World of Words: Painting a northern paradise

Forty years ago, an undiscovered English painter, new to the Yukon, had his first Canadian art show at the Whitehorse Public Library. Now, that painter, Ted Harrison, is the subject of the biography Painting Paradise by Katherine Gibson.

On August 26, at 5 p.m., Yukoners can join both artist and author at the Yukon Arts Centre for a combined launch, exhibit and signing.

“I was well aware I was writing the first book about an important Canadian,” says Gibson. Rather than an academic treatise, “I wanted Painting Paradise to be fun, informative and express Ted’s personality.”

Gibson found Harrison, the man, had changed little from the open, friendly child who grew up in Wingate, England, or the intelligent young man who served during the British army’s African campaign in World War II.

What did change was Harrison’s artistic expression: his stubbornness allowed him to break with tradition and create a wholly unique style. Gibson quotes Harrison in the preface, “When folks first saw my paintings, some called it folk art. I call it the School of Cheery.”

Gibson poured through countless print and audio features in her four years of interviews, research and travel and there is still room to investigate the effect of Harrison’s six years in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands.

“The colours there deeply impressed Ted and influenced his Yukon works,” Gibson says.

As it is, Gibson traces the brushstrokes of a student copying the masters at the College of Art in West Hartlepool, England, to an artist incorporating Maori designs from New Zealand, to the internationally acclaimed innovator of the Yukon Big Sky.

It was those images that appealed to Gibson as a young school teacher, years before she met the artist. Gibson had watched her students’ eyes fill with wonder as she unfolded the images of Harrison’s Yukon depicted in the pages of The Cremation of Sam McGee. She was curious about the man behind the vivid colours and expansive style.

Now a full-time writer, currently at work on a literary mystery set in the art world, Gibson has authored two prior autobiographies, two lifestyle books and has written numerous articles including a review in 2005 of a Harrison exhibit in Victoria.

Impressed with that article, Harrison contacted Gibson and asked if she’d like to hear more stories, possibly for a book. Many people had suggested Harrison write an autobiography, but the closest he got was in 1980 with The Last Horizon, a collection of personal stories prefaced by long-time friend Pierre Berton.

“I agreed,” says Gibson, “with the understanding I would write his life as I saw it. It’s not a candy-coated version, but an honest portrayal of one of Canada’s national treasures.”

Upon completion, Harrison reviewed the manuscript for accuracy, says Gibson. “When Ted read it, he pronounced it so engaging that he forgot he was reading about himself. I consider that a huge compliment.”

Jessica Simon covers the literary beat for What’s Up Yukon. Please contact her three weeks before your literary event happens at [email protected]

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