obsessions can magnify the world and find a strange
"Looking at physically challenged people comes out of a need to find
love and compassion. Sometimes I think I need to find some other focus, because
angst is what sells in the art market. And I think I'd like to find peace in my
later years as an artist, maybe like Matisse, and just find the joy in painting
the body. But I have spent 20 years dealing with pain and suffering, I own those
experiences and emotions and seek to honour them. I'm not Rick Hansen -- who
went around the world in his wheelchair. I'm the antithesis of that; I want to
observe the suffering and struggles involved."
Pas' sister, Margaret, says her brother's need for the cathartic
experience in his art has always been the starting point of his muse. "It
began when he was a child, the combination of dealing with polio, an alcoholic
father and a dysfunctional family; it's in the intersection of all these things
that drives him. Possibly, if he didn't have one of these things, he wouldn't be
a great artist."
As Pas stares at the bug legs left behind on his canvas, he considers the
importance of the trials and travails in his life, and the recurring need to
find stability and love in his family and marriage.
"Of course, I feel art is born out of pain," he suggests.
"I just don't think you can make a work of art without having deep
experiences yourself. Moving on in the future, who knows. Maybe I won't be
talking about my broken leg ... I'll be talking about my broken heart."
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