My mother gave me a special letter she had written just before I left for college. I was not to read that letter until I was settled in Toronto and attending classes at the Ontario College of Art. On a sunny day in late August of 1964, I boarded the train for Toronto and art college. The train had barely left the station in Chatham, Ontario, when I opened my mother's letter. Peter de Haan, my roommate while attending college and I, were settled comfortably in the vinyl seats of our train. We watched the landscape outside our window pick up speed. Soon images of towns, farms, fields and the noisy bells of railway crossings, flashed past us in quick succession. I had no idea what my mother had written and I suspected no more than a mother's personal goodbye to a son who had left the family nest to join my older brother who had left home a year earlier. I carefully unfolded the single page that had been stuffed into a small envelope. But this was not some sentimental goodbye. In her letter she spoke of nothing else but a strong warning to watch out for the wicked women of the city, those women who would no doubt lure an innocent and unsuspecting young man like me into their Jezebel clutches. After all, it was my money those women were after, my mother wrote. Inwardly I laughed. Even though she was serious, I could not help smiling at her needless concern. My treasure chest was a modest bank account in which I had deposited barely enough money for my first half-year stay in Toronto. I had already pre-paid my entire first-year's tuition leaving very little for the year's other expenses such as rent, art supplies, food, transportation and clothing. My first order of business, once I arrived in Toronto, was to apply for a student loan to take care of the other half of the schoolyear. The wicked women of Toronto would find slim pickings in the pockets of this young man from Wallaceburg. Plus, I didn't even know what wicked women looked like. I had never seen a hooker before. Peter and I arrived at Toronto's Union Station by mid-afternoon. I was glad he was with me as prospects of being in such a big city all by myself were frightening. Regardless of what advice people offered two young men leaving for college, the culture shock of moving from a town of ten thousand to a metropolis of over a million was extreme. Any support along the way was welcome. Peter was a great support to me as I was to him during our first months in Toronto. We became good friends.
Peter had taken a sudden interest in the Ontario College of Art when he discovered I had enrolled there. He had a passion for drawing anything and everything mechanical, especially cars. I knew Peter from the years we belonged to the same church youth group in Wallaceburg. When I discovered his awesome collection of Mechano sets, we soon became friends and spent many Sunday afternoons in his family garage, building huge mechanical structures. His parents agreed that OCA would be Peter's post-secondary choice as well.
The September air in Toronto was thick with foreign experiences for the two students from Wallaceburg. I remember looking like a tourist as we strained our necks to stare up the sides of tall skyscrapers and as we dodged thousands of cars that roared up and down University Avenue. The distance from our new home to the college was a short walk. On a previous occasion, intended as a fact-finding mission, Peter and I had hitchhiked the distance from Wallaceburg for a quick visit to Toronto. During our brief stay, we soon found an apartment, an L-shaped room ( like the old movie title ) to be exact. Our room was so close to the college, we could see the buildings from our window just half a block up the street. It was a prime location because it assured us we would not get lost in the big city. Carrying our suitcases, we left Union Station and walked up University Avenue to Queen Street. As we turned left it was only two very short blocks to McCaul Street, where stood the Ontario College of Art. Behind the college and sharing valuable space with the Art Gallery of Ontario, was The Grange, a park of beautiful old trees and wrought iron fences. John Street ran right into The Grange. On the third floor of an old, dirty-brick row-house, just steps from The Grange we found our L-shaped room, which was nothing more than a small dingy room with a double bed, a rickety old round table, four chairs, a dresser, and a table with a two-burner stove on it. The window ledge outside our only window served as a makeshift refrigerator. As long as cooler temperatures prevailed, we kept bottles of milk and cheap wine precariously perched on that ledge. Redemption came in the form of absolute security being able to see the college from our window. Across the street was a large building that housed the University Settlement Pool. It was our little miracle on John Street because our own bathroom facilities were horrible. Student admission price for the pool was just twenty-five cents including long hours of swimming and hot showers. Our first night in the L-shaped room turned out to be an unsettling experience. The air outside was warm and humid; the room was stuffy. We kept the window wide open and all through the night our room was filled with the noise of sirens, screeches, and squabbles up and down the street, yet this would be our home until the first summer break. We were living in the heart of the city, an area stretching east to west from Yonge Street to Spadina Avenue and south to north from King Street to Dundas Street. To my surprise and despite all the noise, somehow I felt at home. It did not take us long to familiarize ourselves with the multicultural neighbourhood of family restaurants, antique shops, and tobacco stores, all huddled together in a mixture of residential and retail space. I will never forget those formative years at the Ontario College of Art. I never strayed far from living downtown, at least not until a year after I was married. I grew to love that core of cornices, porticos, verandas, brick buildings, awnings, and tiny little patches of green lawn strung like patchwork between structures of steel, concrete and glass. Toronto in 1964, was a special place to be. It was home.
The city of Toronto was also in a time of transition from a sedate conservative city of bankers and blue-collar workers, to an international centre of arts and culture.
It was also a time of transition for Toronto's youth, as a relatively genteel beatnik crowd soon made way for the carnage of Britain's Carnaby Street, precipitated by the onslaught of the Beatles, those "Fab Four" of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. That year the Americans elected L.B. Johnson as President. He was a big blustering Texan who soon ordered an escalation of conflict in Vietnam in a war that began ten years earlier in 1954, and a war that had grown into a no-win, politically expensive and humiliating defeat for the Americans. Many Americans became consciencious objectors-turned-draft-dodgers who streamed north to Toronto. The air was thick with protests, hippies, and a kaleidoscope of colours. South of the border, racial tensions and burning ghettos threatened to tear the American fabric apart. The air became tainted with the acrid smells of marijuana. In the midst of all this change we stared out of our John Street window, just a young man and his friend from Wallaceburg, that small farmtown in south western Ontario, where the only conflicts were an ongoing war between the Wallaceburg Red Devils and the Brantford Indians, as each team fought in often bloody combat for the coveted lacrosse trophy, as well as the struggle between church and state, as to whether I could dance with Janet, Cheryl, or Ginny.
From our window I could see and hear the sights and sounds of a changing city.
Below gathered Toronto's newest citizens - the love children of the sixties.
Four years of study at the Ontario College of Art immersed my body and soul in the culture of these love children. In many ways I became one of them even though I had little time to participate in any of their activities. I was not a disillusioned student. I loved my studio and social time at art college. I had a passion for artistic study. They were good years.
"What the world needs now is love sweet love," wrote Burt Bacharach and Hal David in 1965. San Fransisco had Haight-Ashbury where everyone shouted, "hey, dig all the beautiful freaks!" Toronto had Yorkville where we shouted "hey, dig all the beautiful freaks!" Yorkville was a string of coffeehouses, boutiques, galleries, and obscure eateries. Yorkville had become the centre of a Canadian universe where life was "where it's at!" It remained that way for at least seven years until my first venture into business with Joe Hatt-Cook. As owners of Folio Productions, later Folio Advertising Agency Ltd., our first office was located on Yorkville Avenue. We had a groovy business address, the envy of many other creative shops. It was in our Yorkville office where I painted psychedelic designs on the bodies of dancers in the rock musical HAIR, a musical that had swept New York and now was about to leave its mark on Toronto. Our creative shop handled all the publicity and advertising for HAIR.
Yorkville was synonymous with shoulder-length hair, paisley shirts, colours of every rainbow, headbands, and body paint. The trip was simply, "wow man!" Love was in the air, at least the commercial kind whose word love translated into cash for a lot of hippie merchandise, both legal and illegal. In Strawberry Fields and Yellow Submarines we floated down Toronto's streets hoping the dream would never end. Even though I was caught up in the mainstream of social change in the sixties, I spent most of my time making every hour at the college count. OCA was home and I loved the atmosphere, the students, and the instructors, some of whom were Canada's genuine drawing masters, who I would encounter again much later in my life when I founded the Drawing Society of Canada. I graduated with honours from the Ontario College of Art in the Spring of 1968, just a year before the infamous Woodstock gathering of 400,000 young people.
While the world around me revolved in a kaleidoscope of psychedelic colours, all-night dances at Club 888, endless journeys on Toronto's fabled public transit known as the "Red Rockets," those maroon electric trolleys that navigated the city through every warm spring and rustic fall, and the endless parade of hippies and wannabees on Yorkville, I spent full days in class and in the studio, leaving just enough time for a quick lunch and the trip home after school. Evenings were mostly occupied by finishing school projects. I was never much of a social creature other than among a select group of students who had become dear friends. Somehow I have managed to remember names like Dave Findlay, Marina Stoklasa, Rod, Johnny Alexander, Jan, and Katherine ( "Kit" ) Harding. College was serious business and I knew that one day I would need the AOCA diploma to enter the world of graphic art and fine art. No Beatle, no "joint," no protest march, no picket sign, were worth squandering years of hard work at art college.
It was difficult to select highlites from those four years, as they were exciting and good years, some of the best of my life, despite a Toronto that was crumbling into the free-everything social batter of post-modern society.. But who can forget names like the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Buffalo Springfield, Timothy Leary, and Cream, just to name a few of my contemporaries. The sixties also turned Toronto's youth to drugs. My only encounter with drugs was one small puff of marijuana as it bubbled through wine in a water pipe. I didn't even bother to inhale the putrid smoke. Much ado about nothing I thought, as I returned to my usual, every-day, working-man's cigarette. Although I was acutely aware of the changing times and in some way could not avoid its influence on my student life, I did not float along with the crowd in their mainstream of drugs, free love, and alcohol. Fine art studies at the college was not some laid-back, "hey man," affair. Creativity was then and is now hard work. I loved the discipline of hard work and the result was a thorough grounding in the traditions of art, both past and contemporary.
I met some incredible people along the way, despite a regret that my religious upbringing nearly crippled me as a social being. After all, better not get too close to those "Canadians," especially at an art college, a place synonymous with paganism and heathen culture, at least in the minds of so many religious people. God knows what you may pick up. Fearing for my eternal life while at art college and the wrath of the elders, I stayed on the fringe of social contact, except for a few friends. As in highschool, I still didn't go to dances until Johnny Alexander, who was a first-year art college student from Jamaica, taught me how to dance. However, it remains a regret that I never had the courage to maintain long-lasting friendships with some very special people. So, wherever you are, Johnny, Jan, Rod, Dave, Gail, Rick, Peter, Marina, Katherine "Kit," and all the others? God bless you. May we meet again one day and re-live the long nights in the student lounge, where we solved all the world's problems, as well as remember the times we walked together downtown with a quick stop-over at the local corner bakery for a liverwurst-and-cheese on a kaiser, and the quiet strolls down philosophers' walk at the University of Toronto, somewhere between my college and the Royal Ontario Museum, where we attended art lectures. How can I forget late night travels on streetcars, the fabled Red Rockets, just to see a friend safely home, or to help a friend in need. One such friend was a classmate who needed encouragement in a desperate way. She wanted to commit suicide simply because she had allowed her work to become such a backlog, she saw no way out. Failure would have been not only a personal disaster, but a shameful return to family and friends in Winnipeg. I stayed with her all afternoon and night as we poured over endless projects, with barely enough time for a bite to eat, yet enough time to catch up all her work. When morning came, somehow the sun seemed warmer as we took the subway to college. We were both very tired but I felt assured she had survived the ordeal. She passed the assignments and successfully completed her Foundation Year, only to quit college soon after and return to Winnipeg. Many more special memories remain locked away, not in secret, but in some form of a timewarp that may someday permit me to share them with others.
Sometimes I wish I could turn the clock back and do art college all over again.
If I may boast for a minute longer, I was a good and faithful student, well liked by both student body and faculty. I made the best of my four years of study, earning me a number of scholarships, an honours graduation, and the coveted bronze OCA Medallion for Proficiency. When times permitted I have often returned to the streets and city blocks of downtown Toronto, a place filled with good memories. Whenever I return to my college roots and I walk the streets around the old buildings, memories of people and events flood back. I owe much to a great art instructor who taught me to observe life and in my observations discipline my mind to remember people, places, and events. It all began in a college studio class called "Field Research," taught by the renowned Canadian painter Carl Schaefer. Field Research were fancy words for the art of observation. He taught me this art of observation through endless drawings completed en plein air, or on location on the streets in and around the college and downtown Toronto. Everywhere I looked I found objects to draw. I filled many sketchbooks with drawings of trees, old brick houses, factory sites, close-ups of structural details, alleyways, garbage cans, and piles of boxes behind a store. I made drawings of pipes, ships in the harbour, construction sites, and heaps of stuff whose indentities escape me, yet all to be found within blocks from the college. Again with great regret, none of these sketchbooks have survived, but the discipline of observation did survive. I tapped into those roots of observation of long ago once more in the late nineties, when I began filling sketchbook after sketchbook with the people and faces of Nanaimo's coffeeshops. As I write this account, four such sketchbooks contain over two thousand faces in quick-sketch form, all because Carl Schaefer taught me to see with artist's eyes.
But no one could prepare or discipline me for what I saw one October evening.
The event took place while attending the Ontario College of Art, and stands out miles above all the other events of my college years. It happened on October 31, 1964.
The occassion was a Halloween party organized by two young men I had gotten to know at a church group in the "uptown" Eglinton and Yonge area of Toronto. Even though I considered church attendance was not a requirement of personal faith, but rather because I was expected to attend, my attendance nevertheless was sparse, yet not sparse enough to miss Tom and John. Tom Herman and John Koops were two young men with good careers and a penthouse-like suite in a large apartment building in "uptown" Toronto, on Broadway Avenue. They loved to entertain. We got along very well from the day we first met. John was a fabulous cook. For a young and usually hungry college student with limited funds and a regular diet of canned goods, this friendship was an answer to prayer. John cooked up an extravaganza of sumptuous dishes. His generous and frequent offers to join them for dinner were too good to refuse. In exchange I gave them endless hours of attention as we talked the night away in pursuit of dreams, philosophy, and the usual male boasting of rich exploits and business ventures. We spent our time looking over the city from his high-above-the-masses balcony. When other young people joined us, we burned candles and sat on the floor among fishnets and other collectables. We gathered as young men and women of the sixties, to discuss life, politics, art, love, and of course the church. That October evening in 1964, was no exception, except we had a theme for the night. John and Tom had decided to throw a big Halloween bash, a costume party the likes of which would remain the "talk of the office" for weeks. Wherever it was the two worked, this was to be the party of parties, or at least so they thought.
Costume parties, however, were never high on the list of my priorities. I neved did like getting dressed up. Perhaps it was because I spend some of my childhood years being "dressed-up" in my uncle's hand-me-downs.
"What shall I wear? " I remembered asking John.
"Just come as you are," John replied.
"Just as I am? But what about my costume?"
"Come dressed as an 'artist'. That will be your costume!" said John.
I had forgotten how much the "artist" had become a thing of stature and image in the Bohemian years of post-fifties Toronto. To have artists as friends was the "in-thing" to have. John and Tom and most of their friends were career people, office people to be exact, who were caught up in a world of capitalist pursuits. Peter and I were the real thing, so they thought. We were art students, so we attended their party dressed in our regular, daily college-wear, only to lead the others to believe our corduroy pants, bright-coloured shirts, black Beatle-boots and sheepskin coats, were the "costumes" of real-life artists. The party turned out to be a real success.
Sometime during the evening the apartment doorbell rang.
"You want to get the door, Gerrit?" shouted John from somewhere in the middle of a group of noisy party-goers.
"Sure thing, John."
I stood up, feeling somewhat light-headed because of a drink called a "Black Russian," but clear-headed and sober enough to open the door and stand face to face with my future.
My life would never be the same again.
There in front of me, framed by the open door, stood my future.
She was beautiful, blond, and with the most inviting smile I had ever experienced.
Something happened the moment I saw her.
It took but a microsecond for me to realize something had actually happened. I stood there staring, frozen in time and in love.
John came to the door and gave the young woman's date a welcome handshake, only to turn to her and embrace her with a big hug. He seemed awfully friendly with this young woman. What, competition already?
Then he turned to me and said, "Gerrit, I'd like you to meet my sister, Alice!"
Deep within the confines of my heart, amidst vain attempts at social contact, amidst the memories of fear of ever being liked by a girl, and amidst hopeful signs of social healing among college friends, I found the silent courage to believe she was the one. As if a sudden summer rainstorm had disappeared as quickly as it came, gone were nineteen years of inhibition and bashful shots at friendhips with girls. I shook her hand and welcomed her to the party. I felt as if I was suspended in space. I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt I was sober. Black Russians were not playing games with me. I saw no one but her. Everyone else at the party was swallowed up in the revelry. I wanted nothing more that to get to know this Alice.
She smiled back as she entered the apartment. Soon I found her talking with Peter, my roommate, as well as with other partygoers.
It turned out that her "date" was only a ride to the party.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
My mind began its lovestruck calculations.
So far, no boyfriend. I would deal with Peter later. First things first. Alice and I got to know each other as best as we could that night. We talked and talked, me more than she. What else is new eh? But she enjoyed our conversation. I don't remember how soon after I said "hi" that evening, just to get her attention. Then I told her that I loved her, and I do know it didn't take long to realize my love-struck condition. True love has a tendency of being right the first time. I had never had a girlfriend and no doubt I was a bit over-zealous that evening. In fact, I had no real idea who this Alice was. She had just broken up with a young man from Hamilton. She was hurt but free. Perhaps I was overzealous, perhaps I was just too lovestruck to care, but in words I cannot even remember, I told her that night that I had fallen in love with her. The next morning, I shared the events of that evening with Peter, reminding him to back off any hopes he had for getting to know this Alice too. He must have known I was determined and serious, because he remained respectfully distant from that moment on. Yes, we remained good friends, but a classic "love triangle" never developed.
I was in love.
I knew it and I spared no time in telling anyone who would listen.
Within days everyone at OCA knew I was in love.
Alice was not as quick to reply. Even though her response was a genuine and warm "I like you very much," I would have to wait many months for the words I longed to hear.
About six months later, as Alice and I walked along Dundas Street in the early hours of an April evening, a late-winter dusting of snow began to drift gently into the soft light of streetlamps. We walked hand in hand, intent on having dinner together and catching a movie at the Imperial Theatre. My thoughts drifted with the falling snow as time stood still. I was with Alice and nothing else mattered. It was also 1965, my twentieth birthday.
On the corner of Dundas Street and University Avenue, in the light of a tall overhead streetlamp, with gently drifting snow, and yes for all you romantic movie lovers, that's really what happened, she turned to me and said, "I love you Gerrit."
But, I must return to close the tale of my college years.
The OCA Years
My four years at the Ontario College of Art, and my young adult journey through Toronto for what would be the better part of nearly thirty years, were times of genuine growth and experience. Gone was the closet environment of a small south western Ontario town and gone was the intimidation of so many of the town's people who had made me feel like an immigrant, and not as a welcome addition to the Canadian family. Toronto was the end of ever feeling like a second-class citizen again. Be assured, I did not condemn the entire town of Wallaceburg. I had friends who were good friends and I knew people in town who were truly wonderful people such as the Brand, the Woodrow, and the Spiering families. It was more a feeling, an overall prevailing mindset of inferiority and intimidation, that left me after I started to attend art college. A new mindset was birthed in Toronto, a mindset of knowing deep inside I never belonged in Wallaceburg. I have always loved the big city and to this day, despite its screaming pace of life, I will visit Toronto and walk again and again those same streets that were my home during the mid-sixties, especially the streets immediately surrounding the Ontario College of Art and mere blocks from Yonge and Queen.
During four intense art college years, I spent long days in the classroom-studio creating project after project in a range of work that spanned from sculpture, painting, and drawing, to photography, two and three dimensional design, and packaging design. My first year at OCA, identified in the school calendar as "Foundation Year," was a broad mix of artistic experiments spread over four quarters and designed to allow every student an overview of visual arts. At some time during the year the college's faculty hoped I would gain a better understanding of what direction in art I really wanted to take. The choice was broad because second, third, and fourth year programs were available in Drawing and Painting, Advertising, Industrial Design, Interior Decorating, and Sculpture. Peter chose Industrial Design and I chose Advertising. It was also a good time to go to art college. The early and mid-sixties were years that preceded the infamous academic rebellions that plagued our college as well as other universities. However, and despite those rebellious times, I enjoyed college years because the college's governors and faculty remained committed to an arts curriculum of highest calibre. I chose Advertising because it seemed the best choice if I were to ensure some form of employment after graduation. However, Advertising was not a curriculum resigned totally to the pursuit of marketing and selling products and services. The Advertising curriculum at OCA in the sixties included such classics of fine art as drawing and painting. My three years of study at OCA, following Foundation Year, also included the other classics of academic and studio courses, studio courses such as anatomy, life drawing, costume drawing, painting, perspective, design, illustration, layout, lettering, photography, techniques, typography, and a healthy portion of art lectures and projects facilitated at the Royal Ontario Museum. To this day I consider my four years at OCA, just before the rebellions hit, to be the most valuable of art studies a person could possibly get anywhere in Canada.
Throughout my college years I was recipient of a number of awards to complement the standards of my work at the college. These awards included the brewing giant's "O'Keefe Brewing Company Scholarship" in 1966, the "Rolph Clark Stone Limited Scholarship" in 1967, and the "Ontario College of Art Medal for Proficiency" in 1968. Graduation year in 1968, also awarded me "Admakers '68," a special recognition by The Advertising & Sales Club of Toronto. When at last my formal art education was completed in May 1968, I received the coveted appointment to Associate of the Ontario College of Art for successfully completing, with honours, four years of study. The appointment was confirmed by a handsome diploma that bears my name.
It is now thirty-five years after graduation ceremonies, but I remain proud to carry the initials AOCA, Associate of the Ontario College of Art, behind my name.
Another significant milestone during the OCA years, was the 1968 college yearbook. According to a long-standing college tradition, the yearbook was always designed by fourth year honour students. Therefore, in keeping with this tradition, a group of ten fourth-year honour students were asked in September of 1967, at the beginning of the 67/68 academic year, to submit designs for the 1968 college yearbook. I was one of ten students asked to submit such a design.
To design the yearbook of an art college was no small task. Not only was it a challenge whose reward was prestige and recognition, the team who would eventually complete all the work to produce such a yearbook was pretty well guaranteed their fourth year grades. In fact, the design and production of OCA's yearbook was a fulltime, hands-on project that lasted nearly seven months, with printed copies arriving just before year-end in April. There would be little time to do anything else while working on the yearbook. The yearbook tradition had an additional honour for one specific student. The student whose design was chosen was given the honour of serving as art director for the whole project. His production team included all the other honour students who had submitted designs. I was truly honoured to be selected to submit a design, but the creation of an entire yearbook weighed heavy on my conscience. Many of my fellow students who were selected, rose to meet the challenge with exceptional zeal. Soon their ideas began to fill sketchbooks in enormous quantity. And they were great ideas. I, however, drew a blank. Perhaps it was the sheer intimidation of an entire yearbook or my need to be somehow unconventional, or just plain "different" that kept me from producing a single idea for the book, but ideas remained frozen. Nevertheless, as ideas of the other nine flourished like flowers in a spring meadow, my stream was dry. Some of the design concepts were very handsome. But this was 1967, and the Ontario College of Art was steeped in the throes of a flourishing post-modern era where abstraction, abstract expressionism, and minimalism were beating the romantics, the realists, and the impressionists to the post. It was also a time of tremendous social upheaval. The sixties were in full bloom, and people were captivated by new experiences of vibrant colours and a freedom of creativity never seen before. Life became a virtual arts explosion that rivalled the less fortunate explosion of drugs and sex, which clouded the exuberance of so much creativity. My mind was flooded with questions of relevancy and impact of a proposed yearbook. How could any art college ever stand tall and unique in such a flood of artistic expression and social change? Pragmatically, how could the design of our yearbook ever stand out as my personal portfolio of work amidst the hundreds of art college and art school graduates who would soon roam the streets of Toronto, hoping to find a sympathetic art director and a job? Whether my ideas would be selected or not, the design and production of this yearbook would in fact be my most prized example of student work in my portfolio. The deadline for design submissions approached fast. One student was nearly finished with an elaborate mockup of the entire book. I felt overwhelmed, yet inside my heart I knew the answer lay somewhere else. Despite art's voluptuous developments during the sixties, OCA still had many traditions and conventions. As was the case in every college and university, the yearbook was one such tradition. Blue gowns and caps for graduation ceremonies were other traditions. All of them, however, appeared to be out-of-date. Perhaps I could not change the convention of gowns and caps, but I could aim to change the convention of a yearbook, if my design was selected. But how? The deadline for submissions was only days away. All the other students were putting finishing touches on their design presentations. I had yet to put any ideas on paper.
At last, with hours to spare, I arrived at a breakthrough.
I had an inspiration.
The night before all designs were due, I worked until early hours of the morning. Finally I knew what do do. My answer was inspired by one of the most popular designs of the day - the poster. The poster had become a hallmark of art and advertising popularity in the sixties. Wherever a wall offered a few spare feet of space, posters sprang up everywhere. Music groups were some of the most prolific consumers of posters. Everybody wanted a poster. Everyone wanted bright, colourful, design-y posters. A concept began to grow in my head.
With a stockpile of coloured felt markers and a huge layout pad, as well as a pot of coffee and some loud music, I began to design a series of posters, each representing a department of the college. My prsentation suggested a poster for each of the college's many department with a proposal that each department would design its own poster, as directed by my fellow students who were part of the team. It was a brilliant cooperative idea I thought. My presentation included the tradition that I remain in charge as overall art director to ensure my design concept was followed exactly. So I began drawing poster after poster in a flurry of quick feltpen layouts. One of my favourite studio classes was advertising design, where I was taught the techniques of feltpen rendering for newspaper and magazine layouts. I felt right at home as page after page of my layout pad filled with bright colours and bold designs. My design for each poster was simply a concept to "sell" the idea of my yearbook or yearposter to a jury of OCA faculty and Toronto designers.
My yearbook was not a book.
My yearbook was a collection of posters.
To "bind" the whole collection of posters together in a "book," I created an impressive mat-black mailing tube with a bright label that wrapped like a red-and-white barberpole design around the tube. At one end of the label was a photograph of a trumpet to herald this unique design concept. When I slowly turned the mailing tube around, the label ended with a photograph of a reclining nude. Now all I needed to do was sell the jury. I don't remember how late it was, or how early in the morning, but at last, exhausted from all that flurry of creativity, I rolled nine large poster ideas into a black mailing tube and carefully glued the long label to the tube.
When our morning of decision came, I and nine other students sat with nervous expectation outside the college's large boardroom, waiting to make our respective presentations, and each clutching our prized possession in a portfolio in our laps. I was last as the order of presentations was determined alphabetically. I think I had my first taste of eternity that morning as hours crawled slowly by. Keith Rushton's design was the favourite to win. His design was an elaborate book with sumptuous art-nouveau designs and lots of contemporary graphics. It was a masterpiece. For a moment I entertained all sorts of doubts about my presentation, but I remembered the zeal with which it was birthed at the last hour. Finally, when my turn came, it was the shortest presentation they had ever seen. Eight jurors sat around the table, expecting a presentation of yet another book with a page by page description of the design's merits. With some degree of theatrical drama I admit, I rolled the tube on the table making sure each juror saw the trumpet photograph slowly wrap around the tube to end at the reclining nude. They didn't know what to expect. I didn't say a word. Then I carefully removed the posters from the tube and spread them on the table. My words remained simple. I made sure they understood I was proposing a design concept that would involve the participation of others and not just feature my design alone. I proposed a collaborative creative work rather than a solo work. The jurors showed no reaction and gave me a genuine but polite thank you. I felt relieved and figured Keith had won. But, at least I would be on his production team. The other students were suprised that I lasted such a short time. The atmosphere in the hallway where we waited outside the meeting room remained tense. Regardless of Keith's great design, Russel and Stan each had submitted excellent ideas as well. About twenty minutes later, the jury of faculty and designers met with us and with great enthusiasm announced my design as the winner.
Everyone was shocked, especially me, first because my design was so unconventional and perhaps too daring, and second because I had spent so little time actually making a mockup of my design. It appeared as if I had snubbed all the others students who had spent so much time doing so much work to create a yearbook.
Nevertheless, I was appointed art director and given the task of appointing my team. As an offering of peace and friendship I went first to Keith Rushton who was noticably shocked and irritated. I assured him my design was in no way superior to his. It was the concept of something bright and new instead of a book, that sold the jury. I asked him to join the team. When the moment finally settled, everyone readily agreed to join the team. We were given a large room below the auditorium's stage and within days our production and design team met to plan the next seven months. News spread through the college like wildfire. Gerrit Verstraete had won the design competition. The college would have posters for a yearbook? Groovy Man!
Immediately, and with permission from the college I sent a news release to the major Toronto daily newspapers and got good press coverage of the unique event. Despite a few mishaps and some minor personality irritations, the 1967/68 yearbook, or yearposters, under my direction, became an award winning design and a showcase for the college. The final product was a great success and gave OCA a much needed boost of favourable public opinion as many remembered 1968, as the year of "the great OCA sit-in." Our unique yearbook brought international recognition to the college and the team that put the project together, including myself as designer and art director of the entire project. A special award was given to the College and its revolutionary yearbook when my design was selected to be included in an ambitious international project called, "Graphic Design Canada," a retrospective touring exhibition that traveled throughout Canada and Europe, sponsored by the Society of Graphic Designers and the National Design Council. The yearbook itself was awarded entry as well as the designs of four individual posters. Keith Rushton's design was one of the individual poster designs selected. He was a happy and vindicated man. Another of the four posters selected was my personal design for OCA's Advertising Department. "Graphic Design Canada" was also published in book form that same year. I basked in the recognition of my work. It was the first time in my life I had been duly recognized for a creative work. It was a long way from another competition I won in highschool, when I was the only Wallaceburg resident who entered a design for the official crest of the Sydenham Valley Conservation Authority. It was a good design and I won. But because I was the only entry the SVCA did not give me the winner's prize. Instead they gave me a pair of cheap chrome cufflinks in a dusty box. I didn't even own a shirt with French-cuffs. I can still remember how disappointed and insulted I felt. But this yearbook was no cheap cufflinks. I was thrilled with the honour that I had won. I was equally excited I could share the glory with a great team of fellow students who worked so hard to make the whole project a success.
The entire yearposter project allowed me to work inside and outside the college for the better part of a school year, giving me hands-on experience working with photographers, typesetters, film and plate makers, and Rolph Clark Stone Limited, the prestigious Toronto printing company who printed our posters and mailing tubes. I came well within budget and took advantage of the opportunity to print a number of extra copies for myself, about two dozen, which I used as my personal portfolio to send to art directors in Toronto's design studios and advertising agencies. There were enough left over to send to a few New York companies as well.
It was the best portfolio I could have ever hoped for. I was proud of my work throughout the entire project. Local press was enthusiastic and somehow the Ontario College of Art was no longer branded with the label of a hangout for rebellious youth. Instead, the college's fine art image remained intact as the quality school it had always been, and still able to produce world-class designs.