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Artist Anthony Thorn (Judy Norman)
Artist Anthony Thorn (Judy Norman)

Artist Anthony Thorn became lifeblood of Victoria gallery Add to ...

A meticulous and prolific artist, Anthony Thorn produced nearly 1,300 works over his career – which took him from Canada to France, Mexico, Greece, the United States and Japan – and in the final months of his life, he made a decision that will have a lasting impact on Victoria, his last home.

Generous with his ideas, Mr. Thorn was always eager to discuss technique, form and approach in tête-à-têtes about his craft. He loved to smoke and never gave it up. As he thoughtfully discussed his work in his book-stuffed home, he would burn through multiple cigarettes, often distracted by the topic at hand.

“He … would slowly take a cigarette out of the package, he would light a match and then he would start talking. And then you’d be listening to him talk, but you’d be looking at the flame on the match as it got closer and closer to his fingers, worried that he would burn himself,” recalls Jon Tupper, director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. “Of course he never did. And then he would continue with this florid talk that he had: a measured way of speaking, and very colourful.”

Knowing death was approaching, Mr. Thorn was eager to divest himself of his library, inviting those close to him to take what they liked. His books smelled of smoke, and it was that fact and a precious gift years ago – a valuable first U.S. edition of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – that inspired a work of art made for Mr. Thorn by his friend Robert Amos.

Mr. Amos, an art writer who is also an artist, painted a passage from Finnegans Wake: “And the stellas were shinings,” it began, ending with, “O dulcid dreamings languidous! Taboccoo!” Knowing how Mr. Thorn loved gold in his work, Mr. Amos finished it with some gold paint.

Mr. Thorn hung it in his studio. “But I could tell that he thought the idea of gold paint was debased and what I needed was gold leaf,” Mr. Amos recalls. And so began a series of discussions and in-depth lessons into the proper application of gold leaf, the gifting of appropriate materials and tools by Mr. Thorn so Mr. Amos could make the “suggested” alterations, and then, once that was done, recommendations for additional modifications to the work. It was passed back and forth as the months-long tutorial continued.

“He was in love with technique … His practice was really profound and serious,” says Mr. Amos, with whom Mr. Thorn had begun a correspondence after Mr. Amos wrote an insightful review of an exhibition of his work in 1990. Art remained a foundation for their years-long friendship.

“We shared a lot of sympathies. I’m not a fussy, persnickety, hermetic spiritualist like him; I’m not that person at all,” says the art-critic-turned-friend. “But he recognized that I understood where he was coming from; I understood the practicalities of working as an artist and the frame of reference in literature. And I liked him. And these were enough things to bring us together.”

Anthony (Tony, to his friends) Thorn – inexhaustible maker and appreciator of art, voracious collector and reader of books, unregenerate smoker until the end – died July 24 from bladder cancer. He was 87.

He was born Arthur Goldman on March 8, 1927, in Regina, the son of Dorothy and Leon Goldman, clothing-store owners who were dedicated and generous philanthropists. (They died a year apart in the 1990s.) He adopted the pseudonym Anthony Thorn when he began publishing poetry in the university newspaper – to spare his prominent family possible embarrassment, according to Mr. Amos.

He began to paint in his early 20s, studying in Regina, Chicago and at the Banff Centre, and – beginning in 1953 – at the Centre d’Art Sacré in Paris, which focused on applied art for churches.

“Sounds like a bit of a stretch for a Jewish boy from Regina,” says Mr. Amos, “but the applied arts were the underpinnings of everything he did.”

Not a traditionally observant man, religion and spirituality did figure prominently in his work and in his life. His art was infused with faith, sometimes subtly (you can see the influence of his Parisian study of stained glass in some work) and sometimes overtly – as in his painting Kaddish; a plaque for which he cast the Hebrew letter aleph in gilded bronze; or his carved and gilded shofar – a ceremonial Jewish instrument, made from a ram’s horn. He painted church murals and read the Koran twice, he told Mr. Amos.

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