Arnold Mikelson and his wife Mary

Mind, matter and memories

Mary Mikelson remembers two decades of life with her late husband, sculptor Arnold Mikelson, in a new memoir

When renowned Peninsula-based sculptor Arnold Mikelson died on Feb. 9, 1984, his wife, Mary, was devastated.

While his health had been red-flagged for some time, his decline – succumbing to a blockage of a main lung artery while recuperating from open-heart surgery – had been sudden.

Their eldest daughter, Margit, was living away from home, and their next eldest, Sapphire was, in Mary Mikelson’s words “old enough to look after herself.”

But son Arnold was still only 14 and youngest daughter Myra, 12, who had suffered neurological damage at birth, had always needed special care.

Overcome with grief, Mikelson intended to sell the family home in South Surrey – site of Arnold’s A-frame Mind and Matter studio workshop and gallery since 1966.

Persuaded by a close friend to take things slowly, she determined instead to stay on, continuing the gallery as a showcase for local artists and preserving the workshop as a lasting tribute to her late husband, whose meticulous sculpting technique and sharp eye for line and form won him international awards, loyal collectors and even the patronage of Hollywood celebrities like Vincent Price, Glenn Ford and Arte Johnson.

For those who have known Mikelson only as director of the annual Arnold Mikelson Festival of Arts – and as a onetime White Rock councillor – a new book will come as a revelation.

Her memoir Mind and Matter – Life With Arnold Mikelson, to be launched this Saturday with a public party at the gallery, is a lovingly complete portrait of the man with whom she spent 22 years.

Writer Barbara Gould supplied most of the words, based on interviews with Mikelson, and a team worked on graphic design and layout, but the project clearly bears the stamp of Mikelson’s editorial judgment.

The book includes her selection of photographs, a representative sampling of his emotionally-charged wood sculpture, brief reminiscences by the children and even a statement by Arnold himself in English that reveals traces of his Latvian origins as surely as any accent.

“People wanted to edit it – they told me the English is not perfect, it should be corrected,” she said. “But I said, no, keep it as it is. That is how Arnold talked – that is who he was.”

Oliver Cromwell famously instructed Sir Peter Lely to paint him “warts and all,” and it’s notably in that vein that Mikelson presents her portrait.

The reader sees not only the exuberant family man with a relish for entertaining who believed that sleeping more than 4½ hours a night was a waste, but also the volatile man of dark moods who was capable of burning months-worth of his work in a fit of self-deprecation.

But one also sees the attraction of the intense, sad-eyed artist who swept the young Mikelson, some 20 years his junior, off her feet shortly after they met in Edmonton in 1962.

There’s enough of his ribald humour in the book – and a sense of their loving banter – to make their relationship vivid.

The book traces his artistic career from Latvia to postwar England (he is still acknowledged there for his crucial role in reviving the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain figurine department). It chronicles his life in Edmonton and move to B.C., where he was ‘discovered’ by popular media  and became, with provincial government backing, somewhat of an international arts ambassador.

Perhaps its greatest success is that it makes readers feel that they have met the man.

“I wanted to keep the story honest, simple and interesting,” Mikelson said. “I wanted to show Arnold as he was, how much he loved his children, what his humour was like, how much fun he was.

“Since he died, the family says our life is very boring. There’s not the same excitement – the ‘let’s do this, let’s do that.’ Maybe it was a lot of crazy, irresponsible foolishness, but it was fun.

“We need that in life – we all have to make a living and pay bills, but we also need to laugh.”

The more obvious choice would have been only to focus on the art, Mikelson said. There’s plenty of scope in the work alone: as a sculptor he revelled in the beauty of the human body, the strength and grace of birds, the vivid possibilities of fantastical, often monstrous creatures.

“But I didn’t want to do just an art book – I wanted people to know the man,” Mikelson said. “And I also wanted to tell my story; how my life was with him. I think he’d be pleased with it.”

Living with the artist had its share of frustrations, she acknowledges. When they – briefly – opened a gallery in Vancouver, he became more involved in giving free art lessons to street kids than in selling his work, she said.

And when people subsequently made pilgrimages to the Mind and Matter Gallery to see his sculpture he could be the effusive host to a fault – often inviting people to stay for breakfasts, lunches and dinners, even to park their campers on the driveway during their B.C. holiday.

Mikelson said she grew to recognize the signals of his darker moods, too.

“Arnold would want to grow a beard every time he heard something bad on the news on TV. He would say ‘how can people do such horrible things to each other.’ Every time I saw him growing a beard, I knew to leave him alone.

“Then, when he heard something good, that would be a good reason for him to shave.”

As the book recounts, he could make elaborate plans for solo camping and exploring trips – only to return in hours because he missed being at home with his family.

He was adept at inspiring his children and channelling their energy – Mikelson recalls the time he convinced them there was treasure on the property, and the subsequent five-foot deep excavation, which uncovered nothing more exotic than some antique bottles.

She keeps them in her kitchen to this day – the real treasure is in the memories, she said.

“Arnold said ‘time flies by so fast – I want to spend as much time with my family as possible,'” she recalled

“No matter how busy he was, he would always have time for the kids. He said he could spend time with them during the day and work at night.

“‘Life is like a blink of an eye,’ he said. ‘We shouldn’t waste any of it.'”

The Mind and Matter Gallery is located at 13743 16 Ave. For information, call 604-536-6460.


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