I have written about some of the people and places that have made this Verstraete venture homeward bound a memorable journey. It is summer of 2003, and I have completed the last edit and rewrite of this account. My life remains a journey that to date spans fifty-eight years. On that journey I have lived in the sweltering summers and cold winters of an Ontario town, the hustle and bustle of a big city, and the sedate and temperate climate of a small west coast island. I have tasted this magnificent land called Canada from shore to shore. I have felt my heart beat with excitement and my body tremble with adventure, when I watched the tides of the Bay of Fundy. My spirit soared whenever I touched the shores of Atlantic Canada, whether at a popular artist and tourist haven such as Peggy's Cove, in a fisherman's village miles from Halifax, or on the steep city streets of Saint John, New Brunswick. Places such as Montreal, Quebec's Gatineau Hills, Chateau Montebello on the Ottawa River, the National Capital Region, and a cheese factory in Nepean, flood my soul with warm memories. Ontario was home for forty-five years, a place where the spectacular sunsets over Lake Huron, the history of the Bruce Penninsula and Niagara Escarpment, are etched forever in my conscience. I cannot escape the heart-felt emotions of a young Canada in Niagara-On-The-Lake and behind the walls of Fort George in the shadows of Sir Isaac Brock's statue on Queenston Heights overlooking the Niagara River. In between these places lies a miriad of small towns with brick main streets, rolling farm fields and abandoned silos, ribbons of concrete and pavement that wind through valleys and orchards, and the taste of maple syrop. My eyes begin to fill with tears for reasons I still cannot quite explain, whenever I venture through Algonquin Park or cross north of Superior.
Maybe it is that deep longing to have run with the Group of Seven, but then I never really was a landscape painter. Yet, I am drawn to the dark cold nights of northern Ontario as I drive through Waubaushene, Parry Sound, Sudbury, Sault.Ste Marie, Wawa, and Thunder Bay, en route to the vast open spaces of our prairies.
I have stood under the stars that carpeted the night skies over Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. I drank from the river of living water as a winter storm tore through the Arctic village of Rankin Inlet and snow heaved in waves from street to street right past the window of my bedroom. The temperature hit minus one hundred with a windchill factor. The next day, a brilliant sun blinded my eyes as I could see forever over the frozen fields of aboriginal dreams. The foothills in Alberta silence my voice, and when I venture into the heartland of the Canadian Rockies, I am awed by majesty and grandeur, as I weep in the presence of God's handiwork. Past rushing streams that tumble over mountainous crevices and the roar of the mighty Fraser, the sweep of a Marble Canyon, the endless terrain of dry near-desert conditions in Cache Creek and Savone, and the lush vineyards of the Okanagan, I finally arrive on the west coast. Places such as Coombs and its goats on a roof, Pt.Alberni and its Steamers Restaurant, Combers Beach and "the valley of dry bones," Campbell River, Mt.Washington and its Alpine meadows, the Forbidden Plateau, Gold River, the limestone caves of Spider Lake, and so much more, have shaped the creative vocabulary of my mind. At last I settle on Gabriola Island amidst hundred-foot trees, Brickyard Beach, and Drumbeg Park, only to discover that no one single place in this great land of ours has ever been truly home. Perhaps that it why I have never been a true landscape artist.
I feel no attachment to a place and therefore I am not compelled to celebrate its virtues and natural beauty, even though I am deeply moved by both.
It is said that "home is where the heart it."
My heart is people. My home is people, wherever I find myself on this journey called life. It is they who I celebrate. My passion in my art and life will always focus on people.
They are the ones who make my place my home. Places without people are a wasteland, suitable only for inevitable depression and loneliness. I celebrate the men, women, and children whose lives have touched my life. Nature pales by comparison to the divine soulscapes that comprise the human family. With names too many to remember, and yet never enough to satisfy a thirsty spirit, I travel my journey amidst a fellowship of people, each a treasure, each a diamond, sometimes in the rough, and other times a brilliant jewel in a crown of divine accomplishment. Within the private rooms of my inner court are engraved the names of people who I am privileged to agape love. Alice, our six children, our grandchildren, a godchild, and friends whose love is so precious, they bring tears to my eyes as their respective journeys tug at the heartstrings of my emotions with memories that stretch far beyond the vast panorama of my homeland. They are my family.
I continue to feel committed to put people back in art and set my goals high, praying to bring hope where there is none, to be a father to the fatherless and husband to the husbandless, a counselor to the weary, and a big hug to the lonely soul. Yes, I am fully aware of the temptation to think of myself as God. It remains a paradox, however, that even though I am not God and I am profoundly aware I am not, He has neverthleless empowered and authorized me to be just like Him. That I do with humility and gratitude. That I do with trust in Him to be my strength when I am weak and comfort when I am rejected. Yet, throughout my journey of life including my artistic journey, I remain motivated and encouraged whenever I look into the faces of all these I have met on my path only to see agape for me in their eyes. What more can I ask for than to be loved by God and loved by those who have become family on this landscape called life?
Early in the afternoon of Friday, February 7, 2003, my father Christiaan Verstraete, passed away peacefully at Sarnia General Hospital. He would have been eighty-three on June 27th. He was born in 1920. Three of my sisters, Lida, Sylvia and Ingrid, were with him to comfort him during his last moments on earth. His final words were, "God be merciful."
He did not suffer in his last moments. He quietly stopped breathing.
The last time I saw my father was during the month of May in 2000, when he came to visit our island home. Some time later he sent me the entire photograph collection of his stay with us. I think he photographed everything he could find. There are pictures of our family home, our children and his grandchildren, Gabriola's natural beauty, the ocean, Nanaimo, our daytrip to Cathedral Forest, Englishman River falls, my studio, and lots and lots of flowers. But sadly there were no pictures of him. He was always behind his favourite camera. Dad loved flowers.
He left us a grand legacy of memories and images, confirmed by thousands and thousands of photographs and endless video footage. He was a gentle giant who chose to walk away from confrontations and conflict. He was a creative man, as master bookbinder and photographer. But, first and foremost he was a loving husband and true family man. Whether in the tough years as immigrant or in the affluent years as businessman, he was proud of his family. For forty-five years he made Canada his home and Canada he truly loved. He was privileged to have visited his adopted homeland from ocean to ocean. He was never one to strive for fame, but he nevertheless would tell you how he felt about many issues, whether of national significance or on a more personal level. He was also a faithful chronicler of The Verstraete Venture, an account he left in his small book by the same title.
To the best of my memory, and many memories there are, I always think of my father as a special man. Our journey as father and son was a mutually loving and encouraging one. My siblings may argue the point, but I believe that deep in his heart he was proud that I was an artist. When I left the business world in 1982, to pursue a calling to ministry, he was never in doubt as to the wisdom of my decision. He once said he loved to hear me preach. Some of his prized possessions were a few audio tapes he kept of the times he could attend the church where I was preaching. One day he made copies of the tapes and sent them to his brother Herman, who was living in the Netherlands. But most of all he loved my studio. When he visited us, I caught him early one morning, all by himself in my studio. The day had barely begun and the coffee was not even brewed, but there he was in my studio. I had shown him where all the portfolios of drawings were. I told him there were hundreds of studio drawings in those portfolios. So, there he was, on the floor, carefully thumbing his way through my artwork. He knew paper like the back of his hand and felt like he was at home amongst all my drawing papers. It was he who introduced me to the famous Dutch Bruinzeel pencils. I still have some left from a quantity he obtained for me from the Netherlands. In typical dad-fashion, he began to tell me what I should also draw and not to restrict myself to just a few subjects.
One day he tracked down a copy of a book about the Dutch painter Stien Eelsingh, who was also my earliest art teacher. I was five years old when she taught me to draw. He purchased the book from Waanders publishers in Zwolle the city of my birth, and sent it to me. Inside is a label with the words, "to my son Gerrit." I have always been proud to be his son.
He showed a genuine interest in both my artistic and spiritual journey, as well as my family journey, even though he was painfully aware there was not a whole lot he could do to help other than encourage me. And encourage he did - often. He loved Alice's cooking, and even though he may have been "of the old school," where men did the work and women did the cooking, he was sincere and loved whatever Alice created in the kitchen, never failing to give abundant praise for yet another lasagna well done, or some fresh-baked French bread.
My comfort, however, lies in a deep-seated truth that dad is not dead. He left his earthly suit to put on a heavenly garment of praise. He knew Jesus as His Lord and had no doubt about his eternal home. During the last months of his life he prayed every night to be taken home. His last year was not a pleasant one. Confined to a nursing home, he soon became incapable of doing anything. He lost his dignity, his privacy, and his esteem. Then he lost his will to live. Sometimes it made him angry, sometimes depressed, but most of the time he just sat in his chair and laid in his bed. In his heart he longed to see mom.
My father had a strong faith about eternal life. He told me in confidence one day, shortly after mom had died in April 1987, he had visited her grave and heard God speak. My father was not a particularly charismatic man, prone to display spiritual manifestations, nor did me make any claims about "hearing God." But that day he did. As sure and clearly as he could hear a natural voice, he heard the words, "She is not here. She is with me."
It cemented his faith in God and the promise of one day seeing mom again.
That he has this special February day in my life.
It was truly his final homecoming.
As a tribute to my father’s life, I wrote the following article for the February 2003, issue of the Sarnia Observer. The article was called “Adventure of a lifetime, Chris Verstraete 1920 - 2003” It was forty-five years ago when the S.S.Waterman docked in Quebec City just below a steep riverbank that led to the Plains of Abraham. She was an old converted troop and supply carrier of the Holland-America line, destined for her last trans-Atlantic voyage. Only this time her cargo was neither troops or supplies. She was filled with immigrants who had chosen Canada as their new homeland. Chris Verstraete, his wife Cornelia, and their six children ( a seventh would be born in Canada ), were among the ocean-tossed weary as they stood on deck watching a number of fellow passengers leave the ship. Chris would have to wait until Montreal and last stop of the S.S.Waterman. At last, about eight days after the ship left the Dutch port of Rotterdam, Chris and family touched terra firma, only to be whisked on to a bumpy train with just minutes to spare for a quick lunch of cheese, butter, bread and fruit, in a sunny downtown Montreal park. In his suitcase Chris carried a homemade passport to an adventure of a lifetime.
For years he had meticulously collected all sorts of brochures about Canada. John Diefenbaker's Conservatives were equally eager to send Chris a deluge of printed matter with endless promises of towering Rockies, "big-sky" prairies, bountiful farmlands, magnificent cities, and nature's grand panorama that would sweep Chris off his feet for the rest of his life. Every picture was carefully pasted into a massive scrapbook. But then that was his profession. My father was a master bookbinder, trained in the old European tradition. He spent many hours dreaming about steep mountains, majestic headlands, tumbling waterfalls, raging rivers, natives in colourful dress, mounted police in scarlet, and a never-ending entourage of bears, cougars, deer and buffalo. Chris finally made it to Ontario, Wallaceburg that is. I believe he was as shocked as I was when he first laid eyes on southern Ontario's flatlands. Had he missed a page in his scrapbook?
Nevertheless, he set his heart and mind to creating a new life for his family. Despite formidable immigrant years with as many tears of anguish as tears of joy, he succeeded in making his adventure a living reality. He founded the Wallaceburg Bookbinding and Manufacturing Company, but in the late sixties he sold the business and moved to Point Edward to pursue the finer arts of hand-bookbinding. He called it Admiral Bookbinding, and soon he became a household word in the production and management offices of Sarnia's petrochemical industry. Those who bought his handsome presentation binders and commissioned him to master-bind years of industry periodicals will never forget him. He was an artist and a professional in every aspect of his craft. Yet, he always found time to bind an old Bible, a family heirloom, or some prized poetry collection, for whoever visited him in his workshop. Point Edward and Sarnia were his home. In 1978, he convinced me, the other artist in the family, to design Point Edward's official coat-of-arms, to celebrate the municipality's centennial. I was honoured when the design was accepted in a special ceremony.
Glimpses of his adventure of a lifetime soon became thousands upon thousands of images captured on film and video. You may have seen this tall and handsome gentleman and his camera searching for pictures along the waterfront, in orchards and gardens, and at "the point," where despite temptations of hot and zesty fries, he managed some spectacular photographs of the river and great-lake carriers as they passed under the bridge. But most of all he loved flowers. From east to west and coast to coast, he froze in time a myriad of bright and beautiful flowers, some of the cultured kind, others the endless wild kind that spread over the land like a carpet. He gave me an album full of Gabriola Island's wildflowers that he had photographed on a recent visit. Chris loved Canada and the adventure of his lifetime was filled with images of Cornelia, his three sons and four daughters, grandchildren, his Sarnia, and his Canada. One day he mounted a steel bracket on the dash of his van just so he could fasten a videocamera and tape everything he could see on his many drives, some as far away as California. Mind you, it can get a bit boring when all you see is swish swish of windshield wipers trying to maintain a clear vision during heavy rains. But that was Chris. He was never daunted by an opportunity to capture another precious moment on film.
However, his adventure of a lifetime took a final turn on February 7, 2003. Cornelia had preceded him sixteen years earlier, but now at age eighty-two, it was his turn. He left peacefully while his daughters held his hands. Imagine the grand heavenly panorama of what is now home for Chris. What a "photo-op!"
On April 21, 2005, after sixty years of searching, I discovered one of my liberators, Leonard Clampitt, was alive and well and also living in British Columbia.
I was shaking all over, as I was about to make the call and hear my liberator’s voice for the first time. But any nervousness was needless. When the voice of the 82 year old former member of the Canadian 6th Field Company of Engineers, answered the phone, it soon became a wonderful conversation, a promise to meet soon, and for me, the most unexpected birthday present ever, and all just days after my 60th birthday. Details of the background to this story are told earlier in “The honourary war baby.” ( page 14 ).
On April 21, just days after my 60th birthday, I got call from my brother in Toronto. He had spoken with Albert Vanderheide, publisher of the Windmill Herald, in British Columbia. Albert Vanderheide was planning a special Liberation edition of the Windmill Herald including my story, first published in 1985 in a book by Albert Vander Mey, titled “When a neighbor came calling” ( Paideia Press, Jordan Station, Ontario ). Miraculously, a few phone calls later, he discovered Leonard Clampitt was living right here in Langley, in the Fraser Valley just east of Vancouver. And so this unique story ends sixty years after it began and continues as I proudly wear the names of two Canadian liberators, Vincent Southrow and Leonard Clampitt.
On Tuesday April 25, a feature story by Doug Ward appeared in the Westcoast Section of the Vancouver Sun, complete with a big colourful photograph of me in front of one of my large abstract paintings, and a black & white photograph of my older brother Beert and I, taken in Zwolle in 1949. I was 4 years old.
The headline in the Vancouver Sun read: “Finding namesake a liberating event. Gerrit Verstraete finally gets to meet a Canadian soldier he was named after in Holland in 1945.”
A revised article by staff writer Bruce Mason and photograph also appeared on May 5, 2005, in our local Gabriola Island weekly newspaper, the Sounder.
Appendix: the immediate family: Christiaan Verstraete ( born Zwolle, Netherlands, June 27, 1920 - died Sarnia, Canada, February 7, 2003 ). He married Cornelia Van Dam ( born Gouda, Netherlands, March 11, 1918 - died, Sarnia, Canada, April 9, 1987 ). They immigrated to Canada in June 1958.
Their seven Children:
1. Beert Christiaan( born Zwolle, Netherlands, April 2, 1944 )
2. Gerrit Vincent Leonard ( born Zwolle, Netherlands, April 15, 1945 )
married Alice Koops ( born Zaandam, Netherlands, June 26, 1948 )
Their six Children:
1. Jeffrey Lyon ( born Toronto, Canada, November 7, 1969 )
3. Angela Miriam ( born Oakville, Ontario, July 8, 1976 )
married Jeffrey Jaggard on July 31, 1999.
Haley Joy Anne, born October 2, 2001
4. Karen Elizabeth ( born, Oakville, Ontario, September 19, 1979 )
married Doug Jordan, February 23, 2002
5. Suzanne Cornelia ( born Mississauga, Ontario, December 4, 1984 )
6. Matthew James ( born Mississauga, Ontario, January 26, 1987 )
3. Aleida( Lida ) Anneke ( born Zwolle, Netherlands, May 9, 1946 )
Two children: Julia Christine and Mary Lisa
4. Boudewijn ( Baldwin ) Alexander ( born Zwolle, Netherlands, July 4, 1947 )
Married Lucy Gabrielle Munneke. Three children: Chris, Leanne, and Danielle
5. Adriana( Annelies ) Elisabeth ( born Zwolle, Netherlands, March 16, 1949 )
Married Jack Wallace. Two children: Jason, Jennifer
6. Sylvia ( born Zwolle, Netherlands, April 3, 1951 )
Married Don Rose. Three children: Shawnda, Lindsay, and William
7. Ingrid Caroline ( born Wallaceburg, Canada, November 22, 1960 )
Married Marvin Banninga. Two children: Ryanne, Alyssa
Select Bibliography The Verstraete Venture, The Verstraete Family's Immigration in 1958, by Chris Verstraete, Admiral Press, Point Edward, Ontario, Canada, 1979.
The Poetry of Michelangelo, An annotated translation by James M. Saslow, Yale University Press, New Haven, USA, 1991.
The Honourary War Baby - When a Neighbour Came Calling, Personal accounts of the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands 1940 - 1945, by Albert VanderMey, Paideia Press, Jordan Station, Ontario, 1985, page 286.
Stien Eelsingh, 1903 - 1964, written by Roel H.Smit-Muller, Waanders Uitgevers, Zwolle,
Other personal poetry and writings:
1976, Coach House Press, published a poem titled "The Argument," in a book titled "This
Is My Best"
1976, The Yearbook of Modern Poetry ( Young Publications, Knoxville, Tennessee ) published three of Gerrit's poems
1977, Quarry Magazine ( Kingston, Ontario, Vol.26, No.3 ) published "The Groundhog and the Eagle. "
1980, Gerrit Verstraete published a selection of 30 of his poems in an anthology titled "Mid-Seventies Crisis," ( Admiral Press, Point Edward, Ontario )
1998, In Search of The City, an epic poem by Gerrit Verstraete, begun August 8, 1998
1999, His poem "The City of Tomorrow " was published in "Island Impressions - Anthology of Verse" ( published by the Poetry Institute of Canada, Victoria, BC. )
2002, My poem, "The Western Trillium," was published in "Today's Famous Poems - On the Wings of Pegasus," Famous Poems Society, 2002, USA.
Future Watch, by Gerrit Verstraete, a regular column on spiritual matters in the Gabriola Sounder newspaper, from 1993 - present
Island Time, by GeeVee, a regular cartoon featuring island life and politics by Gerrit
Verstraete, in the Gabriola Sounder newspaper, from 1993 - present
Art of the Spirit, a collection of essays by Gerrit Verstraete, on art and the drawings of
Art, Spirituality, and other Kingdom writings, by Gerrit Verstraete, 1999, including a
number of Gabriola Sounder newspaper columns begun in January 2000.
The Kingdom of God - a collection of writings from 1986 to 2003
Bottega - the official journal and newsletter of the Drawing Society of Canada, in which appear articles by Gerrit Verstraete about art.
Other writings and personal details about my creative journey can be viewed on two webpages. One is for my pesonal studio, Masterpeace Fine Art Studio at www.gverstraete.com and the other is in the files of the Drawing Society of Canada and the Gallery of Canadian Drawing Masters at www.drawingsociety.com and with Alice and my personal email address firstname.lastname@example.org