- The Edge of a Shadow: The Paintings of Ruth Killam Massey, Jan. 16-Feb. 23 at the West Vancouver Museum. Opening reception: Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. Info: westvancouvermuseum.ca.
IT didn't take Ruth Killam and Geoffrey Massey long to realize their relationship was that of more than just friends.
Having met in 1954 through famed West Coast architect Arthur Erickson - Ruth's family friend and Geoffrey's then business partner - Ruth subsequently commissioned he and Geoffrey's firm to build her a new modernist studio home on an outcrop of land on West Vancouver's waterfront near Whytecliff Park.
Geoffrey couldn't have asked for a better client. "She was very understanding," he says. "We gave her a house which was quite dissimilar to what she was used to and what she probably expected I think."
Through the process of the home's construction, Ruth and Geoffrey grew closer and eventually married in 1955, making the home their own for the following 35 years.
The Masseys lived a creative life: Ruth was a well-known landscape painter and Geoffrey has countless major architectural achievements in his cap, including submitting the winning design for Simon Fraser University with Erickson (who passed away in 2009). The couple was a fixture in the early Vancouver art scene, counting artists like Gordon Smith and Takao Tanabe as close personal friends.
Ruth passed away in 2011 at age 86, though her artistic legacy lives on and is being remembered in a tribute show, The Edge of a Shadow: The Paintings of Ruth Killam Massey, opening Tuesday, Jan. 15 at the West Vancouver Museum.
"I think she was a great painter, an unsung one," says Geoffrey, 88. Ruth studied art at a number of institutions, including the Vancouver Art School (Emily Carr) under Jack Shadbolt and Charles Scott, the Ontario College of Art under John Alfsen, the Montreal Art Institute under Arthur Lismer and the Banff School and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While Ruth had many fans and was well-respected by her peers, she never sought out commercial success out of an interest in avoiding the "fuss" as well as ensuring her works remained accessible financially to all. The upcoming show, featuring 24 oil, primarily large, paintings, marks the most extensive display of her works to date.
"I find it very encouraging that she's finally being recognized," says Geoffrey.
"I only wish she was alive to know that this is a tribute to her," he adds.
Geoffrey and Ruth's youngest, Eliza Massey Stanford, 50, echoes her father's sentiment.
"I just hope that she's able to look down on this and see how much people loved her and loved her work," says Eliza. "She had quite a dedicated following. Anyone who knew her work absolutely loved her paintings."
Darrin Morrison, curator of the West Vancouver Museum, is pleased to be presenting the collection of works.
"Like many of her predecessors and contemporaries, Ruth Killam Massey found inspiration in the West Coast's landscape," he says. "This exhibition brings together works selected from family and private collections and focuses on works created on Hernando Island, where Massey had a summer home. This exhibition is a tribute to Massey and her personal artistic pursuits and celebrates the contribution she made to West Vancouver's artistic community over her lifetime."
The Massey family is grateful to the West Vancouver Museum for honouring Ruth in this manner. Ruth and Geoffrey have long had a strong regard for the cultural centre and Morrison, having gotten to know him in recent years as a result of exhibitions celebrating their peers, like B.C. Binning and Smith.
The works chosen for The Edge of a Shadow, a reference to that which Ruth found "so eloquent" were primarily painted en plein air near the Masseys' summer home, just north of Lund at the entrance to Desolation Sound.
"That's still a place of great joy for all of us," says Eliza, who grew up in West Vancouver, though currently resides in Fort. St. John. The Masseys continue to spend summers in the 2,500 square foot home to this day.
"The connection between Hernando (Island) and my mother and my mother's art is very, very strong for all of us," she says, "I think particularly for my father."
Geoffrey has fond memories of his wife's artistic practises.
"We had four children in fairly rapid succession and so that kept her very busy for a long time so there was quite a long period where she didn't paint so much because she just didn't have the time," he says. "But when the children got a little bit older she painted whenever she wasn't looking after them or other things, she was painting. She was an avid painter. She lived for her art - for her family first and then her art."
While Ruth would create in her home studio, sketched with friends and enjoyed working while travelling abroad, Hernando, and summers spent there, were a constant muse.
"I would be going back and forth to work but she would just stay put all summer long and paint up there," says Geoffrey. "That's where the bulk of her work was done."
Bright and early, Ruth would gather a day's worth of supplies and at times walk for miles until she found a remote location that suited her fancy.
"She had a golf cart. She put her easel and all her gear on it and pulled that behind her," says Geoffrey.
The results were powerful. "To me it's her interpretation of what she saw in the landscape, how she saw the world," he says.
The ever-changing moods of the coastal landscape are captured in Ruth's works, which often explored the boundary between the sea and shore, and hillside and forest, explains Morrison. Framed views of the ocean through driftwood piles or grasses are examples. "When you look at one of her paintings, you just know that she revelled in the colours and being out there and noticing all the little details," says Eliza. "She knew how to hold a brush and she knew how to put paint on the canvas. Not every artist can do that well and she did it really, really well. She knew what to do when she had a canvas in front of her and created these beautiful paintings where you feel you're there, but in a painterly way not that it's painted so realistically that it's like photo realism. She brought out the mood in the place where she was painting."
There was "never a dull moment" growing up in the Killam Massey home (which the family sold in the late '80s and was torn down by a subsequent owner), and during summers on Hernando.
"We grew up with lots of things being made and built and created," says Eliza.
Ruth made a concerted effort to keep her brood busy, instructing them in a variety of crafts from tie-dye to pottery. Geoffrey, who, while he is retired continues to do architectural projects here and there, including recently designing a home for one of his sons, also served as a source of inspiration.
"He really had an incredible sensitivity to the surroundings," says Eliza. "He didn't just plunk a house on a site. He thought about the site and the people that were going to be living in the house and he was very sensitive to that."
Geoffrey's list of architectural achievements is long, for example, he designed many homes and condos locally as well as in Whistler and on Hernando. He worked on the MacMillan Bloedel Building, and was part of the Coal Harbour Architectural Group, and was involved in planning on the Expo '86 site, various public art programs, the West Vancouver design panel and engaged in a variety of other public service endeavours.
Ruth and Geoffrey's offspring are each pursuing creative paths. Eldest Raymond is a movie producer currently working on a film project in China, Vincent is a potter-ceramicist, Nathaniel is a photographer and Eliza a photographer, as well, is working more in painting as of late and volunteers with a variety of arts organizations in addition to other community projects.
"They're happy with what they're doing and that's the main thing. No matter what you do, you should enjoy it," says their proud papa.
Geoffrey's current West Vancouver home is evident of both his family's and friends' artistic leanings, seeing the walls covered with works by Ruth, their children, and famous artist friends, like Binning and Toni Onley.
Geoffrey has loaned a number of Ruth's paintings from his personal collection to the museum for the upcoming exhibition.
"This is the only time you will see a collection of Ruth Massey's paintings in one place. It's the only time and it's an incredible privilege to see such talent collected together and from someone who lived in West Vancouver most of her life," says Eliza.
She's looking forward to officially celebrating her mother's artistic legacy as well as the personal impacts she made on so many over the course of her lifetime.
"She always did the right thing, she said the right thing, she looked after people when they weren't well," says Eliza. "I would like to be as good as she was in so many ways and so I strive to be more like her, sensitive to my surroundings, sensitive to the people in the room, interested in other people, to have a perceptive eye for things and humility -all of those things that were so wonderful."