The Trouble With Treasure
This is really an author's note. The article that follows was first published in January of 2014. As time passes, I am reminded of a responsibility and obligation I have to the subject of my piece. And that is to find an appropriate home for the works described in the article. This will be no easy task. It isn't just a matter of finding a willing buyer. It has to be the right buyer. William "Bill" Alexander's influence on the world of popular culture and art during his time is more significant than most would fully appreciate. If not today, then at some point in time. I just don't want the works to be lost forever. So, the article that follows is going to be used as one destination for any one person or organization to find out the basic who, what, where, when and why.
The Bill I Knew
Most people called him Bill.
Bill liked to be called Bill.
In time, I would call him "Pop".
He liked to call me Sandy. If he was feeling especially playful, he would call me SandyBandy. All one word.
I was fifteen years old when I first met Bill. I was forty-six when I gave his eulogy on that typically dull and dreary January day in 1997.
It was a chance encounter with fate back in 1965 that had the effect of being a life changing one for me. It is one I grew to appreciate progressively more over time.
For Bill, it was an opportunity to be a father figure and role model. When I look back now, it was something he chose to do. I'm not entirely sure why, but I'm glad and feel especially fortunate that he did.
Bill would have been a hugely impressive man to someone like me. I was young, orphan-like, and here was this larger than life guy who drove a VW microbus with more glass than metal panels all around it. On the front door panels of the vehicle were painted the words, "The Old Master Painter From the Faraway Hills".
His enthusiasm was infectious. He took me to a Mom and Pop eatery on the Danforth in Toronto where he told me I could order anything I wanted. He had come from Montreal, a six hour drive, to meet me. I had a burger and fries. He had coffee and pie. I would learn Bill loved his coffee and desserts. We talked about my young life. He even gave me a quarter for the jukebox. I don't know why, but my selections included "I Started a Joke" by the Bee Gees.
I was the estranged son of Bill's long time partner, Margaret. When Bill met me, I had been recently extricated from a strange and unusal relationship with my paternal father. A very strange and difficult man.
The law was involved.
There were very good reasons my mother wasn't with my father. All of them most unpleasant.
I think Bill just felt sorry for me at first. The meeting must have gone well. I was invited to go visit him and my mother in Montreal shortly afterwards.
Bill had a daughter, but he was very traditional in many ways. Heidi was grown up and pursuing a life of her own. And pretty uninterested in watching Bill's transformation from a career printer, slash, family man, to a vagabond, struggling artist who drove around in a bubble and was basically busking for a living. Besides, it was something special for Bill to be a father figure to a male. Bill had an ego. He loved attention. He especially loved adulation.
While I didn't adore Bill, I liked him immediately and always would. Who wouldn't. Bill always made a great first impression. Quite simply, he was immensely charming at the most basic of levels. He just made you feel like the best thing that had ever happened to him was running into you.
And paint. There really is something impressive about watching an eight square foot blank canvas become a a pretty detailed oil painting in less than thirty minutes. He usually shrugged off any accolades he would receive and just tell people they could do it too! He was more than happy with the acknowledgements though.
He was almost always like that with the public. It was one the things that led to his popularity and celebrity.
In private, he was human, just like everyone else. He had his pet peeves, bad habits and Kodak moments. There were also times that if a photograph had been taken, he would have wanted the negative burned.
Those occasions were very rare.
Bill was and wanted to be a good guy. He was consistently well intended and often generous to his own disadvantage. He also had a lot of hare-brained ideas that were very costly for him.
He was an artist and money gave him the freedom to express himself, even if the money was usually very poorly spent. When he failed at anything, he would laugh heartily and just tell you that he wanted to show you how you shouldn't do it.
The only time I saw an unconfident Bill was was after he had his second stroke and lost the ability to paint to his standard.
Over time, I have come to truly appreciate the influence he exerted over my life. Maturity will do that for you.
Bill wanted me to write about him some day. When the time was right. If I did though, he instructed me, be certain to "paint" him a positive light.
I assured him I would. I only ever saw and thought of Bill in a positive light. I would have been in my early forties when he made the request. I was a middle management banker, raising a family in a small town. He was probably at his peak but time wasn't on his side.
"You gave me things a parent should have and didn't, before we met", I would have said to him.
"Things like like self-esteem and self-confidence. As well as how to look for the good in everything and be amazed at what you see, learn and find the impossible possible. And finally, if you like what you see, go after it with vigour and passion. It can only take you to good places."
All those things still work well for me. I may not be wealthy but I am happy with who I have become and so are those who are closest to me. It has been a long journey.
Bill had a great deal to do with that outcome.
If you Google William "Bill" Alexander (artist) or, The Magic of Oil Painting Videos, you will find a healthy supply of links to this man and the result of his numerous creations.
Bill passed before he could even comprehend what the internet is today. He would have been impressed, inspired and afraid.
Bill understood getting in front of more people sold more of whatever you were peddling.
He also understood "marketing" from the perspective of the absolute basics. Most basic marketing is simply common sense, like getting your name, face or brand out there. And, make memorable product presentations.
Hence the big leaps from demonstrating his technique around shopping centres in Toronto and Montreal and Los Angeles, to Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBS) programming and back to those mega big shopping malls all over the U.S. where thousands of onlookers would watch in wonderment as he brought a blank white canvas to life in a matter of moments while he schmoozed the daylights out of you. He even had a gig once on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Bill wasn't particularly literate and he knew it. He respected "smart" because he knew he wasn't. But he was smart, like a fox, he would say happily. Mostly, he just believed that if you went through life with good intentions, doing your best, then good things would just happen. Bill was a simple man in his needs but complex when it came to his passions.
When I first met Bill, he was the proverbial struggling artist. When he perfected his version of his wet-on-wet technique, he thought he had discovered the holy grail.
It made him feel powerful. He wanted to teach the world to paint because he wanted people to feel powerful. To feel like they "really could do anything at all if they put their mind to it and grabbed that almighty brush or tiger by the tail. And, give 'er hell!"
Bill had lived through a terrible time. He, like just about every other man, woman and child of that era had lost something dear on all sides of the Atlantic, Pacific and points beyond,
But, he was fond of reminding me, "Look at where the world is today!".
"When I was a young man, I had to break big rocks with a hammer all day long to make gravel when we were road building. Now we walk on the moon."
Bill always went to the positive. He did not like to be around negative energy of any kind.
If he had been sitting beside me when I googled his name, the fifty-four million links alone would have blown his mind.
Then he would have asked me if it was all good. It isn't of course and that would have bothered him. He really wanted peace in the valley and to be everybody's friend.
Bill was an innocent. He was always trying to "do good". He could never understand why anyone could ever have issue with him. It would have distressed him terribly.
Bill didn't always fathom just how different people can be from one another and that there is a great deal of grey in the world. Probably because the world was changing quickly and has.
Bill will probably always be remembered as a peddler of artist supplies and teaching an "easy" oil painting technique. That will be a shame.
Bill had passion and it was never about selling product.
He didn't necessarily make the connection that he was paid royalties on sales based on his celebrity. He sincerely believed he was making the world a better place. He truly wanted to empower others and if you take the time to look, read and listen, you will find that he did. He just happened to do it his way.
And, as I Google William "Bill" Alexander, Artist, and begin to peruse the 54 million plus listings that is rich with imitators, disciples, other celebrities, paintings, product, videos, students, product re-sellers, television program broadcasts and a multitude of books ghost written for him on his techniques as well as books written about him, it would have been easy to show him what he has left as his legacy to the world. He unquestionably left it a much richer place.
Then I would have had some fun with him on the internet. I would have asked him to give me names of other artists off the top of is head to compare their "Google Hits" to his.
He would have asked me to check out Bob Ross, his closest "rival" and most successful student. Bob would have come in with 32 million. Bill would have been very happy for Bob and proud of himself for being the influence behind the success.
He would have inquired about Leonardo Da Vinci because he wanted to create more than just artwork, like Bill. At 19 million, Bill's barrel chest would probably inflate to twice it's normal size.
Then, because they are about the same era, have completely opposite painting styles and because he is internationally famous, he would have wanted to see how he compared to Pablo Picasso. Pablo came in at 8 million.
Bill was never fond of Pablo Picasso's painting technique. He would have been very pleased to find he "Out Googled" Picasso by a factor of about six to one. Bill would have been very pleased with himself.
And then he would tell me we should go fishing for salmon.
This is Not Your Usual Alexander!
Having been an "intimate" of Bill's and confidante on some matters for the last three decades of his life and during his most productive years as an "artist" and celebrity, I feel somewhat qualified to at least describe what Bill may have thought and felt when he went about his business.
As a teenager, he taught me how to make stretcher frames and use leverage to make the canvas tight, but not warp. My fingers and thumbs were a fraction as strong as Bill's. He was surprisingly very strong physically..
I watched him play chemist and engineer to make all the products you have seen or still see that bear his name. I watched him cut his deals with Canadian companies Cloverdale Paints and Richards to make paints, Magic White, etc. as well as the knives that have now magically populated every art supply store, probably in the world. You know, that kind of diamond shaped one with a handle that looks like you could use to help mud a room. (It does help, by the way, for fine work.)
I even watched him play dentist with a top denture plate that was irritating him. He had it out on a workshop grinding wheel, trimming the part that was giving him grief.
In the end, Bill received very little financially for his efforts. He knew it and didn't care. He made a decent middle class living, had some fame, lots of fans and was extremely flattered by all the look-a-likes and wannabees that appeared on the scene over time. He believed he had left his mark on the world and left it a happier and better place.
He was a happy man. He was, in fact, the happiest man I had ever known.
If you let him, he could make you happy too. He just liked to do it his way.
Earlier I had mentioned Bill had very deep and passionate feelings, but were closely guarded by him. That's because his views could be misinterpreted and taken out of context by a media that looks for good "juicy" stories.
Because he had lived through that pre and post World War ll period serving "on the other side" and now a celebrity of sorts on American television, Bill had seen and experienced the atrocities of war.
And, while he was anti-war, he didn't always come across as a pacifist, which he was. Bill was just hugely excitable when he got going.
These types of conversations with Bill were had only with those closest to him, usually over coffee and his great fish fry breakfasts.
Bill wasn't well read and mostly knew what he digested from the radio and television news.
He had little interest in politics, but knew what happened with bad politics. He also had little interest in money or any economic data, but knew that money meant power. He knew how it can corrupt. He had lived it and experienced it.
Sometimes you had to be a bit of a ballet dancer to have these conversations. Bill could escalate easily when challenged on some of his general and sweeping statements.
It would have been easy to take Bill out of context on these types of topics. Bill was frequently misinterpreted and taken out of context on much smaller and pettier matters or issues. But not very often. He just never went there.
Bill always came from a good place with the best of intentions.
One day, about five years prior to his death, I asked him why he had never been more of a "true artist" and been more diverse with respect to his subject matter and themes. You know, get outside the box.
Most specifically, I was interested in why he had never taken this truly deep-rooted passion he had about misplaced power, money and and their resultant calamities and try to express it in some creative way.
And even more specifically, why he had never taken the time to put on canvas what the artist in him saw.
And why he continued to produce what many might consider the same paintings, over and over again.
Like the blue Winter Scene he made for me. Bill knew my favourite colour is blue, by the way.
I also suggested to him that his failure to get outside this box might restrict how he may be regarded as an "artist of note, or not" after he had passed.
He made it very clear to me his very first priority was to deliver to his public what they expected to maintain his and their staus quo.
Bill was very happy doing what he was doing, which was making others happy as well as making a living doing what he was very happy doing.
One must remember Bill had a multitude of students who became teachers and continue to earn a living doing so.
The last thing Bill wanted to do was to rock the financial boat. He might be okay, but he knew others wouldn't.
Besides, the glass was always half full with Bill. If anything negative was going on, Bill would run like hell. Looking for trouble was not in his book, ever.
He preferred to see and depict the beauty he saw in the world.
Bill loved road trips and traveled a great deal. All those scenes you think are the same often have something uniquely embedded in the scene that he may have actually seen in his travels. Like the little shack that pops up in so much of his work.
Bill was passionate about nature's beauty as well. Much could be written about how he felt about fish. Brain food, he would boast. One could easily see how much he enjoyed sport fishing and how much he spent to restock the fish he was responsible for catching to compensate for what he took out of the water. "Thousands to one". he liked to say.
"So, as much as I might want to paint what I see on the dark side, I can't see anything good coming from it right now. But, if I do, you will be the first to know and see SandyBandy." I'm paraphrasing, but...
I can't recall how long it actually was after we had that conversation that I heard from Bill. Months, maybe. I dropped in regularly as kids do with aging parents and he didn't usually call me. So something had to be up when he did.
When I arrived at his home, he directed me to his studio immediately. He said he was anxious to show me what he had been working on secretly.
There were four full size canvasses. Two were completed works and two, works in progress.
Bill had been busy.
He pulled me aside and told me he was trusting me with the knowledge of these existing. He told me they just aren't the kind of art he would want people to hang in their house. And, not be the last way he was to be remembered.
He also asked that if I ever made them public, that I ensure they are presented in the light they were intended. That is, that war is hell, especially for those exposed to it directly. It also is no picnic for those families indirectly affected.
Bill also believed it important to not act like sheep and question acts that may lead to social unrest at any level of power that does not consider the rights of human beings.
When Mikhail Gorbachev once came to Vancouver, Bill asked that I escort him to the conference to hear him speak, AND, deliver a portrait of the famous former Russian Premier he had painted for the event. Gorbachev became a hero in Bill's eyes when the cold war came to an end. He could see a period of peace in the world with that out of the way.
These never before "offically" seen works of art were part of his personal collection I inherited.
There are a great many William Alexander oil paintings hanging in North American homes or now hidden in closets and attics all over North America. Well into the thousands would be my guess.
None look like these.