The classroom assumed an errant look of careful artistry; large tables are crowding the small space and every surface is coated in chalk dust. The congested space resonates with the voices of sixty or more students, all of which are immediately silenced upon the entrance of a man clothed in a forest green corduroy jacket, hazel pants, and a smile that reaches from ear to ear. That man is William Forrestall, a Fredericton based artist who often moonlights as a Fine Arts professor at St. Thomas University, “I’m an artist; I paint paintings. I’ve been doing that for quite a while, and, as an artist, I wind up defining myself through my painting and my art. I’ve had over fifty solo exhibitions, and I’ve really lost count of the group shows I’ve been in, but it’s probably been in the range of somewhere around a hundred. Maybe it’s my family heritage, maybe it’s something else, but I do like to have projects on the go.”
William produces riveting still-life pieces, often employing gourds and fruits as the inanimate subjects of his compositions, but, over the last ten years, William has turned his attentions to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and their collection of artifacts. “They were actually found in what we now know as Egypt. They’re little egg-shaped objects that the people would place in the graves of their relatives when they died. They were grave offerings; rich people in these little villages or hamlets would use ostrich eggs and the rest of the people would make up these egg-shaped things out of clay. Some of them were quite crude, but some of them, at least for me, resonated in a certain kind of way.”
“There’s the human, this sort of human condition. We are all born, and we all die, and we all have to go through this transition.”
“I thought it was quite remarkable, on one hand, that the metaphor that they chose was the egg, which is the beginning of life, to place into these graves, six thousand years ago, at the end of life. I think it’s important that they were placed in the graves of loved ones six thousand years ago; these people are now anonymous to us, but they were engaged in the same marvelous thing that we call life, and engaged as much as we are, and maybe in some ways more. They certainly were compelled from the immediacy of the organic nature of living, as we sometimes are ourselves.” William’s paintings echo the sentiments of their subjects, being one step removed from life, “There’s an emotional human connection to that. The still life painting is kind of mildly seditious; it really does almost say, ‘Well, time doesn’t have an existence; it’s come to a stop; it’s given us a moment to pause’, and so, in some ways, those still life paintings become for me an escape from my otherwise busy life.”
William paints primarily in a medium known as egg tempera, an extremely durable method that seems to defy time. It’s popularity peaked in the Middle Ages but examples have survived from the 1st century. When asked about the process of painting with this particular medium, he explained that he picked it up from his father, well-known artist, Tom Forrestall, “He paints in egg tempera and he picked that up from Alex Colville when he worked at Mount Allison. All of these artists, I just knew about their work growing up. I was very much entrenched in a very Maritime representational realism tradition.”
“It’s still life, it’s kind of very reflective, calming; it’s almost a process of meditation.”
William’s relationship with his work is shown through the expression of his preferred medium of choice, “Every artist has their own technique, and my way of applying egg tempura paint is very, very different from my dad’s. I use a lot of thin washes. Dad paints up on an easel, I paint flat on a table, and I quite literally use thin washes. I almost pour the paint on, for a lot of the washes, with little hints of colour throughout the surface of the painting: a lot of almost glazes, in a particular way; that’s more of an oil technique, just thin little washes of egg tempera and painting on a flat surface, rather than on an easel. There is a whole range of things that differentiate.” As his surface for painting with egg tempura, William uses an untempered Masonite, which is prepared with a gesso that he makes himself.
Throughout the interview, William spoke very highly of other talented artists, but none so much as Walter Murch, “He incorporated a very interesting sensibility in his paintings. I would argue, that there was very much a Canadian sensibility; you know, that kind of calm, reflective, not engaged in, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ stuff. My dad saw an exhibition of his in Montreal, and bought the catalogue, which I have to this day. I thought, ‘Wow, this is fascinating stuff’. I was aware of his work even before that exhibition. He would do these paintings with, sort of, leftover debris (late 19th/early 20th century), old carburetors from cars, clockwork mechanisms, and very much a mechanical sensibility, in terms of creating still lifes. I picked up a lot of influence from him: unusual lighting conditions and the surreal aspect among the objects; Walter Murch is arguably one of Canada’s greatest painters and very few people have heard of him in Canada.”
Other artists of note, who have had a profound influence on William, include Fred and Sheila Ross, who hosted his first show. William was essential in the 2011 restoration project of a prominent mural by Fred Ross that had been discarded, “The Fred Ross mural project was created from drawings that were discovered at the New Brunswick Museum. It was a hole in our culture; it was a bit like the missing Amber Room: people were talking about it and writing stories about the missing mural. That was expressed, in some small ways, through the photo tribute that you had to walk by at Fredericton High, ‘We missed it! We lost it! We goofed it up!’ Restoring it was a nice tribute and I don’t want to diminish its importance, but without that loss, I would not have had the opportunity to put the project together. I thought, ’Oh the drawings exist, Fred exists; why don’t we put them together and restore the mural?’” William also wrote and edited a book on this project, with Charlie Hill and Virgil Hammock, that was published by the University of New Brunswick in 2013.
William went to Mount Allison University to obtain his Fine Arts Degree. As a man who was born and raised in the Maritimes, he holds a particular love for East Coast artists, “I’m actually doing a research project about how artists in the East Coast learn; how they develop their careers. This is another interesting thing: we have had a remarkable number of very successful artists who are painting, drawing, and taking photographs, completely unaffiliated with any kind of university or structured support, who have developed their own careers.”
“Maritime artists are absolutely fantastic, certainly punching above their weight, both nationally and internationally. We have to develop art culture here. If we don’t, who will? That’s the question. It goes across the spectrum: writers, artists, filmmakers, and painters, let’s not forget painters; throw in sculptors and everyone else too!”
William is currently part of a group exhibition with Stephen Scott, who, according to William, “is one of the best landscape painters in Eastern Canada.” The exhibition features some of William’s latest work and is being held at the Saint John Arts Centre from November 7 until December 23rd.
Kelsey Nevers is The East’s diligent copy-editor, a resident of Fredericton, New Brunswick, and a recent social work graduate of St. Thomas University.