When my Grandpa Walt passed away a few years ago, he left me a pair of beloved poetry books he owned by Robert Service—The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew. Both of the books had been gorgeously, vividly illustrated by Yukon painter Ted Harrison and bore his signature. They are now two of my most prized possessions.
Service died decades before Harrison started the collaboration, but there was something magical about their pairing. Alongside Service’s tales of comically bleak winters and the overwhelming desolation of the Yukon, Harrison was re-inventing the landscapes in sunbursts of orange, red and pink.
It was like he lit the snow on fire.
Years later, when I traveled up to the Yukon for the first time to work at the Whitehorse Star, I went to an exhibition of Harrison’s work. I took his picture, shook his hand, and had the opportunity to gush briefly about how much I loved his work before his onslaught of fans overwhelmed me.
At that point he was living on Vancouver Island and had recently moved into a seniors’ facility. He was a pleasant, joke-cracking moustachioed gentleman, and he told me though he missed the Yukon desperately he was quite enjoying moving on to new subjects, like the ocean.
And though people were openly praising him, calling him a Canadian treasure and an artistic genius, he waved this flattery off.
“I don’t have a choice. I just love to paint,” he said.
Amazingly, by the last few years of his life Harrison had taken to splashing his artwork up on the walls of his house in Victoria, BC. He worked through his homesickness by creating epic northern backdrops, and started taking inspiration from the west coast as well.
Pretty soon his house, completely nondescript from the outside, was filled with purple mountain landscapes and the deep blues of the Pacific Ocean.
I was living on Vancouver Island at the time, and when Harrison moved into a seniors’ facility at the age of 81, I read about the local art conservators who spent a huge amount of money carefully removing his walls for posterity, painstakingly removing each nail and screw to be replaced later.
Here was a man so overflowing with beauty he couldn’t help but surround himself with it. Here was someone so enraptured with his surroundings that he invited us all to join in the love-fest, to gawk with childlike wonder at the magic surrounding us daily.
On January 16, Harrison passed away peacefully in his sleep. In a statement posted to his website it reads that he “lived a full life and brightened countless lives. His art will continue to make the world a better place.”
And I couldn’t agree more with this part: “His distinctive style of painting is both colourful and sophisticated, yet retains an innocent charm and appeals to both young and old alike.”
If I’ve done my job correctly with this column, you’ll be inspired to turn to Google once you’re finished reading. If you do, I highly recommend you search for his images of west coast killer whales, and you check out his hilarious depiction of Sam McGee.
To learn more about Harrison’s work, visit tedharrison.com.