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Art & Architecture Korean War vet Ted Zuber became Canada’s last official war artist

Ted Zuber.

Courtesy of the Family

On a cold day in January, 1952, on the Korean Peninsula, Ted Zuber peered a few hundred metres away at a snow-covered hill where enemy Chinese soldiers were crouched in a trench. Two men suddenly popped into view and Mr. Zuber fired, felling both in a matter of seconds.

A few minutes later, another Chinese soldier appeared, frantically waving a white flag. Mr. Zuber took his finger from the trigger. Then two more men scurried along the trench with a stretcher, picked up one of the casualties, and all three ran back to safety.

The man with the flag “must have been terrified because he’s been told to go out there and expose himself to that Canadian sniper and wave the flag hoping I will obey it,” Mr. Zuber told researchers from the Canadian War Museum this past summer. But “I had a chance, for a few moments, to be an honourable – I’m going to cry – to be an honourable human being. And I never would have shot any of these people under a white flag, ever.”

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Mr. Zuber knew how to tell a story with words. But he was even better with paint.

The image of what happened on that hill 66 years ago was committed to canvas by Mr. Zuber long after he returned from the war. He called the painting Redemption.

Redemption by Canadian war artist Ted Zuber.

Thirteen others depicting scenes from the Korean War hang on the walls of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, along with more than 130 additional pieces of his art.

He died on Oct. 30 at the age of 86 in the studio in his home in Kingston. He chose to have a medically assisted death after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Mr. Zuber, who studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal and fine art at Queen’s University in Kingston, was Canada’s last official war artist. He was named a Canadian Heritage Painter for the images he created as a way of dealing with the haunting memories of war. He was also a photographer, a teacher, a guitar player and, in younger years, a frequent skydiver.

“He was definitely out of the norm, in a most wonderful way,” his wife, Monika Zuber, says. “He was very charming. He was intense. He was passionate about the things he did. It was just wonderful to be in his company.”

Edward (Ted) Fenwick Zuber was born on May 7, 1932, in Montreal to Fred Zuber, a worker at Canadair, and his wife, the former Ina Foster. He was one of five brothers.

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When he was 12, his mother gave him a little set of oil paints, some linseed oil, and some brushes. He was an artist from that moment on. But he was also an adventurer.

Ted Zuber's first oil painting, done at age 12, that he copied from a Swiss postcard sent to his grandfather in Montreal.

Courtesy of the Family

While still in his early teens, he ran away to Kingston where he met a professional photographer who taught him how to take pictures and run a photo studio.

Then, at 17, he married his first wife, Muriel Wills, and signed up to join the Canadian Army.

“He was initially turned down because he didn’t weigh enough,” his youngest daughter, Linda Zuber, says. “In his own words, he said: ‘Well surely you can put a few pounds on me.’ So they decided to let him go ahead and enlist.”

In 1951, Mr. Zuber was sent to fight in the Korean War, as a parachutist with the 1st Battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment. He opted to be a paratrooper because it paid more money, Linda says.

He was also a sniper. He told the researchers that he initially felt proud when he made his first kill. And then reality set in. “I had just shot a person and I felt pride and that scared the hell out of me,” he said. “I realized human beings don’t do this to each other.”

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Welcome Party by Ted Zuber.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art / Canadian War Museum

During the conflict, he sketched scenes in his notebook and on scraps of paper – snapshots of life on the front line: The trenches, the firefights, the down time between engagements. And he realized that all of the soldiers he was drawing had the same blank expression. ”Their bodies are functioning,” he told the researchers. “But [on] the faces, nothing is allowed to be shown. We learned within week, emotion is a luxury.”

On New Year’s Eve at the end of 1952, Mr. Zuber was in a bunker with other Canadians when someone accidentally set off a grenade. One man was killed and Mr. Zuber got a backside full of shrapnel. The doctors at the MASH unit were able to remove most of it. But some could not be taken out and it caused him pain for the rest of his life.

Mr. Zuber returned to Montreal without the sketches, which were lost when he was wounded, and he became a professional photographer. He and his wife had their first son, Rick, in that city, and then moved frequently throughout Ontario where they had Carol, Tom and Linda.

For several years, Mr. Zuber was considered one of the premier commercial photographers in Toronto. He was responsible for the Eaton’s catalogues, some of which featured his children on the cover.

Then his marriage fell apart in the early 1960s and he moved back to Kingston where he opened another photography studio.

But “eventually he said to hell with it, I am going to commit myself to becoming a full-time artist,” Linda says. He built a house in Seeley’s Bay, northwest of Kingston, and began to paint. And, although his first love was landscapes, his wartime memories kept clouding his thoughts.

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Freeze by Ted Zuber.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art / Canadian War Museum

His daughter says he never discussed the war with his children. When he started painting scenes from the recesses of his own photographic memory and from some of his sketches that he found in the care of a fellow soldier, he would not allow anyone to see them. “He said at that time that it would be like exposing someone’s personal diary,” Linda says.

But his agent, an art dealer, was given a chance to look at them, and arranged for the entire collection to be sold to a private buyer who then donated them to the war museum.

In the meantime, his “amazing” landscapes had been noticed in his store window in Kingston by a young woman named Monika Wales Erne. “I just fell in love with them,” she says. She was also intrigued that the artist’s name was Zuber, which is common in Switzerland, where she was born.

She raved about the paintings to her mother, but when the two women returned to the shop to see inside, it was closed.

Then her mother went through a round of cancer treatments. And on the day it was announced that she had gone into remission, Ms. Erne and her son, Christopher, went out to lunch to celebrate across the street from the art shop.

The Hunters by Ted Zuber.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art / Canadian War Museum.

“And we were just so happy to be spending the day together instead of going to the cancer centre with my mother,” she says. And, when they left, “a man ran after us and he said ‘I have been watching you from across the street in the restaurant and the two of you have such a wonderful relationship, you seem so happy, you are almost not touching the sidewalk.’ He said: ‘Would you allow me to portray this relationship?’ And I said: ‘Is your name Zuber?' ”

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That was in 1977. Ted Zuber and Monika Erne became friends, and then fell in love, and were married in 2001 after Mr. Zuber was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.

In the meantime, he continued painting.

When the Gulf War broke out, he was asked to go as Canada’s official war artist.

“He initially wasn’t eager to return to a theatre of war,” Linda says. “But he had an extraordinary experience when he was there. He was experiencing Scud missile attacks. He has a dark painting of himself, along with the other soldiers, evacuating into a bunker where they had to put on masks and coveralls to protect themselves from incoming Scud missile attacks.”

TOPP High by Canadian war artist Ted Zuber.

Beaverbrook Collection of War Art / Canadian War Museum

Mr. Zuber drew sketches and took videos and returned home to paint. Some of those pictures are now also in the war museum.

A few years later, he went overseas again as Canada’s official war artist in Kosovo and Bosnia.

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Following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he was asked to go to Afghanistan, but he turned down the request. And that was the end of the official war artist position in Canada.

In May of this year, Mr. Zuber and his two daughters travelled to Ottawa for the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. A poster of one of his paintings commemorated the event and flags of the same image were flying throughout the city.

Few artists besides Mr. Zuber have depicted the Korean conflict, says Andrew Burtch, a museum historian.

“What’s important for us is that it’s a blend of the very personal experiences: his personal experience of fighting in the hills of Korea, or bombardments, of sniper operations, of night time patrols, the kinds of things he would be doing,” Mr. Burtch says. “But also it extends also to the universal" experience of a Canadian soldier during the Korean War.

In July, Mr. Zuber was told that lung cancer had spread to his brain and he did not have long to live.

Forever by Ted Zuber, a painting of younger versions of himself and his wife in their kayaks.

Courtesy of the Family

He activated the Medical Assistance in Dying protocol and went home to do more painting – ending with a work that was intended to bring comfort to his wife.

“He could only be at the easel for a few minutes at a time and then he would have to lie down,” Monika says. “The painting is of a younger Ted and a younger Monika out on Whitefish Lake in our kayaks … And he called it Forever.”

Mr. Zuber died on the date of his choosing, with his easel at his feet. He leaves his wife, Monika; children Carol, Tom and Linda; stepson, Christopher Wales; four brothers, Carl, Don, Ralph and John; his eight surviving grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son Rick and grandson Justin Chislett.

“As we mourn his passing and celebrate his life,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan, “we know his legacy will continue to inspire us and pay tribute to all men and women in uniform who sacrifice so much every day in the cause of peace and freedom.”

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