The eyes unlock memories

ON the odd occasion a painting will stir me to the very foundations of my being for reasons that have little to do with the artist's imagination, or qualities of line, light, color, and perspective -- for reasons, in fact, that minimize considerations of artistic merit. In such instances, and as long as the painting isn't disturbingly weak, how little or how much I may think I know about art is beside the point. What has happened is that I've been emotionally moved. The picture has unlocked something deep within my personal experience. Whenever I see ``Charlotte'' by Jack Humphrey, three doors in my past experience spring open; my mind takes in this painting, but my mind's eye is focusing on other scenes and incidents.

The first dates back to the early days of World War II when I was a schoolboy living on the southeast coast of England. Under threat of invasion the authorities arranged to evacuate children, by schools, inland to parts of the country deemed comparatively safe.

I remember the railway station in Brighton, the line upon line of young children, their gas masks, their over-sized identity tags, their paltry belongings. We were confused, fearful, in instances resentful, unable to comprehend the seriousness of the situation, feeling that our mothers and fathers were getting rid of us. In that sea of small faces Charlotte's expression -- that lost look, with just the merest tinge of hostility -- predominated.

Tumbling in with that recollection is one of the older of my two daughters at perhaps 7 or 8 years of age. Unlike Charlotte in features and appearance, Lisa was a sensitive child, with an inquiring, convice-me mind; and this was the expression I sometimes saw when I failed to convince her.

Third -- while residing in the Mari-times, I put in a stint as a substitute teacher in rural schools; and all around me, or so it seemed, were little ``Charlottes'' -- thin young things in serviceable if occasionally ill-fitting clothes, children with half a mind on the chores awaiting them at home, or in the fields, children wise beyond their years in the ways of the land and sea, and a little suspicious of anyone and anything from outside of their immediate, most pressing experience.

With this painting Jack Humphrey catches qualities integral to several of the Maritime youngsters I came to know. He was himself a Maritimer, born and bred in St. John, New Brunswick. Although he went on to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the early 1920s, thereafter at the National Academy, New York, and later with Hans Hofmann in Europe, he returned to St. John and came to be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a Canadian regionalist painter.

Regionalist or not (and the label carries a disparaging connotation when used in Canadian art circles, although I have never understood why) Humprey has secured a niche for himself in the history of art in this country.

Few would rate ``Charlotte'' highly in terms of national and international artistic standards, nor yet in relation to the best of Humphrey's own output. None of that matters to me in the slightest.

Moreover, I'm prepared to believe that any number of people can see in Charlotte's expression a child they know or have known, vaguely, perhaps, but enough to bring to mind a mood or attitude.

In that way, and to that extent, art can offer self-review of a kind, a fitting together of a few of the pieces that make us how and what we are. It seems to require only that -- if it strikes a chord within us -- we respond to it openly, without reservation, brushing aside for the moment analysis and the assessments of others.

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