Bill StapletonOne might best describe the late Bill Stapleton as a humanitarian and a visual historian. For 70 years he sketched and painted his surroundings. Not the landscapes, so commonly linked with ‘Canadian Art’, but the people. He was more interested in the individuals he painted than impressing art critics or socialite clientele. He was a man of strong convictions and these have not always made his life easy. He said,“People have been neglected and that’s why I’ve concentrated on them. Social art doesn’t play enough of a role in art. Artists who feel they need to make a living in art are pressured into doing living room art, things that will sell. Not too many people want to hang social art on their walls.”
The original plan was a career in Engineering. To that end, Bill gratefully accepted a job with the Trans Canada Highway in White River, northern Ontario. It was in the middle of the Depression and jobs were scarce. His brother, an illustrator well known for his War Bonds and Red Cross posters, sent Bill some paints. Bill sketched and painted scenes of the tarpaper shack and his fellow workers – 12 to a bunkhouse. The long evenings without entertainment gave him time to test his skills. It would change his future. He went on to attend the National Academy of Design in New York; the Slade School of Art in London, E ngland; and the Ontario College of Art.
It was in New York that Bill shed much of the conservatism of his hometown, Stratford, Ontario, and he became ‘radicalized’ and an atheist. The socialist beliefs to which he was exposed laid the groundwork for a future out of the mainstream art world. Bill was recruited into the RCAF in WWII becoming a chief pilot flying Lancaster bombers. He had desperately wanted to be an OWA ( Official War Artist) but settled for sketching on his own time. Many of those artworks now reside in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. “I never made a living at art,” he said, “but I lived through it.” As a married man, Stapleton needed to support his wife and three daughters so he went into advertising. A line he once heard and loved to quote, “I never told my mother I was in advertising, she thought I played piano in a brothel,” best sums up his views on that occupation.
When his marriage ended, Bill started looking around for a new neighbourhood. “I knew I didn’t want to live in Rosedale any more and I got a good feeling about Cabbagetown.” He found the ideal house on Sumach Street. At the time it was still under renovation. “I couldn’t afford to live on my art alone, so I had it turned into a studio and duplexed it.” That was more than 30 years ago. “It was the view that sold me,” he added. His studio was bright, spacious and overlooked the Necropolis Cemetery. From there he painted, appreciative of the cyclic changes in the shadows and trees, as spring turned to summer and summer to fall. He even observed the red foxes cavorting between the headstones of the cemetery from time to time. Inside, his artwork covered the walls like wallpaper. Some were sombre and reflective; and others bursting with energy and joy.With his pen & ink and ink wash sketches, his watercolours and his oils Stapleton documented people at home and around the world. These are not pretty postcard portraits but reach deep into the souls of people - often with uncomfortable results. They are powerful reminders and records of humankind’s frailties. They speak of the brutality of war; of loneliness and isolation; social injustice; and oppression. But they also depict inner strength and dignity. Stapleton traveled to a Guatemalan refugee camp in Mexico and to Nicaragua to record the exiled and victims of guerrilla w arfare; and to Labrador where the Sheshatshit Innu pleaded with officials to stop NATO fighter jets and bomber exercises over their land, as it was impacting on their livelihood. He also traveled to Ecuador and Russia; and documented union strikes, rallies, Women’s Day events, and ceremonies. He used his art to raise money for local, national and international causes and was outspoken about inequality and inequity.
One might assume that he was a man of bitterness and anger, but Bill Stapleton was full of warmth and compassion. He had a wonderful infectious sense of humour, a captivating smile and a charismatic empathy towards people. The latter could be seen in the way in which he captured the spirit of the frequenters of local taverns and pubs. A favourite haunt was the old Paramount Tavern on Spadina. It was a vital part of the Black culture of Toronto. He said,“It was jumping and the way they dance make white people look as if they’re on crutches. I would sit there and sketch by the hour.” Those sketches and paintings are full of life, vitality, and motion. They are pure freedom and enjoyment of the moment.
The Winchester Hotel was also a favourite venue. “People would go there to dance … or to pick a fight. I’d leave if there was a fight.” One of his best paintings is of Indian Joe. “A lonely old guy that lived in one of the rooms upstairs. He used to sit alone in the bar, beer in hand and watch the people.” Bill was a familiar site in the neighbourhood. He chatted easily with the local shopkeepers and with neighbours. Once a week he went to sketch in Regent Park at the ArtHeart Children’s and Youth’s program, which has been fostering art in the Inner City for over 19 years. He would sit quietly sketching a child deep in creating his or her own work of art, or a group of children chatting animatedly around a picture. Before long he would be surrounded by them, children from all parts of the world, begging him, “Please, me next. Please draw me.” Later he made copies of the sketches and gave them to the children.
Bill Stapleton was a man of principal. A man who believed that the responsibility of an artist is to respond to injustice of any kind. He c aptured the souls of the bruised and the innocent, the sadness and the joy. He provided us with a vivid visual history stretching over more than seven decades. We are indebted to him for his candid observations, his human empathy and his dedication.
Bill Stapleton died February 5, 2008.