I met Basil LeBlanc last October where I was exhibiting my WW II portraits at a weekend event outside of Boston. As usual I had my easel and paints with me, working on a young Marine’s WW II portrait at the time. Basil, like so many people walked up to me and started talking. As I say to people, the portraits are a “conduit to conversations”. Basil was no exception.
“Not a day goes by without thinking about the war,” Basil remarked. “And when I do,” he added. “Tears come.” He pointed to his left eye which was glistening. Basil, Canadian by birth, now living in Massachusetts and visiting the weekend event with his two grown sons (who were off somewhere else), told me that he’d been a tank commander. “We were making our way into Germany when our tank was hit and I was injured.” It was February 1945, three months before Germany surrendered. He spent the rest of the war hospitalized.
I’d asked him if he’d ever been back to Europe, thinking about the many who’ve visited the places they fought and the cemeteries holding their friends. “No,” he said. “I should” but quickly added:”It’s too painful.” Basil talked for about ten more minutes. I make it a point never to ask personal question avoiding the obvious ones about what war was like. It’s obvious talking to many veterans (of any war) that it’s not a territory to explore as an outsider. When his sons arrived, we chatted for a bit longer. I was so touched by Basil, when the three started to walk away, I grabbed one of my business cards and slipped it into the hand of one of the son’s, quietly adding, “Send me a photo of your dad.”
Basil looked at me, unaware of what I’d done. Looking at me, he said to his sons “I’ve told this man more about the war than anyone else,” He paused. “I don’t know why,” he added. I smiled at him and said “But I do.” I wasn’t being cocky. I was merely remarking on the fact that this was the norm. The paintings open up conversations.
A week later an email from Basil showed up. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with you and I was amazed at your understanding and compassion for the feelings of veterans, indicating that you had had similar conversations with many and varied personalities of that far away period . I divulged more of my innermost feelings to you than I have to anybody including my wife, and I found it to be a relief knowing that was not unique to me as you had had similar experiences with other veterans you had spoken with. I was also impressed with your paintings and from the viewpoint of another painter, as I also am one, I was impressed with your capture on canvas, the mood of the times as portrayed by the various men and women, whatever their role in life was at the time Thank you for understanding.
When the photo of him from his early training days arrived a week later, a two-page letter accompanied it. Reading it several times, I was touched by what he’d penned. “Many books have been written about World War II and will be. But those are just words. “What you do with your art is capture a time in color that’s being lost to history. Thank you for keeping that alive.”
As artists and writers, we all need praise and I’ve certainly gotten my share since starting this project three years ago. But never before had I met such a remarkable man who truly opened up. Since October, Basil and I have shared many emails. What touched me was recently receiving images of his paintings and wood sculptures. His work is from the hands of someone who feels life. It made me realize how, in spite of the pain the war brought him, he’s found ways to channel his emotions into his art. What’s even more remarkable is how it much joy comes through. This is a man not stuck in his past. His work is all about the future.