The Quiet Painter - a long conversation with Arne Roosman
Published in Country Roads Magazine, Fall 2014
People hush themselves and listen intently when Arne Roosman opens his mouth. Perhaps it's because his voice is so soft. Or maybe it's because of the slight mumbly quality of his speech, caused by a pleasing mix of age and a subtly faded Estonian accent that has been delicately tumbled and polished by travel and time. More likely it's just that people are interested in what the slim white-haired artist has to say, and humbled by their respect for the renowned painter who has made the Bancroft area his home for the last 26 years.
Once you start looking for it, you notice Roosman's art everywhere: framed in various stores, cafe's and offices; on display in local galleries; included in anthologies; on stage as part of the set design at the Village Playhouse; and now at one of the main corridors into Bancroft, right on the side of what is commonly referred to as the 'old Whitfield building' at 23 Bridge Street, next to the York River.
It's fitting that the building's owner, Burke Chamberlin, chose Roosman to paint the new mural. Not only is Roosman an important part of the community and one of the area's best known artists, but the native Estonian, who sought refuge in Germany, and then Sweden, has a deep respect and reverence for history, which is what the mural is all about.
“A true mural is not just a very large painting,” he tells me. “It is a collage of sorts; it's comprised of many parts, and it tells a story.” He leads me on a tour of the mural, which chronicles the history of Bancroft. It's clear that he took his research seriously.
“Here, look here,” he points a finger at one of the wooden panels that make up the mural. Orange flames dance around the town. It was the year 1906, and fire ravaged Bancroft's downtown core.
“And here,” he directs my eyes to the first train coming into town, then to the opening of the town's first hardware store, then to a boat where three figures bob along the York River. The two men in the boat are real people, who's families still live in the region today. You can read all about them in books that document the history of Bancroft. You won't read about the woman in the boat in any historical or reference books though.
“I had to add her,” says Roosman. “Women weren't often included in the histories, but their contributions were just as important.” Later, in his studio, he shows me a series of paintings in which he turned well known historical heroes and creatures, centaurs and Pegasuses into brazen and powerful female incarnations.
Readers, I have to apologize, because just a few minutes into my interview with Roosman, I abandoned my notepad - so I don't know the exact dimensions of the mural. I can tell you that it's very large, takes up the entire west side of the old Whitfield building, and is comprised of 11 panels, each at least one and a half times as tall as me. But that last part is an estimate. I'm sure Roosman told me the exact measurements, but I didn't write them down. The conversation got too interesting to interrupt it with pre-written questions and scribbled notations. I had to just dive in, and fully embrace the opportunity to have a real, unstructured, unscripted four-hour conversation with the octogenarian that witnessed the horrors of the second world war, and has a house full of portraits of stunning brunettes. It was only after I spent an hour or so wandering around admiring them, sipping white wine, that he confessed to me that every single one is a likeness of his wife of fifty-five years: Leena. Here in Jackie O's signature do from the 1960s. There, looking fierce with dark brooding eyes under blunt bangs. Everywhere I turn I see Leena, throughout the decades.
The house, right next to the York River (seriously, you can fish off the front deck!) is a quintessential artists' retreat. Although it's only minutes from downtown Bancroft, it is quiet and spacious, with maybe the best view of Eagle's Nest that this Bancroft native has ever seen. It is full of art, and books. A chess board and snacks are ready and waiting on the coffee table. But don't take the word 'retreat' too literally. Roosman is tougher than some men a quarter his age. The big old house, which was originally a mill, has been converted into a living space full of staircases, which Roosman climbs daily. When he moved in last fall there was no heat or running water.
“It was a bit like the old days in Estonia,” he says, his eyes crinkling with amusement as he describes going outside and washing his underarms with snowballs.
Despite his 82 years, Roosman is quick as a whip, thoughtful, agile, and up for almost any challenge. Large paintings hang all over the walls of the main-floor living space, some painted by him, others by various members of his family, almost all of them artists of some sort, including his father who taught him to paint as a child. He takes me past the shelves overflowing with books, some of which he designed during his career as a lithographer in Toronto.
“Uku, you stay,” he says with a deceptively stern voice to the big fluffy dog that he dotes on and spoils with saltines and potato chips. Uku obeys reluctantly, while Roosman and I climb three flights of steep stairs. When we reach the 'big' studio (there's a smaller one downstairs that doubles as the artist's bedroom), he points out a contraption bolted high up on the wall, from which he hung the panels of the mural while he worked on them, using scaffolding to reach the top. He admits it was a physically demanding project.
“When on top of the scaffolding there was a lot of shoulder work. When I got tired I'd climb down to the the bottom of the scaffolding. But at the bottom there was a lot of knee bending.”
About 10 years ago Roosman fell from a ladder at the Bancroft Art Gallery, and broke his knee. Just a few months later though he traveled to Scotland, to waltz with his daughter at her wedding.
“I still walk about seven hundred to nine hundred kilometres per year,” he says, explaining his good health. “I keep a day book to keep track of the figures. I'm 20 kilometres short from this time last year. When I get behind I think, 'Oh, I'd better start walking more', but one does get behind year after year.”
Up and down the staircases he went. Up and down the scaffolding. Day after day, week after week, month after month, until the mural was finished.
“It was a surprise.” Says the painter about the finished product. Because the panels were so large, he never saw more than three sections together until it was all assembled on the side of the old Whitfield building. It's the largest piece he's ever worked on, so he refers to the mural as his Sistine Chapel, and therefore calls Chamberlin his “Pope” with a chuckle.
Over the past couple years, Chamberlin and his wife, Ingrid, have put a lot of work into their building. The facade was improved, and not long afterward work began on a boardwalk along the west side of the building. Now if you go for a stroll you can gaze out at the river, or turn around and see the mural that tells so much about the history of Bancroft.
In what has come to be known as Bancroft's Theatre District, due to its close proximity to the historic Village Playhouse just a block away, the old building is full of new life. One of the units has recently been leased out by an artists collective, and is simply called 'A Place for the Arts.' Arne is a member, naturally, and though he doesn't spend too much time there, the other artists that share the space are pleased to rub elbows with him.
“It's so great to have him here in a kind of mentorship role,” says Linda Lang, a local painter who travels frequently to the Arctic circle to document the visual changes happening there due to climate change.
“He has so much to share with other artists, and he's just a wonderful, wonderful soul,” Lang says. She tells me that she once tried to compliment Roosman on his work, and that he shrugged it off, saying he doesn't need the praise and he'd like to see emerging artists get more representation and recognition.
“He is very supportive of other artists' work. And really, that's what 'A Place for the Arts' is all about,” says Lang, of the space where artists mingle, work, and display their art.
“Hopefully the long term use of the building will evolve as a home for artists,” says Chamberlin. “To us, the mural was a natural addition reflecting the historical character of the building and its location. We didn't originally intend that it would attract an artists collective, but once we learned of the group's plans and needs, meetings were held and ideas incubated. To Ingrid and I, the mural and the arts centre are a perfect fit.”
As if creating a giant mural telling the history of a town wasn't a big enough project, Roosman also completed two series of paintings while working on the mural. They won't be on display until his upcoming exhibit at the Bancroft Art Gallery in October, but I got a sneak peak. And another history lesson.
One series of paintings depicts the York River, which of course runs through the town, and right past the mural as well as Rooseman's home/studio. The second series is a retrospective of Roosman's childhood. He was just a boy when Russia invaded Estonia. He, his parents, and his seven brothers and sisters had to flee in 1941, becoming refugees in Germany, where they stayed throughout the war. He was eight years old.
In each painting there is a little boy, usually up to some sort of mischief, like plotting with his friends, running from the gestapo, and rolling barrels of oil down the hill at Nazi tanks.
Who is the little boy? I ask.
“The little boy is always me,” he replies, and tells the stories. True stories. Stories of abusive Nazi teachers; other children poking fun at him for his Estonian accent; stories of stealing flowers for Mother's day, and tormenting little sisters for sport. The paintings and their tales feature normal childhood shenanigans set upon the backdrop of a perilous wartime that few people remember first hand anymore.
Outside on his deck overlooking the river, Roosman shows me his battleship sculpture. It's made of solid iron.
“This is how all battleships should be built,” he says quietly. “Built to sink.”
A couple feet from the battleship there is another sculpture, of a double-headed mantis, and there beside it is an old handle, hanging from a metal chain. When I ask, he tells me that the last time he returned to Estonia he visited his childhood home. He found the root cellar and ripped the handle off to bring home as a keepsake.
After fleeing Estonia, his family spent seven years in Germany before moving on to Sweden. He remembers when the allies liberated the Jews from the concentration camps.
“They ran through the streets, tapping on windows and asking for clothes. They'd been stuck in these dirty striped uniforms that the Nazis had made them wear. The next morning the streets were littered with striped uniforms. But those resourceful German ladies, they picked them all up. They washed them, dyed them brown and cut them up. For the rest of that year all the women wore brown skirts.”
He shows me the visual representation of this story in one of his paintings. A little boy looks out the window at desperate, skeletal faces. There is a loaf of bread on the table next to him.
Did they ask for food? I ask.
“No. The allies fed them well, and took care of them. They just wanted clothes. They needed to get out of those stripes.”
I want him to talk forever, and share these details that I will learn nowhere else. This here. This is why people fall into a hush when he speaks. He tells his history matter-of-factly, with a calm that only years of observance and reflection can bring. He answers questions with a poetry equally as captivating as his painting.
“Arne, how often do you paint?” I ask near the end of our interview. I want to stay longer, and I think he'd let me, but I have children to pick up, and deadlines to meet, and dinner to cook.
“Everyday, of course,” he says. “I have to. My hands shake if I don't.”