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Art Classes at the AGO – A Brief Memoir by Morley Safer

August 26th, 2009

morleysafer

In May 2009, Morley Safer and his wife, Jane, visited the AGO. He later penned the following reminiscences from his childhood.

As I recall – and I make no guarantee of the precise year – I was selected to represent Clinton Street School at Saturday morning art classes at the Ontario Gallery of Art. I was 8 or 9 years old, so it would have been 1939 or 1940. In any case World War two had already begun.

On the first Saturday, my mother took me by streetcar to Dundas Street and walked me up to the most imposing front door I had ever seen. Even more imposing than "The Museum" which I had visited and which held for me a macabre fascination. I still have vivid memories of staring down at the faces of the Egyptian mummies on display there and equally vivid memories of the nightmares they produced. It was back in those pre-acronym years, when the Royal Ontario Museum was known simply as ‘the Museum.’ ROM, was yet to be coined

But an art gallery, or art museum was a totally new and as it turned out, a totally benign experience, one that made me into an incurable visitor to art museums across four continents and at least thirty countries over the past 70 years.

The first painting I remember was Tom Thomson’s The West Wind and I remember staring at it with a certain disbelief, that shock to the chest that I get to this day, when confronted with the mixture of genius and mystery that a Goya or early Picasso or Vermeer produces, no matter how familiar the painting may be.

But I confess the classes themselves were a disappointment. Art education must have been going through one its periodic ‘let the little dears just express themselves,’ moments. We were supplied with large sheets of blank newsprint, a single brush and a number of small jars of what must have been tempera or casein paint, and told to make art. Not a suggestion was made, or, heaven forbid, a judgment or critique . It almost seemed that the people in charge were polishing their passive/aggressive skills for life beyond Dundas Street.

I recall only one exception to this course in random doodling; it was a field trip of sorts to a welding shop on Queen Street, where we were told to try to capture what we saw. This pitch-black shed illuminated only by billions of sparks flying from the torches of brawny men shielding their faces with iron masks was a Dante’s Inferno of pure joy for a nine year old armed with coloured pencils and pad. The images were impossible to capture, but the challenge, even the failure was inspirational. That memory is virtually the only one I have of actually making art on those Saturday mornings, so long ago.

The classes may have done little to enhance what little talent I have for painting, but they gave me entrance to a world of ideas and images that I value beyond measure.

  • Fernanda Pisani

    Dear Morley
    Welcome home! Good to see your photo at the AGO.

    As a fellow graduate of Clinton Public School and as a proud Torontonian, I was thrilled to see your comments on the AGO blog.

    I too remember my very first visit to the AGO as a student at King Edward School. It was a school trip that is still very vivid in my mind. At the time there were turtles in the fountain that was then in the main courtroom of the old gallery. The turtles had jewels attached to their backs. It was the first form of “live installation art” that I had ever seen.

    Again, welcome home Morley, and please come back often.

    best wishes
    Fernanda Pisani

  • Fernanda Pisani

    Dear Morley
    Welcome home! Good to see your photo at the AGO.

    As a fellow graduate of Clinton Public School and as a proud Torontonian, I was thrilled to see your comments on the AGO blog.

    I too remember my very first visit to the AGO as a student at King Edward School. It was a school trip that is still very vivid in my mind. At the time there were turtles in the fountain that was then in the main courtroom of the old gallery. The turtles had jewels attached to their backs. It was the first form of “live installation art” that I had ever seen.

    Again, welcome home Morley, and please come back often.

    best wishes
    Fernanda Pisani