Contact: Linda Cote, RAA: 978-546-6604; Todd Balf, 978-927-4599
On May 11th the Rockport Art Association in Rockport, Massachusetts will feature the largest retrospective of the late Oliver Balf's work ever assembled, representing more than 60 years of painting and selected from a newly archived collection of close to 1000 paintings. Included in the 40–plus works will be several of Balf's early and rarely exhibited watercolors on loan from private collections.
Curated by the artist's widow Nancy Balf (along with the help of family and friends in the art community), the show spans a swath of subject matter – from the Pigeon Cove quarries to the colorful sweep of draggers at anchor in Gloucester Harbor circa late ‘60s to the "bring-on-da-noise" jazz men and women that inspired him as a young cornet player growing up in New York. The show is testimony to the unflinchingly expressive, palette-rich work he produced and his willingness and ability to evolve and change stylistically.
There are his one of a kind lobsters, lush still lifes, and his eclectic large canvas montages, an assortment of things in his life – from cherished art books and jazz albums to less cherished reminders of mortality, like the bland, heart-healthy cereal products he grudgingly accepted later in life. The show is arranged chronologically, tracing Balf's own artistic journey from the exterior world of Cape Ann to an interior one where he exuberantly explored personal ideas.
Balf, who died in 2010, began first visiting and painting Cape Ann as a college art student. During a Cape Ann Museum talk in 2008, he recalled the satisfaction of having his work accepted for the first time in a RAA member's show. Balf, then 19 and the son of Russian immigrant parents, said the recognition made him consider for the first time a career as a fine artist. Since that first showing Balf exhibited countless times at the RAA and nationally, selling innumerable works and garnering many awards, including an honorary degree for his role as a founding faculty member at Montserrat College of Art.
OLIVER BALF: A DETAILED PERSONAL BACKGROUND
Oliver Balf's fierce resolve to be an artist and to help others to do so defined his life. His work, unlike his easy going temperament, was beautifully rebellious, the palette-rich, boldly evocative product of an expressive mind and a New York modernist education in the late 1940s. His paintings consistently appeared in Boston galleries in the 80s and 90s and his influence was felt by a generation of North Shore artists through his design and painting classes at Beverly's Montserrat College of Art, where he was a founding faculty member. In the 90s he worked with toy creators at Parkers Brothers where he helped create and illustrate their prospective board game ideas.
Born in Rye, New York, in 1927 to Russian immigrant parents, he was a product of the blossoming Jazz Age. As a young coronet player he helped arrange a Duke Ellington Orchestra visit to his Rye High School. The concert banner Balf designed was later taken on tour, and a conversation between Ellington, Balf and other student musicians was recorded as a V disc and distributed to the WW II troops. Balf would soon enlist and serve in the U.S. Navy as a flight mechanic despite being only 17.
In 1946 Balf enrolled at Temple University's Tyler School of Art and later studied in New York with the German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. In those years, young New York artists flocked to Cape Ann in the summer to take advantage of the "en plein air" and cheap lodging. Balf's first summer in Rockport, in 1947, saw him and his Tyler roommate Frank Shade living in a tent off South Street. In successive summers they upgraded to a converted chicken coop and a frame shop on Tuna Wharf where they played jazz during slack times to attract business.
Balf fell in love with watercoloring on Cape Ann – a medium he'd never been formally taught but later declared his favorite. In between visits to Old Garden Beach and East Gloucester's Hawthorne Inn jazz club, he knocked out three paintings a day. "Watercolor is full of surprises," he once wrote. "Colors are always different when wet, and unpredictable when dry. Accidents are part of the process and you handle the accidents differently each time they occur, so you never know what the final result will be."
In 1955, Balf and his wife Nancy made a permanent move to Rockport to raise their young family. In 1961 he received the best young artist prize from the Rockport Art Association and in 1963 his "Woman" received the organization's Carl Butman Prize for best watercolor.
Though he longed to paint exclusively, Balf took a series of commercial art jobs over the next several decades to support a family of three young boys. He worked as an illustrator in the art department at the Boston Globe, was the art director at TADCO in Gloucester, and freelanced as a children's book illustrator and designer for publishers in New York, Boston, and Chicago.
In 1970 Balf and several other Cape Ann artists who taught together at the New England School of Art in Boston opened the doors to their own school of visual art. Dozens of students signed up for the Montserrat School of Art's inaugural season and Balf remembered his teaching role (initially in the unheated stone barns of the Crane Estate) as both terrifying and exhilarating. His approach was less of a conventional teacher and more of a fellow artist who invited students to join in and experiment together. "When I think of all the things I've done to become an artist I realize that the most important work I've done has been teaching, and being a part of the founding group at Montserrat," said Balf at a ceremony in May 1998 when the school granted him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.
He was also a proud founding member of Gallery 7, a Magnolia-based cooperative that was a cornerstone of the modernist scene.
His more recent paintings were defined by bold, hotly colored, mural-scale canvases that ran the gamut of topics, from landscapes, lobsters, and still lifes to boats, trees, and jazz. He was nominated to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and honored by the Rockport Art Association in 2009 as an Emeritus Member. He also won several best in show watercolor prizes in 2009 and 2010. Despite all his formal plaudits he had a distinct playfulness about his art, rarely saying no to the creative impulses that produced smiles for him and others. Examples included a profane light switch in his studio, satirical New Yorker style family birthday cards, and the illustrations for a children's book about the former Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez.
Balf adored listening to his vast collection of jazz music, doing the daily crossword puzzle, and spending time with his seven grandchildren and his beloved wife Nancy with whom he was inseparable for 58 years of marriage.
He remained prodigious, creative, and playful to the very end. In the months before his death he was on one of his telltale tears, producing a series of "word art" canvases where he abstracted words like "sexy," "love," and "peace" in a dazzling swirl of shapes and colors. They seemed to reflect what he once said about the "job" of a successful artist — "to love what you do, have fun doing it, and find a place in society that will allow you to continue to evolve and produce."