“Stop Messing Around: The Creative Work of William ‘Bill’ Hunter”

The 8-foot-long sperm whale my father carved out of cedar for my brother Andrew’s 2005-06 exhibition, To a Watery Grave.

My father, William J. (Bill) Hunter, of Hamilton, Ontario, died last spring; he would have turned ninety-one today. He was adamant about not having a funeral. His will said to have a party instead. Covid (which had nothing to do with his passing) prevented any such possibility, but my brother, Andrew, a writer, artist, and curator, working with his oldest child, Max, may have gone one better with this exhibition of his creative work at the Paul Elia Gallery, 1165 Cannon Street East (two blocks from where our father grew up, on Rossyln Avenue). The exhibition is open noon till five, Wednesday through Sunday, and runs until the weekend of November 20-21.

Our dad was a tradesman by training: he left Central High School of Commerce in Hamilton in grade 10 to apprentice as a tool and dye maker right after the Second World War. (He later went back and finished his high school at night.) He worked at American Can and Westinghouse, becoming a foreman. Part of my childhood routine was driving with my mom and siblings into the city’s industrial north end, to pick him up at the end of a shift. When Westinghouse spun off its airbrake division as WABCO, he went along, and rose to quality control manager, making sure the brakes they made for trains and subway cars left the plant operating as intended.

My father, as an industrial-league defenceman playing for Westinghouse in Hamilton in the 1950s.

Dad was always busy in the basement, making things, and in his retirement years, he took an increasing interest in producing wood furniture, and carving. He made a lot of ducks and other birds (including a penguin for me, as I had published several times with Penguin Books). Never exhibiting or trying to sell them, he gave them to family members and otherwise kept them on display in his house. He also took a unique interest in whales, fashioning full models and half models of any number of species. We have a right whale he made hanging in our kitchen, above the stove.

The right whale in our kitchen

Both Andrew and I went to art school—in my case, to McMaster University, in his case, to NASCAD. As my brother forged a career as an artist and curator, he enlisted the help of my mother and father in fashioning thematic pieces for his curated shows. My mother knit sweaters and sewed jerseys to my brother’s designs; my father carved and otherwise fashioned a variety of pieces, and did similar fabrication work for other artists. The showstopper of this exhibition is his eight-foot-long sperm whale, carved out of several joined pieces of solid cedar and painted a pinkish-white Moby Dick hue, which he made for Andrew’s 2005-06 exhibition To a Watery Grave, which appeared at Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, St Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax and the University of Toronto Art Centre. I was also delighted to see on exhibit his hybrid canoe paddle/hockey stick, which he made for the 1998 exhibition at the McMichael, Up North, in which Andrew merged the identities and lore of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Bill Barilko and artist Tom Thomson—two iconic cultural figures who died tragically in Ontario’s north. In the accompanying poster, my father is modelling the special hockey jersey my brother designed and my mother sewed. Mom also knitted the crazy-quilt sweater of every team Terry Sawchuk played for, for Convergence, his 1998 exhibition at Winnipeg Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Peel.

My father’s half-model of our old C&C 27, Diva.

Having trained as a tool and dye maker, and having made a career out of the exactness of quality control in manufacturing, my father was naturally inclined to execute things from plans, and to double-check that the end result was as designed. One of his more impressive carving efforts, in fact, is a half-model of my old C&C 27, Diva, which he made from the original blueprints that I secured for him. It was the first and last time I know of that he made a half model of a vessel. (It’s not in the show. No show could accommodate everything he made.) When he started carving ducks, as I recall, he ordered plans, as decoys are popular with amateur carvers. With time, though, he started free-styling his carvings, allowing himself the liberty of creativity. With models of whales, he had no choice: he was stepping off the deep end, into uncharted waters of interpretation and invention. The results were something beyond a hobbyist’s wood carving, or the faux-naivety of a lot of what passes for folk art. They were genuine works of art: original, inspired, carefully conceived and executed. My father was an artist, and never really knew it.

Happy birthday, dad.

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