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James John Bennet: Painter. Chef. Athlete. Friend. Born March 3, 1965, in Ottawa; died April 19, 2022, in Toronto, from complications of COVID-19; aged 57.

James John Bennett.

James John Bennett died suddenly. The weather was grey and cold, and after struggling with COVID-19, his health was poor. Yet he was safe at home, at long last, and he was in love.

He was a long way from his childhood home, where he lived with his sister and brother and parents, who eventually split up.

John, as we called him, was born into money, and money left his hands as soon as it appeared. But by the time he grew ill, ravaged by health problems, including epilepsy and a debilitating back injury, the Rake’s Progress was over: He had put aside his wild youth and lived in a small, immaculate apartment in Toronto, filled with tropical plants and the dazzling colours of his paintings. In front of two votive candles stood a photograph of his father, Paul, a man he struggled with and loved.

John arrived in Toronto in the 1980s from Ottawa University. He’d been a varsity basketball player, model, artist and caterer-turned-chef, and eventually opened a bar called Mrs. Smith’s Cocktails on Queen Street West. He promptly began breaking hearts and his closest friends tell amazed, affectionate stories about the man himself, who was so daring, vivid and alive. At his Vegas bachelor party, he organized an impromptu fight club, and limped toward his bride to receive a ring that barely skimmed his first knuckle; a ring he would throw, impetuously, from a bridge as the marriage dissolved.

John survived extreme childhood trauma and struggled most of his life with addiction and a bewildering series of accidents and illnesses. He kept his unparalleled lust for life intact but he fell upon hard times a decade ago. He fought with all of his strength to return, not to his suave and often turbulent self, but to God and to serving others. He quit drinking, got into shape and began, finally, to take care of himself. And others: He gave talks at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to addicts, which were well received; he cooked for St. Michael’s church and homeless shelters, having done a stretch of sleeping rough himself.

His apartment was his safe haven, his “happy place,” he told his good friend and brother-in-law Bryan Hendry.

Having sketched all his life, he turned to painting, eventually exhibiting his bold, bright work at the design boutique Qalat in Toronto. He used his brush like a knife: Indeed, he had a large chef’s knife inked on his left forearm, which spoke to his life’s work as a chef and to the way he had always lived: on the very edge of the blade.

“John improvised with colour and texture to create the most intense expressions and affirmations of the beauty and turmoil that haunted him for years,” recalls his friend Shelley Falconer, president and CEO of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

John met the lovely and kind Teresa De la Nuez, whom he adored, and who cared for him after his bout with COVID. Teresa rarely left his side, but she was out when he died and she returned to find him seated with his eyes open, as if waiting to say goodbye.

John did not meet Grace, his biological daughter from his failed first marriage, but he saw her picture, which he shared with close friends. He was proud of her and her name was the last thing he ever wrote.

Missed, among so many things, is this gentle giant’s big laugh, his sharp wit, perpetual delight and his beauty which grew greater as it turned inward. At the outset of the epidemic, John and a friend walked to look out at Lake Ontario. They watched a woman feed dozens of pigeons: They roosted on her arms and shoulders; gabbling of her loneliness.

John’s own loneliness was vast, his hope indestructible.

Lynn Crosbie is John Bennett’s friend.

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