Today it starts with that child’s rhyme… one-potato, two-potatoes, three-potatoes, four which then grew into a few sacks of potatoes and finished much later with a retiree playing a much-travelled, loved, and repaired violin with the East York Orchestra. The story starts with a father and his two daughters, their growing love of music and art as they grew up skint poor on the outskirts of Thunder Bay, and finishes in suburban Don Mills, Ontario.
So then, what would a Ukrainian immigrant, growing root vegetables to support his family, know about culture, art, and music? It started with the three-quarter sized violin they had earlier procured for their daughters.
Mary, the younger one, was encouraged to play the violin to help strengthen her paralyzed right arm with the movements of the bow. She would leave after her lessons from the priest at the church, then her sister would meet her and take the violin on to her own lessons with the nuns. A fine system until the older sister outgrew the three-quarter-sized violin and still wanted to carry on with her lessons.
A taciturn father, unerringly resourceful with his bartering skills, turned to what he knew about music in their small northern town. And it was not to the nuns nor the priest that he turned.
He took his root vegetables to the hardware store proprietor, who played the saxophone and knew other musicians. Those potatoes were his best currency and he planned to parlay them into what his eldest daughter so deeply desired, a violin. This devoted father harboured hopes that in the depths of that backroom in the hardware store there were possibilities worth investigating.
Well, who knew when nor why that full-sized violin ever left the hands of its last owner? But there it lay, in that storeroom on the shelves, in repose, forgotten and collecting a thick, felted layer of dust. A label inside of its body showed it was last repaired in 1912.
So its new life started in the early 1930’s, after the sacks of potatoes were duly counted out, and it was placed in the hands of Mary’s sister, who was 16 years old.
The hardware store proprietor and unlikely jazz enthusiast continued to ply his trade by day and play his saxophone at night. And the oldest daughter went on with her musical studies while Mary pled and teased her stoic parent for a pair of ice skates.
Several decades later, Mary was left to clear out her sister’s belongings but could not bring herself to throw away the beloved violin. Their father had bartered and built with his sacks of potatoes a bridge to cultural realms and creative expression for his daughters.
How could those sacks of potatoes he had laboured to grow and his precious regard for their musical development through that violin just be thrown aside? Mary turned to her minister’s husband, newly retired, and asked if he had time to find some young person who desired to play the violin and then put her sister’s violin into his hands.
He returned to her several weeks later shyly confessing that he had gotten it repaired and thought he had found somebody who wanted it. Well, it turned out that he was that very person. He had always wanted to take lessons and being retired now had the time. The repairs were a few hundred dollars he was happy to make and he hoped she would be equally happy to bequeath it to him.
Today, that twice repaired and much-loved violin, is being played by this retiree who progressed from his lessons, and not we should imagine from the local priest nor nuns, to playing with the East York Orchestra.
I met Mary and other artists on the occasional Wednesday I would sit as a model for the Portraiture Group in Brampton at Visual Arts Brampton. They are an intently focused and quiet group until the lunch break when we all start to chat.
George, another one of the portrait artists, and I talked that day, but not about potatoes and violins. It started with how he tried to explain to his brother that he needed to paint, his open palm slapping his chest for emphasis. And then I said, yes, and then the art needs to be seen by others. We nodded back and forth, laughing and feeling the fullness of that compulsion to create, then to share it.
The need to creatively express oneself, to develop an artistic practice, whether in fine arts, music, drama, dance, photography, writing, or computer programming, is a part of our human condition. It is a multifaceted drive that can be explored purely on an amateur level as a passion and for personal satisfaction, or for some it becomes their livelihood.
As a community and then at the societal level, those individual and more organized group explorations, are something we come to identify with as our cultural scene, how we regard ‘the arts’. As is that creative spark within each singular person, so it is then reflected out to the greater community.
The gestalt or whole of those creative expressions then become our larger cultural backdrop. And the humble root vegetables, those few sacks of potatoes, were the means that eventually put that violin into the hands of two different people, each of whom brought it to life, experiencing and giving joy to so many others as they played it.
The resourcefulness of that farmer and hardware store proprietor continues to manifest itself in that East York Orchestra. The personal growth and creative flowering for each person ripples outwards into their community. The societal impact becomes a reflection of our individual artistic pursuits and creative expressions, portraying in their totality our human condition.
That devoted father, so rich in spirit, made sure his daughters could play their part in that greater whole.
Driven to create …© is a column Connie Munson, local photographer, artist, and writer, has developed to share an inside look at the creative process as it manifests within its larger community. She is a director on the board of Headwaters Arts, which has their gallery in the Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon, a member of several other arts organizations, and may be reached at email@example.com.
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