Serendipity

Uncategorized April 7, 2014

From the beginning of this project, working in public, I have borne witness to, as many of you know, some amazing encounters.  Many of you know the Griff Holland story well -at 88 years old, this former fighter pilot met his past in the guise of a Japanese American woman who softened his heart and anti-Japanese stance.

Many more encounters have happened on the tour.  One of the most amazing and recent ones has to do with the former WW II Canadian Grenadier Guard Basil LeBlanc.  Serendipity has played into my life on the road in many ways but probably no more so than in his.

Basil and I met at a WW II event back in October, Stow Massachusetts.  We have exchanged many emails since then, him posing the question of “why?”   Our paths meeting was innocent enough.  I, as an artist, talk to WW II veterans all the time.  What was it about Basil that made me secretly seek out his portrait via his adult sons who were there with him that day?  There was a connection, a warmth and an openness I appreciated from him, that’s all I know.  He wrote a lovely letter accompanying his photo a week later, appreciating as he put it, the honor of being included in my collection.   As the work on the painting progressed he tactfully asked if I would fix his beret, the photo, rakishly slipped back off his forehead.  It seems his was donned a bit on the youthful cockiness of a graduate of boot camp. “If this [his portrait] ever shows up in Canada, I’ll be in trouble if you don’t fix it,” he half-joked.

Fast-forward five month.  Palm Springs.  Two weeks ago an email arrives in my inbox.  it is from a retired Lt. Colonel, Grenadier Guard who happened (?!) to have visited the air museum.  He loved the portraits but when he saw the portrait of Basil, he was floored. Why would a Grenadier Guardsman portrait be part of a U.S. tour?   He went on to say that after reading Basil’s words posted next to the painting in which he references no longer having his wartime medals, he took the liberty of researching the situation.  “Henry” asked me to forward the email to Basil saying his medals and two new campaign ribbons were ready for him to receive from the Canadian government.   Needless to say, Basil was shocked and stymied by the events that led up to that email.  How is it that I, he wondered, could have so radically changed his life in a matter of a few months?

Yesterday Basil emailed me again. He’d spoken with Henry after a few sleepless nights, pondering all that brought him to this point.  “How was it you knew you wanted to paint my portrait?” he wrote me.  What are the reasons we both arrived at this point?

The questions have no real answers.  But in that email, he told me that an invitation had been extended to him to go to Montreal to receive his medals.  “I’m not sure if I’m physically and mentally prepared to go,” he wrote.  I could feel for him, the memories dredged up and facing a past some sixty years buried.  For me, it was a rush of uncomplicated joy.   Basil asked me to be there for that presentation because for some serendipitous reason last fall, my gut instinct told me to  “chase this man down and paint his portrait”.  How could I know what would follow?  All I know is that I will drop whatever I’m doing and meet up with Basil in Montreal and celebrate his life.

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For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

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