I knew he was old and saw he was growing frail as he slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor of his studio which had been his second home for over half a century.
Not that studio exactly. Four years ago, David Blackwood and his wife Anita had sold their three-storey house and moved into a single-storey cottage.
David had been hospitalized for 23 months with a cascade of maladies that would have killed a younger man. Even when he got home to Port Hope, he had to go for dialysis three times a week in Cobourg, the next town over, which he still does. But Blackwood is a tough Newfoundlander, and on his 80th birthday last Sunday, climbing the studio stairs was simply a duty ahead of a pleasure – showing off his latest work.
For sixty years, this small, intense, fiercely private man has been one of Canada’s most distinctive visual storytellers. He’s had 60 solo exhibitions and his prints hang in The Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and The Art Gallery of Ontario, which holds his papers and the largest collection of his work.
You know a print is a Blackwood the minute your eyes hit its distinctive colours and images: deep dark blues and blacks, giant whales, icebergs as monstrous deathtraps for the sealers caught ‘down in the Labrador.’ At least that’s what they mainly were in the early part of his career. Soon, portraits of Newfoundland fishermen and their families started to appear. Blackwood’s father and grandfather were both sealing ship captains when he was growing up in Wesleyville, a tiny fishing village on the north east coast of Newfoundland where he was raised in the 1940s and ‘50s was, in his word, ‘medieval.’
By the 1980s he was painting in oils and watercolours as well as doing his famed intaglio prints of Newfoundland outport life. These were garden scenes and shed doors and they were shockingly lovely. But then in 2013 he got desperately sick. Many thought his career as an artist was over. Even when he began to get better doing rehab in Bridgepoint Hospital and said he’d like to start drawing again, none of his friends expected much. His hand-to-eye coordination was shot and his energy quickly ebbed. He said he was drawing scenes from his hospital room, west across the Don Valley to Riverdale Park. Would I like to see what he’d done? Part of me did, but I confess, most of me didn’t. Whatever he’d created wouldn’t come anywhere near to the printmaker he’d been for 50 years.