Frank Panabaker A.R.C.A. (1904-1992)

An Artist's Life

The following is from Grace Inglis' catalogue of the retrospective of Frank Panabaker's artwork which was held at the Art Gallery of Hamilton October-December 1995.

"Frank Panabaker's personal qualities of directness, practicality and charm were reflected in his art. With his incredible energy and sound common sense, he was well suited to do what other artists couldn't early in the century: to make his living by painting.

"His work embraced a wide range of subjects, and his output was large, two or three paintings per week for most of his productive years. Most of them were landscapes, although he also executed many portraits. While many of his landscapes were repetitive, produced for a clientele who wished similar types of work, his genius lay in the outdoor sketches made in all weathers and across the country, which inspired and were the foundation of the paintings. As we recognise the skills required of the pleinair artist--of colour balance, tonal control, mixed with knowledge of paint behaviour and sensitivity to every mood of the landscape even under the most severe conditions--Panabaker's special abilities will be more widely appreciated.

"Panabaker's personal qualities were outstanding. His friend and sketching companion, Fred H. Brigden, R.C.A, (1871-1956) once described him as a "tall handsome Viking type, kindly and generous in disposition." He continued, "These cheerful spirits find a frequent outlet in song, at any time while driving or in the midst of his painting he is apt to break out in a lusty baritone, his repertoire being largely of the Barber Shop Quartet type." Lorne Pierce, in his introduction to Panabaker's autobiographical book of short stories, Reflected Lights, remarked "If there is one supreme quality born of a blithe spirit, a ripe mind at peace with the world" This buoyancy of spirit informed his work for most of his life.

"His high energy level meant that in the early years, in addition to producing two or three paintings per week, he made his own frames, developed his own photographs, organised solo exhibitions around Southern Ontario, taught private classes, cultivated patrons and explored new painting prospects as part of his normal routine. The Panabakers' frequently precarious financial position was not unlike that of many of their associates and friends during the Depression era, but was distinguished by continuous effort, and an apparently complete faith that painting, while an unruly mistress, would ultimately prove to be a reliable one.

"The diaries kept by his wife, Katherine tell about these years. These daily records, written succinctly in a firm hand and themselves an eloquent portrait of the humour, sensitivity and practicality of their author, are a precious chronicle of life during the Depression and World War II eras. From these, we glimpse a peripatetic lie from 1927 to the mid-1940's, living in borrowed homes for sometimes only a month or two between moves, boarding with friends and relatives and stopping in tents, cottages and cheap hotels while on painting trips. Taking flat tires, fatigue, and constant visitation with a multitude of family and friends in their stride, Frank and Katherine must have been a source of wonder to their acquaintances even in those days.

"Panabaker went about an artist's work of production and dissemination with the same predictability, orderliness and vigour as he did everything else in his life. He initially sold his paintings by means of society shows, regular solo exhibitions of each year's work in galleries, hotels, libraries and department stores, and shipments to regular clients; later, he depended for sales upon his dealers, and a splendid network, carefully tended, of patrons, friends and their friends. He sold his work through the department stores Simpson's and Eaton's College Street and Malloney's Gallery on Grenville Street in Toronto in the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's, the the Beckett Gallery in Hamilton run by Tom, the son of his old friend, photographer Hubert Beckett, and in his late years by Robert Koolen of Bronte Harbour Fine Arts in Oakville. For most of his working life he supplied paintings for reproduction on Christmas cards and calendars to various firms: Rous and Mann, Coutts-Hallmark for the Painters of Canada Series, then later, for posters to Northern Shorelines Fine Art Reproductions, a business owned by his grandson, Frank Schwenger. Everyone saw Panabaker Christmas cards, posters and calendars--and that pleased him.

"From the start, he looked to private patrons and had times been different, he might not have had to produce so many works.

"In a poignant letter written in 1927 to an early, important patron, Walter Sampson, President of Ontario Steel Products at Gananoque, he suggests putting together a syndicate of six businessmen to whom he would give first choice of his work each year, and prominent among whom would be Walter Sampson. Panabaker reasoned that only a dependable source of funds would allow him freedom to work as he should, and he was right, of course. What he wanted as a business arrangement, but the times were against him. Of the six businessmen approached, only Sampson replied positively. He, however, acquired many paintings over the next decade and his support was crucial to the artist. Through Sampson's purchases and introductions, and his own and Katherine's continuing efforts Panabaker managed to eke out a living in the Depression years. Later, a legion of friends and acquaintances, most of whom were in a position to buy a work from time to time, became patrons.

"Primarily a landscape painter, Panabaker took countless sketching trips, with Katherine and friends such as artists Fred Brigden and Farquhar McGillivray Knowles, Evan Macdonald and Archibald Barnes, architects Hugh (Bungey) Robertson and Lester Husband, preferring the company of a few kindred spirits to any group activity. He used his sketches from these trips in many variations, changing seasons, moods, cloud formations and central motifs at will, working fast and usually finishing canvases promptly.

"In technique, he adopted some of the approach of his early mentor, F. McGillivray Knowles, who used broken Impressionistic colour and heavy brushstrokes, and favoured "picturesque" views of attractive places. He disliked the muscular, highly coloured paintings of wilderness favoured by the Group of Seven. He preferred the romantic, pictorial and narrative to the rhetorical, and rolling farmland..."

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