For Ted Harrison painting is a way of life

Ted Harrison is closing his Oak Bay gallery, but has no plans to retire

Just shy of his 86th birthday, artist Ted Harrison has a few things in common with his fellow octogenarians in the retirement community. He uses a wheelchair. His hearing isn't as good as it used to be. And he's grown accustomed to 5 p.m. dinner.

But while many of his neighbours gave up careers long ago, the famed artist says he'll paint until the day he dies.

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He pauses for a moment when asked why.

"Why do you wash your face in the morning? It's just what you have to do," he says. "I think painting is more a way of life than a hobby."

The English-born creator has painted thousands of pieces in his decades as a working artist, though he hesitates to guess exactly how many - that would mean telling an untruth.

It was in the Yukon, where he spent a quarter century before moving to Victoria in 1993, that he developed the portfolio of vivid, illustrative works - inspired by the people and landscapes of the Canadian North - that has made him one of the country's most recognizable and popular artists.

He landed in Carcross (south of Whitehorse) with his wife, Nicky, and son, Charles, in 1967, following art school, Second World War military service, and years of teaching around the globe, including Malaysia and New Zealand.

Since then, he has written and illustrated several children's books, designed the Yukon Pavilion for Vancouver's Expo 86 and earned the Order of Canada for his contribution to Canadian culture.

In spite of his resolve to continue making art, Harrison has been doing a bit less painting these days - thus the decision to close his Oak Bay gallery and studio Aug. 30.

It was a place where fans from across the country could watch the master at work, as well as purchase art.

But where one door closes, another opens: the Ted Harrison School in Calgary will welcome middle schoolers through its door for the first time next month - a testament not only to Harrison's lasting reach across Canada, but his popularity across generations.

And while his work obligations are slowing, he's still quick with the jokes. He sports a navy blazer and novelty tie featuring Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, saying he dressed before she had a chance to do the same.

Asked about proud moments in his career, he says being born was his greatest accomplishment. ("Can you think of anything bigger?")

And he recalls a favourite poem:

Mary had a little lamb; It was a little glutton.

She fed it some ice cream drinks;

And now it's frozen mutton.

It's no surprise the charmer was overwhelmed with visitors at a party Aug. 9, celebrating both its closing and Harrison's upcoming birthday.

"There were loads of people," he said. "I just like them all. They're all individuals and they each show you their own way of life.

That's the big thing. And then they come and tell you that you're interesting and you wonder where they got that idea."

Gallery manager Kaitlyn Webb Patience said visitors came from the Yukon, Calgary and northern B.C. and shared a slice of cake, decorated with the image of one of Harrison's works.

"They certainly expressed their appreciation for his artwork," she said. "There was a lot of love in the room."

It isn't uncommon for fans to approach Harrison without knowing him personally. But he's modest in retelling what they say to him, calling himself only "supposedly" famous, but admitting that his work is known.

"They just say, 'How are you keeping?' " he said.

"And I say, 'OK, thank you.' "

His new home in the retirement community is decorated with only one of his own pieces of art - the rest are gifts from artist friends.

And he's made his own contribution to the local art scene, donating his higherend supplies to the regular art sessions organized for residents.

The works that he makes now, which he says are in an increasingly "simplified" style, land in the University of Victoria's archives where temperature, humidity and other conditions are regulated.

Harrison no longer paints commissions, Webb Patience said, but interested buyers can still purchase prints online at tedharrison.com.

Harrison doesn't foresee an unnatural end to his painting. "It's no good, an artist living, if they don't do any painting."

As for what's next? "Same thing. People and landscapes," he said. "There isn't much else, is there?" asmart@timescolonist.com

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