With paper, scissors and white glue – and skilled hands – Claude Lafortune created a vivid depiction of the New Testament on a children’s television show that left a lasting imprint in the minds of young Quebeckers in the 1970s.
With love, respect and calm – and a willingness to listen – Mr. Lafortune also hosted another children’s show that gave a voice to kids who had been marginalized by their disability, illness or ethnicity. Several had terminal conditions and he privately comforted some of them during their last moments.
He once was called to Montreal’s Sainte-Justine hospital at the request of a fan, Mathilde, a five-year-old girl who had had a bone marrow transplant. Mathilde was afraid of the dark, so Mr. Lafortune made five paper stars for her, representing each person in her family, and explained that stars need darkness to shine.
“Claude, I want to leave in your arms,” she told him. She put her head on his shoulder and he sang to her in the hours before her death.
Recalling the episode in an interview in the magazine Profil, Mr. Lafortune said the family asked him to help arrange her funeral and he made sure to place stars in her casket.
Mr. Lafortune, known to generations of Quebec children as the artist in the religious television show L'Évangile en papier, died on April 19 of complications from COVID-19. He was 83.
Because visitors were forbidden during the pandemic, Mr. Lafortune, who had been at the bedside of so many others during their final hours, died in hospital without the presence of his family, his son François said in an interview.
“Unfortunately he died alone. We couldn’t be with him while he was hospitalized for a few weeks.”
François said a family celebration will eventually be held to honour his father’s life.
A onetime school teacher, Mr. Lafortune often said he felt lucky to have found a calling that, while making ephemeral objects, gave people some joy.
“I’ve had the privilege to earn a living with the same items used by a kindergarten child,” Mr. Lafortune told La Presse when he retired from television in 2000.
“I could say I’ve never been an adult. I was a big child,” he said in a 2018 Télé-Québec documentary, Une vie de papier.
The cornerstone of his career was L'Évangile en papier (The Gospel in Paper), a 15-minute Sunday morning show that started airing in 1975.
Quebec had just gone through the Quiet Revolution, a period of profound social and political reforms that ended the hegemony of the church. Mr. Lafortune, however, recognized that even in more secular times much of Quebec’s culture and language still carried the influence of centuries of Catholicism.
He wanted children to understand the roots of that Catholic legacy, so he persuaded Radio-Canada to produce a show that explained various chapters of the New Testament.
In the show, as a narrator or voice actors spoke, Mr. Lafortune would appear on screen to set up paper puppets of biblical characters and create artwork while on the air.
He used simple materials, such as coarse construction paper, because he wanted children to be able to emulate his work. With a few snips of scissors and squirts of glue, he could create a tree. Hair took longer, painstakingly fashioned by cutting thin ribbons. He fashioned the flat sheets into three-dimensional objects by creasing or crumpling the paper.
In a minute, he would create a dove, folding a piece of white paper in two, cutting it and bending it to shape the wings and tails. It illustrated the moment after Jesus meets John the Baptist, when the Holy Spirit descends upon Christ in the form of a bird.
With thin strands of paper, he made a fishing net for the episode depicting the encounter between Jesus and the Tiberias Lake fishermen who would become his apostles.
Mr. Lafortune would flip a paper moon around, the other side a sun, to illustrate the passage of time. He would pull up a paper tree and pin a bird cutout within its leaves. That depicted how Jesus explained that the kingdom of heaven started as a small seed that grew into a tree where “birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”
His recreations were so evocative that he was invited by the University of Montreal’s theology faculty to lecture to aspiring religion teachers on how to visualize the Bible.
He was born in Montreal on July 5, 1936, the younger of the two sons of DesNeiges Léger, a hat maker, and Émile Lafortune, a garage worker and taxi driver.
Before he turned to the world of visual arts, Mr. Lafortune had considered entering the priesthood. He also did tax auditing but found it dull, he later told his children.
After graduating in 1961 from Montreal’s School of Fine Arts, he taught high school in Sherbrooke.
During that period, Mr. Lafortune also started to make artwork at home, honing the skills that eventually led him to television.
Each Christmas, Mr. Lafortune and his wife, Suzanne Côté, who had been a fellow student at the School of Fine Arts, would create their own nativity scene, tree decorations and gift wrappings, which followed specific themes each year.
Also, François recalled, when there was a birth among his relatives, Mr. Lafortune would fashion a paper likeness of the child’s patron saint.
His dream had initially been to become a theatre decorator. In 1965, he was hired as a set designer at Télé-Métropole, the private Montreal television station that later became TVA. In the documentary Une vie de papier, he recalled that the station sacked him after two months, telling him, “It was a polite way to say you have no talent.”
He managed, however, to get a job at Radio-Canada and helped create the sets for a series of children’s shows such as La Boîte à surprises, Sol et Gobelet and La Ribouldingue. Inspired by popular theatre, those productions featured simple, stylized sets that would be the hallmark of his own visual look.
By the 1970s, he had designed the pasteboard set for IXE-13, a 1971 National Film Board spoof of a spy thriller, and first appeared on air in another children’s show, making crafts on Du soleil à cinq cents. “I’d never been on TV,” he said in the Télé-Québec documentary. “I was terrible. I was awkward and sounded odd. But I was hooked.”
When he pitched the idea of doing the gospel in paper, it was a big gamble. He was leaving a permanent job to become a contractual TV host. “I had three kids that I had to feed with my papers. I had to invent my job,” he recalled in an interview with La Presse in 2000 when he retired from television.
The show was only produced for a season, but it was popular and repeatedly aired, and was syndicated in French-speaking countries in Europe and Africa. Using the same model, Mr. Lafortune then made similar shows about the Old Testament, the Catholic Church and world history.
He diversified by designing the 15 floats for the 1981 St-Jean-Baptiste parade, each inspired by a stanza from a poem by Gilles Vigneault.
His last television project began in 1988 after he heard the story of an overweight boy who had killed himself because of the mockery he had to endure. It inspired Mr. Lafortune to create Parcelles de soleil (Parcels of Sunshine), a series where each week he met and chatted with a child who faced adversity, rejection or illness.
“I wanted to teach children to love each other with their differences, not despite of their differences,” he said.
He leaves his wife, Ms. Côté; their three children, François, Frédérique and Nathalie; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.