Varley Weisman writes: My father recently passed away and I spoke at his funeral, sharing parts of my relationship with him as perhaps both my most important and most formidable teacher. I think it speaks in part to the role many of us play in our work with youth - that is, having an impactful teacher.
One of my Aunts, I believe it was Lydia, affectionately nicknamed Dad "Professor" when he received his appointment to teach at the Ontario College of Art. Dad however was first and foremost a student of life and the arts and secondly a teacher. As a child I did not fully comprehend or appreciate how skilled a student and teacher he was.
Dad is one of the few people I know who greeted each day of his life as a fresh new adventure to be fully embraced and appreciated. Whether it be building a two-storey outhouse (and no you didn’t want the first-storey seat), to being in awe of how the sun hit a dew drop on a flower petal, to exploring the cathedrals of Europe, to roaming the Andes and Greece, Dad was a student always learning and always questioning.
In today’s society it has become a pat and trite phrase to say that one's parents are a child's first teachers. When I look back at the relationship I had with Dad, he was my first and most important teacher in so many areas of my life. I sometimes hear his voice when my son Nathan and I interact.
It is only as an adult that I came to recognize the subtle and sometimes not so subtle complexity of his teaching style. The subtle teachings included being exposed to parts of his professional life with visits to various artists homes and galleries, listening in on philosophical discussions that ranged from the writings of Plato to the artwork of Chagall, including me in attendance at Fred Varley’s annual birthday parties, visits to his various studios over the years and as a young child measuring and cutting lead for a stained glass window.
The subtle lessons came in the form of visiting Gramma and Grandpa on a regular basis and learning about unconditional positive regard from Gramma, learning my family history and all about the work ethic from Grandpa, and the importance of family from both grandparents.
The subtle lessons came with his tolerance and patience in facilitating my exploration of what I wanted to do educationally and professionally. As a student at Ryerson and a wannabe politician in the mid 70s, I wanted to run for the presidency of the Students Union. I needed some campaign funds, so Dad agreed to meet at the Bev down the street from OCA on Queen Street for lunch to discuss my aspirations. Over a couple of quarts of beer, he listened to my story and I am sure much against his better judgement - or it might have been the beer - he decided to make a significant campaign contribution in the form of a loan. The education I received that fall was not necessarily academic in nature, but became part of who I am today. Thank you for facilitating that learning opportunity Dad.
Dad taught us most importantly about optimism, respect and humility. His optimism was abundantly clear any time he stopped in at a garage sale or the local scrap yard. Where many of us would see something as worn out, broken or useless, he would see potential and possibilities - and more often than not make the potential and possible a reality.
His optimism was at its best with Shirley, the ying to Dad's yang. With Shirley at his side, anything was possible. Everywhere they went together was an adventure to be thoroughly experienced and enjoyed. Thank you Shirley for being Dad's soulmate and partner in crime. Together you two really were a dynamic duo!!!
Respect for ourselves and others was taught in numerous ways throughout. Respect for ourselves was taught in an expectation that whatever you do, you do to the best of your ability, and that any job worth doing is worth doing well. One of the earliest memories I have of learning to respect others was on a trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario. I was climbing on a Henry Moore sculpture as Dad was looking at the paintings on display. I was never quite sure if it was the act of climbing or the noises I was making as Dad never said a word, he just flicked his finger on the back of my ear and raised one of his eyebrows with a look that clearly displayed his displeasure. I learned three important things that day: 1. My behaviour was inappropriate and disrespectful for the setting, 2. You respect the traditions and expectations of places and people you visit and, 3. The back of my ear was directly connected to my tear ducts. The message was received loud and clear.
Dad's humbleness was best demonstrated in his own words describing the "Experiences Becoming Reality" show at the McGlaughlin Gallery in Oshawa in 1995. And I quote:
"The works in this showing are representative of my abiding interests over four decades. They are my explorations of, and participation in, the divine wonder of life. They are my celebration of awareness, and my search for integrity. My whole being is in total perception: light in space lives, and when it touches is excited into life. I am one point in this space, and my mind is caught up, and drawing actions follow. The result is a surface with a wide gamut of impact and purpose “assertive, darting, penetrating, deflecting, retreating, hovering, and caressing, dying and being reborn, seeking a poise of wholeness. Time and place are critical. These works are landscapes because that is where I was when it happened. Are they also something else? Contemplation raises questions about the nature and meaning of experience. How do we chose to define our terms? At what point does the particular become the abstract out of life’s abundance? What is beyond the vanishing point?" “Gustav Weisman, 1995
He knew he never had the complete answer and that there were always further questions to be asked and avenues to be explored. His humbleness, in many ways, was always being open to further explore the mystery and wonder of life.
So what are we to make of Dad's passing? What have we learned from our time with him? How do we show what we learned? Perhaps part of the answers to these questions is in how we are responding to being here today. Of course there is sadness, but I would ask you to think about Dad in a way that causes you to smile as you recall an interaction that was unique to your relationship with him. Whatever it is that has caused you to smile is a gift he has given you to keep forever.
In closing I want to read an excerpt from a poem entitled, The Prophet written in 1923 by Kahlil Gibran. The book was a gift to dad as a young man of 23. It helps to explain his philosophy about both life and death.
" Then Almitra spoke, saying, We would ask now of
And he said: You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one.
In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honour.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing , but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it might rise and expand to seek God unemcumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance." (pgs 87-88)
I think Dad challenged the content of the poem and danced the dance of life as a mortal teaching anyone who came to know him a few of the steps. He will continue to dance on the new dance floor of immortality. Our challenge I believe is to continue the dance of life and teach it to those around us. Thank you for being our teacher Dad.