MY DEAR FRIEND, I am writing this letter because I miss you so very much. I have been thinking about the wonderful experiences we shared over more than 25 years. I am reminded of the trips we took to “Dunrovin,” your cottage on Emma Lake, Sask., where the four seasons were our companions as we created works of art.
When I received the phone call from your spouse, Eleanor, I began to fully appreciate the significance of the visit by a large and majestic black bear. As I sat with my own spouse on our dock on Six Mile Lake in Ontario, the inquisitive bear presented itself at the exact time that you died in Saskatoon. I remembered then William Faulkner’s story of Old Ben, a bear with a mutilated paw that succumbed to a death symbolic of cruel and changing times. You were that creature, you were that remarkable bear, you were that artist.
Do you remember the moment when you placed your father’s paint box on my lap, handed me a canvas, and rested a brush on the arm of an ancient folding deck chair? Do you remember the words of encouragement you gave me, your pipe clamped firmly between your teeth? “Now survey your surroundings and get some paint on that canvas,” you said. Shortly thereafter, I preached a sermon at St. John’s Cathedral about that experience, and I incorporated the words of our friend Henri Nouwen: “Acting, speaking, and even reflective thinking may at times be too demanding, but we are forever seeing…We see clearly or vaguely, but always we find something to see.”
One of the disciplines we embraced involved our mandatory pilgrimage to a large black spruce stump that had been hit by lightning. We would ponder the changes that occurred between visits. Just short of genuflecting, we were silently reverent to a fault, in awe of God’s mastery in creating such gratuitous beauty via such a powerfully destructive force.
Upon our return to the cottage we would always savour the fragrances associated with your highly skilled culinary talents, the comforting voices of CBC radio personalities, and the large Quebec maple dining room table, strewn with abandoned issues of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. That table served as the protective buffer for our assortment of canvases, beer glasses, paints, brushes, cigar ashes and pipe debris. We would engage our work with a solitary passion for hours on end. We would invite the muse, challenge the Great Spirit, crush all things residing in old wine skins, and fashion the new. Our ultimate goal: to fuse that which is with that which could be; to become co-creators with the God we both loved, as two people fully aware that in the creative process we owned our roles as “the Beloved of God.”
My friend, you gifted me with what it means to be a human being on an intentional journey. Everything about our friendship spoke to two important realities: dynamism in art and the need for the Church, a Church we both loved, to discern between living traditions and traditions that are merely culturally entrenched passing fancies of comfort. Meaningfulness was our anthem in matters of art and faith.
I have been writing this letter in Saskatoon, the place where we were both born. These last words are being scratched into my journal on the burial site of your mentor and friend John George Diefenbaker. As I slowly turn 360 degrees I am observing a panoramic view of your life: the College of Medicine where you trained to become a physician; City Hospital where you cared for so many people as an internal medicine specialist; St. John’s Cathedral where you celebrated your faith; the Mendel Art Gallery where your work was exhibited; and of course, the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, which inspired your work as an artist.
Adieu, Robert. I will continue to cherish our memories and promise to keep the spirit of the Emma Lake Group of Two alive and well.
Pax and Love, David
Dr. Robert C. Anderson died suddenly on July 15, 2009 at the age of 75. He and Rev. David W. Opheim were close friends and shared their painting experiences for more than 25 years at a small cottage on Emma Lake, Sask.