The author met Bill Alexander at age sixteen in 1966, knew him like a father, delivered his eulogy and executed his last will and testament.
What the Parents of Babies Born in the Baby Boom Generation Wanted on Their Walls
Producing What People Wanted
A Little History Music, Please.
Bill Alexander was thirty-five years my senior when we first met in 1966. He was already old from my perspective. And those old farts who were frequent visitors to our house; customers, admirers, wannabees or just plain groupies, well some were just ancient. But the one thing they all had in common was they loved being around him, how he worked and what he produced. He could be mesmerizing. They couldn't wait to get their Alexander oil original on their living room wall and show off the work of this energetic, magician-like artist to everybody they wanted to impress.
I know it sounds silly, but whenever I discovered something "special", I always wanted to share it. Music is my best example of just day-to-day "stuff" one comes across. So, when I first heard Gordon Lightfoot sing to kids after school at a community center or Queen open for Supertramp, I knew they would go on to fame. I only bought one each of their albums. I'm no collector. But I did tell other people to take note of these artists. I guess this is how artists gain fame or used to. From humble beginnings...
I met many of these "old farts". They were like the who's who of Montreal's retail sector. (At that time, Montreal was as important, if not more important than Toronto as an economic center.) I remember their names, but their titles tell the tale. Head flooring buyer for a major national retail chain, owner of a major flooring wholesaler/retailer, etc.
While the 1950's were "Leave it to Beaverish", I remember the 60's and 70's to be full of social unrest. And it was my generation leading that charge. The nightly news provided plenty of grisly scenes, even in Canada there was a risk of civil war.
So, the last thing families wanted to permanently see on their walls, opposite their TV sets, was something that wasn't calm and peaceful.
To this day, Bill Alexander's "masterpiece" series has yet to hang on a wall. They need "the right wall".
Bill Alexander, despite his creative genius, still had to make a living. So, he painted what people wanted.
The image of the Robert Wood landscape is typical of what the marketplace wanted over their living-room couches following the second world war. I chose Robert Wood, because I do remember his prints on the walls of furniture departments in department stores as a child. Millions of prints were sold. (Yes, Virginia, people used to shop in department stores. There were no malls and no online sales outlets.)
It was no accident Bill Alexander set up his art busking shop in the furniture and/or flooring departments of department stores. And the stores loved to have him. He drew a crowd. It was a mutually rewarding win/win. Traffic is the heartbeat of the retail industry, no matter what platform it is walking across.
We Can't Kill Sales Now, Can We?
The Price of Immortality
The world it seems, has become very quick to judge and punish or reward.
The trajectory of any career or business can change abruptly as a result of social media's presence and ease with which it can be manipulated. Perception frequently overshadows truth.
So, when there was such a negative initial reaction to Bill Alexander's "out of the ordinary" paintings from very unexpected sources, I wasn't surprised.
Bill warned me this would happen when the "do something different" discussion first took place. Hence, the three decades long disappearing act for these works.
I don't know that Bill was in a dark place, as some people suspect. But things were not going well. The relationship with my mother had become strained and he was living alone. Bill was not good at looking after himself and had dodged a bullet when he had his first stroke. Remembering to take his meds was a real challenge.
And, the baton/brush of PBS fame had passed to Bob Ross.
I don't think anyone ever likes to be replaced. I don't think Bill ever connected that it was Bob Ross' voice and delivery that people wanted and was a "better/best" marketing strategy. It had nothing to do with art or technique.
So, when he asked me how the world might remember him, I told him what I just told you. He was the happy TV painter who delivered a safe, uncontroversial product, safely. And, that he did teach the world to paint in oils, and he did invent Magic White and he did invent the diamond-shaped palette knife, but it is unlikely he would be remembered as a great artist.
When he asked why, I told him he doesn't venture out of the box and appears he can only paint fairly easy subjects that don't vary that greatly from one painting to the next. In short, they don't move people much emotionally or intellectually. In addition, they are paintings his own students could easily reproduce. It could be hard to distinguish a true Alexander original from a fake.
You may think I was being brutally honest with him, and I was, but I also knew being remembered as a "great" and as a "master" were at the top of his bucket list. There really was only one step he could take to that end and he rose to the challenge.
That is why this "out of the ordinary" series of paintings exist. Others may have their own spin or narrative. If you hear them, just check the intent.
Bill did love the peace and calm of nature. Yet the reality of humanity at its worst never escaped him. I never told him what to paint, just what he thought deeply about, good or bad, that would make people stop and think, feel or act.
I don't know a thing about oil painting or the "easy" wet-on-wet technique, but logic tells me you can't create these paintings on a whim using an "easy" technique, at least not in thirty minutes. There is just too much detail and thought occurring along the way.
So, if Bill set out to differentiate himself from the pack, I would say he did a pretty good job of letting the world know he could be a serious artist. He just chose not to be.
It would have cost him dearly.
Knowing When to Hang 'em Up
Next Up: Out of the Closet and What to Expect
With the exception of a few, Bill's thought-provoking series of oil paintings, have not been seen by human eyes.
Those closest to Bill, including family, peers and business associates know or knew of their existence.
Nobody jumped up and down with glee, awe or a WTF.
When I was a child of ten, I had the mind-opening experience of visiting a home for incurable children. Children that were hidden from public view because of their deformities. Spinal bifida patients and mongoloids, some exceptionally severe, were among the children I observed.
It served two purposes. It reminded me how fortunate I was, despite my own desperate circumstances and that life can be and is very harsh. I've been very thankful of the good stuff that comes along with the bad.
The attitude of those closest to Bill reminds me of those parents who hid their imperfect children from view.
The good news is most of those unenthused fans of these works associated with Bill and the business of art have passed or are well enough established that loss of "revenue" is hopefully no longer an issue.