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Book Reviews K.D. Miller: My book’s characters inspired by Alex Colville paintings influenced and shaped me as surely as I did them

In 2014, I attended the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibition of the works of Alex Colville. As I roamed the rooms of the gallery, a phrase began to echo like a mantra in my mind: the Colville stories; the Colville stories. Although it would be years before I held the end result in my hands – the book Late Breaking, published in October – I knew I was on to something. For this was inspiration in the original sense of the word – a breathing in of recurring images and themes. Solitary walkers. Lone swimmers. Oncoming trains. Turned backs and out-of-frame heads. Faces either sharply averted or challenging the viewer with a direct stare. Handguns held at the ready or suspended in air as if having just been dropped. Nude bodies subjected at times to cruel lighting that emphasizes their vulnerability.

Not to mention what I have come to think of as the Colville moment – captured just before or after something happens, and leaving the viewer with unanswerable questions. Will the galloping horse veer off the tracks in time, or smash headlong into the speeding train? Is the just-dropped handgun a repudiation of suicide? Of murder? How long will the robed, headless figure in the background wait for the hunched woman to emerge from the bathtub? How long will she endure the chilling water to avoid him – if that is in fact what is going on? For every viewer will perceive different shades of ambiguity. And it was just this openness to interpretation that inspired me, over the next three years, to pull stories out of Colville’s paintings.

On the bulletin board above my desk I’ve tacked a yellowing bit of paper with this printed on it: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Given what I’ve read about Alex Colville, whose first priorities were home and family, and who took international fame with a grain of salt, I can’t help wondering if Gustave Flaubert’s advice rang true for him, too. His paintings, for which his children, his pets and his wife of 70 years often posed, are nothing if not “violent and original.”

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Between 2014 and 2017, those paintings gave me stories in which elders are menaced by hostile youth, a father confronted by pure evil barters his creativity for his daughter’s innocence, a young woman is murdered by her drunken lover and a man who cannot relate to people becomes enamoured of an octopus. Shortly after wrapping up the final draft, I entered this in my journal: “The most satisfying writing experience of my life remains the last few months of finishing Late Breaking.” It was a wistful acknowledgment. I was already missing the community of characters that had dominated my imaginary life for three years.

That community, as it grew, took me to Sackville, N.B., where Colville attended Mount Allison University and later returned to teach. For three days, I explored the town, finding the sites depicted in several of the paintings and collecting landmarks and street names for the two stories that are set there. The highlight of my trip was a tour of Colville House, where the painter’s tools – including mathematical and dental instruments – are on display.

But it was the paintings themselves that prompted and shaped the stories I was writing. At no time did I attempt, schoolgirl-fashion, to “describe what is happening in the picture.” Most often, what I took from the paintings was more by way of a mood. A chill down the spine. Woman on Ramp is a case in point. It is a relatively small work, and a quiet one. A white-haired woman in a striped bathing suit is walking barefoot up a wooden ramp from a dock. Her face and body are depicted with the honesty and tenderness that characterize Colville’s later portraits of his wife, Rhoda. But there is no sentimentality in the portrayal. In fact, as I gazed at the painting, I began to feel afraid for this solitary, exposed old woman. What was she walking toward? What was waiting for her inside the cottage at the top of the ramp?

That was the genesis of Witness, the first of the Late Breaking stories to be written and published. Its protagonist, Harriet, is 70. Although I did not consciously set out to write a book peopled mainly with seniors, that development now strikes me as inevitable, given the Colville connection. The painter never flinched from portraying the realities of getting old. Studio, a late, full-figure self-portrait, depicts him wearing nothing but glasses and a wristwatch, facing straight out from the canvas as if to say, “This is me. As I am now. Take it or leave it.”

Of course, the effects of aging on our faces and faculties serve to remind us of the thing we really fear. And there is a lot of death in Late Breaking – everything from murder and suicide to the putting down of an old dog. Death is an implied presence, too, throughout the works of Alex Colville. It is even there beneath the surface innocence of Child Skipping – the painting that spoke to the story Lost Lake. The child is suspended mid-jump, a summer breeze lifting her skirt and hair. But her surroundings are harsh – hard cement, gravelly dirt, a blank sky sliced by the sharp right angles of buildings. The very isolation of the childish figure all but begs for some menacing presence to be watching her from behind one of those hard-edged corners.

Or not. Again, there is something essentially protean about the people, animals and objects Alex Colville paints. Although frozen in a particular moment, they give the impression that they – or their circumstances – are just about to change.

I’m still missing the characters I came to know in Late Breaking. They influenced and shaped me as surely as I did them. And all of us were profoundly affected by Alex Colville.

I can’t help wondering if he also felt a pang of loss whenever a finished painting left his studio. His signature sharpness of detail and polished, invisible brushwork are signs of attention meticulously paid. And it is with the paying of attention that love begins.

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