Robert-Ralph Carmichael's artwork is handled by millions of people in Canada every day. His iconic image of a common loon swimming in front of an island graces the dollar coin affectionately known as "the loonie." But, if it hadn't been for a mysterious disappearance on the way to the Royal Canadian Mint's production facility in Winnipeg, the dollar would feature a voyageur in a canoe and not Mr. Carmichael's aquatic bird.
The artist, who died this month, also designed a $1 stamp featuring the loon for Canada Post, as well as more than a dozen special edition coins in gold or silver, including one to commemorate the 60th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth.
Mr. Carmichael's true passion, however, lay in applying methodical brush strokes of acrylic to canvas as he created both landscapes and surrealistic multi-image paintings. He once wrote, "The major themes in my work deal with the human condition, our relationship to the environment and our relationships to each other." He said his ideas, images and symbols came together in an intuitive manner.
The artist's work has been exhibited across Canada at the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, the Glenbow Institute in Calgary and the Tom Tomson Art Gallery in Owen Sound. It is also found in private and corporate collections around the world, as well as public institutions such as Ontario's Queen's Park.
Rose Sundaram, owner of Roses Art Gallery and Framing in Sault Ste. Marie, and a friend of Mr. Carmichael, has been selling his work for 15 years. "Bob was a perfectionist. He made his own frames. He placed every stroke with a purpose to lead you into a painting and not out of it," she said.
On one occasion, Ms. Sundaram accompanied Mr. Carmichael and his wife on an outdoor painting expedition. Surveying a grey lake without shadows, she thought, "Oh no. There's nothing here to paint." Mr. Carmichael, however, felt there was so much to paint that he'd have difficulty choosing a subject. "To Bob, everything was a painting: the way light hit a coffee cup on the table in the morning or the way light came in the window and shone on a tomato. In his eyes, everything he saw was a painting," Ms. Sundaram said.
While a number of Mr. Carmichael's paintings were realistic, he took particular delight in juxtaposing disparate objects that held meaning for him. Ms. Sundaram described a surrealist work she owns that was painted by Mr. Carmichael; "It's got the reflection of a cupboard, the moon, a blue bottle, poppies, a pair of scissors and a famous British actress." She added, "Go figure." Another painting in her gallery features a giant white tulip with the tiny figure of a boy looking up at it. "The expertise with which it's executed is awesome," Ms. Sundaram said.
There was no mistaking Mr. Carmichael's vocation. As far back as he could remember, he knew he wanted to be an artist.
Robert-Ralph Carmichael was born on Dec. 20, 1937, in Sault Ste. Marie to Robert G. Carmichael, a painting contractor and his wife, Lila (née Brownlee). His parents accepted that young Robert, the first of their three sons, was artistic. As a child he wouldn't participate in building a conventional snowman. It had to be a giant cat, or a rabbit with long ears. It had to have the stamp of his creativity.
Growing up, he roamed the countryside with his brothers, found inspiration for art in nature and became an accomplished canoeist.
As a teenager, Robert took summer jobs in the clerical department of Algoma Steel, the area's largest employer. His brother Andy says his older sibling sketched and drew every chance he could. A friend from Sault Ste. Marie Collegiate Institute remembers his buddy drawing hands in the margins of textbooks.
When Robert graduated from high school at age 18, his natural choice for post-secondary education was the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). While travelling by train between Toronto and Sault Ste. Marie, he got to know Gwen Keatley, another OCA student four years older and about to graduate. Consistently referred to, by those who knew him, as a quiet, private and humble man, Mr. Carmichael was not beyond expressing his opinion. He told Ms. Keatley that War and Peace, the book she happened to be reading, was "pretentious." It would be several years before they married, in August, 1964. Ms. Keatley had a distinguished career of her own, winning a scholarship to the National Theatre School in Montreal before teaching theatre design at the University of Alberta. She designed sets for stages across the country including for the prestigious Stratford Festival. After OCA, Mr. Carmichael obtained his bachelor of arts degree from Carleton University, in Ottawa, and also taught at a school for boys in Pickering.
Mr. Carmichael and Ms. Keatley finally settled in an eight-sided house designed by Ms. Keatley outside Echo Bay, a small town close to Sault Ste. Marie. The dwelling burned to the ground after being hit by lightning.
"If we'd been home at the time we'd both be dead," Ms. Keatley said. The couple rebuilt their house and enjoyed a marriage of 52 years. They never had children.
"The two of them were like matched bookends," Ms. Sundaram said. "Gwen was more outgoing, a little more assertive in her views but also an extremely good artist in her own right."
Ms. Keatley said her husband painted for several hours every day after rising, and often sketched at night. "He always had a heavy message in his painting," she said.
In 1978, having already submitted several designs to the Mint, Mr. Carmichael sent his rendering of a loon. In an interview with the Toronto Star, he said, "I thought it was such a beautiful shape that it would be a good design. I think anyone who knows the loon is going to have positive vibrations about it. It symbolizes a lot of things we're going to lose if we're not careful."
Mr. Carmichael's loon design might have remained unnoticed in the Mint's repository for years, but something inexplicable happened. After a two-year phase out that began in 1985, one-dollar bank notes were scheduled to be replaced by a coin. It was the most significant change to Canada's monetary system in more than 50 years. The new coin was supposed to feature a voyageur in a canoe on the reverse side of Queen Elizabeth. But both sides of the master dies vanished during transport from Ottawa to Winnipeg. Someone at the Mint had decided to save some money by sending the package with a local courier company rather than a secure armoured vehicle. Master dies were usually sent separately to prevent them from falling into the hands of counterfeiters; one side being useless without the other. In this instance, however, the two dies were packaged together and clearly labelled "Canadian Mint." They were picked up on Nov. 3, 1986, but 11 days later had failed to arrive in Winnipeg. The RCMP investigated, but never solved the case of the missing dies. They conjectured the package never left Ottawa. Possibly, it now resides in somebody's basement or attic.
Given the imminent danger of counterfeit, creating a replacement coin was of utmost importance. Mr. Carmichael's loon, submitted almost 10 years earlier, fit nicely with other forms of wildlife – such as the beaver and caribou – in circulation on nickels and quarters. The federal government rapidly authorized the go-ahead. Mr. Carmichael was notified.
"Bob never got excited about anything," Ms. Keatley said. Nevertheless, Mr. Carmichael was proud of his work. His initials RRC can be seen on the coin just above the waterline. Early in his career he'd decided to hyphenate his two given names to distinguish himself from other artists named Robert Carmichael. Despite the public's embrace of the term "loonie," Mr. Carmichael always referred to it as, "The one-dollar loon coin."
In a tribute to their local hero, and coinciding with the centennial of the town, volunteers from Echo Bay erected a 12-foot replica of Mr. Carmichael's coin beside Highway 17. Mr. Carmichael oversaw its design and construction along with Ms. Keatley, who used an ice cream scoop filled with concrete to replicate the dots that adorn the edge of the eleven-sided coin.
Robert-Ralph Carmichael is not a household name like Robert Bateman or Ken Danby, but, unlike them, he refused to let his paintings be replicated. He insisted they be one of a kind. Since June 30, 1987, however, when Mr. Carmichael's loonie design went into circulation, it has been reproduced more than a billion times.
Mr. Carmichael, who was 78 when he died of cancer on July 16 in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., leaves his wife, Gwen Keatley; brothers Andy and Dan; and several nephews and nieces.