The Circus and The Great Santini


circus degas miss-la-la-at-the-cirque-1879

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas, 1897


Before anyone attacks me for liking circuses – let me categorically state that I am against the use of exotic animals in circus acts. Times and attitudes have progressed and society now understands (for the most part) that chimps, tigers, lions, elephants, hippos, bears and other animals should not be forced to suffer in captivity and be made to perform tricks for people’s entertainment

Indeed, thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall’s breakthrough research on the chimps at Gombe, it is now widely understood that animals (other than humans) have emotional lives, many demonstrate culture and social history, and have intelligence far beyond what was previously accepted.

And now on with the show!

clown cropped

Not all clowns are scary – some, like this fellow, are absolutely wonderful.

As a child I loved the circus.When I was very little my family went to see the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was truly a spectacle. I loved all the sparkle and drama.

And I admit that as a kid, I loved seeing all the animals during the show. I especially loved the horses and wanted to be one of those lovely ladies that leaps about and does acrobatics on the broad back of a horse.

And who doesn’t love to see tiny poodles dance around in skirts?

One of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, was simply called Circus and featured international circus performers every week.

And I never missed the Ed Sullivan Show which regularly featured circus performers, as well other more famous acts (like the Beatles).

circus horse 1890

Circus lady with horse 1908

I was also a big fan of the 1956 movie Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida, because there was a lot about circus life in the movie – how the girls learned to stand on the backs of cantering horses, and particularly how the acrobats trained and performed on the trapeze.

(Burt Lancaster had actually been an acrobat before he became an actor, and performed with the Kay Brothers circus early in his life.)

circus movie Trapeze

Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze, 1956

When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old my mother gave me a book to read called Umberto’s Circus. It was a charming story about a small European circus trying to just get by. It made me love the circus even more.

The last time I went to an old-fashioned circus, I was in my twenties. There was a trapeze act as usual, and as usual it was a family act. They came out to great fan fare, climbed the high tower to get to the trapeze swings and performed without a net below them. That was the draw of the act – trapeze without a net.

During most trapeze acts one or more of the acrobats falls by accident into the net underneath – this usually brings a huge gasp from the audience. Sometimes, it seems to be intentionally done to heighten the tension during the terrifying leaps. This time, however, the high flyer fell all the way to the floor and didn’t move – it was a real and deadly accident, and it was terrible to witness.

Ringmaster, Petit Gougou as Monsieur Loyal at the Monte Carlo Festival of Circus, 2011 (

Ringmaster, Petit Gougou as Monsieur Loyal at the Monte Carlo Festival of Circus, 2011 (

Now back to more happy memories with –

The Great Santini!

One of the happiest and most memorable circus experiences I had, was one Summer when I was 13 or 14. My cousin took me to see the circus in Moncton, New Brunswick.

My sister and cousins were all a lot older than me and so when I did get to go along with them somewhere, I was always just tagging along, quiet, out of the way – the dumb kid that no one really took any notice of. But this time my cousin asked me to go with her – just me, and it was very special.

It was a hot sunny day and when we arrived at the parking lot there were already many cars there. The circus tent was full with a noisy, excited crowd.

As we were walking through the parking lot a man approached us and introduced himself. He said he was The Great Santini and that he was the sword swallower and knife thrower in the circus. He wasn’t in costume, just street clothes, but he looked like a circus performer. He had slicked back, collar length black hair and a mustache and goatee. He looked devilish.

circus knife thrower 1890s

Circus Knife Thrower 1890s

He flirted with us and I can’t remember what he was saying, but we giggled, and declined his attentions and went in to watch the show.

The circus was not a famous one and had some not so fancy acts. I seem to remember that there were acrobatic goats that walked along a board about 3 feet in the air (or something like that), but it was very entertaining and it was very sentimental.

circus Lucy-long-knives-300

I Love Lucy, 1951

When The Great Santini came out, he was wearing a dramatic black body suit with winged sleeves. The costume had red and gold flames all over it and he wore high black boots. He had the usual knife throwing wall that a glamorous woman has to stand in front of, and he had a tall shiny silver rack holding long, shiny, scary looking swords.

He swallowed the swords, he juggled the swords, he swallowed fire and blew fire from his mouth, and he threw daggers with relish.

He was a great showman. It was very exciting to have met him in the parking lot.

The weekend magazine in the newspaper even featured a big color photo of him blowing fire. I kept that magazine for years. Unfortunately, my parents threw it out when they moved from the farmhouse, and it is now gone forever.

Too bad there is no record of The Great Santini online that I can find – but he must be out there somewhere.

circus DecorativeOrnament_vector

And now for some photographs of circus performers new and old for your enjoyment !

konchak snake handler

The Great Konchak

cirque du soleil

Cirque du Soleil (

circus triple cycle highwire

19th century triple cycle highwire

circus tightrope

circus poster of gorilla

Created before King Kong existed – a hand painted Sideshow banner

circus tall walkers stilts

Life Magazine

circus 1910 trapeze

Life Magazine photo Nina Leen

circus snake charmer 1900scircus little girl on horse

James Stewart starred as Buttons the clown in the 1952 Academy Award®-winning film "The Greatest Show on Earth." The film was the 25th to win the Oscar® for Best Picture. Restored by Nick & jane for Dr. Macro's High Quality Movie Scans Website: Enjoy!

James Stewart starred as Buttons the clown in the 1952 Academy Award-winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Life Visits the Circus in Florida- Acrobats clowning around on ropes

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida- Acrobats clowning around on ropes. photo Nina Leen

circus george bellows circus 1912

Circus by George Bellows, 1912

circus horse toulouse lautrec

by Toulouse Lautrec

circus Pierre-Auguste Renoir 1879 Jongleuses au cirque Fernando

Jongleuses au cirque Fernando by Pierrre Auguste Renoir, 1879

Circus-Barnum and Bailey dog

This is the kind of dancing dog I remember, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus

circus At-The-Circus-by-Ottokar-Walter

At the Circus by Ottokar Walter, 1889

circus Bridgman-American-Circus-in-France-1869-1870

The American Circus in France by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1869-1870

circus toulouse latrec entering the ring

Entering the Ring by Toulouse Latrec 1899

circus WC Fields Sally of the Sawdust

A scene from the movie Sally of the Sawdust starring WC Fields 1925

circus sideshow art

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida

circus trapeze artist

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida

circus dog Fifi Roncycircus acrobatscircus old postercircus trapeze Gaston Paris Roger-Viollet-Photo-Agency-since-1938

Life Visits the Circus in Florida- Acrobats and stage performers in various stages of action.

Life (Magazine) Visits the Circus in Florida

Cavalia edmonton sun acrobats

Scene from Cavalia from the Edmonton Sun

cavalia edmonton sun

Scene from Cavalia from the Edmonton Sun

circus wagon

Circus Wagon. When the circus came to town it usually paraded down Main Street with a series of intricately carved wagons pulled by the circus animals and showing the performers.

circus Nellie-McHenry-A-night-at-the-circus-by-H-Grattan-Donnelly-1893-Theater-Poster



Cavalia Odysseo-11

Cavalia is a contemporary circus employing only humans and horses. It is a love song to the Horse.


Cavalia. The horses are royalty, and treated with respect and admiration.


circus charlie chaplin

Charlie Chaplin in love with a circus girl in The Circus, 1928

Two dogs dance during a performance at ZoppŽ Italian Family Circus at Chandler Center for the Arts, on Friday, Jan. 6, 2011. Michel Duarte/The Arizona Republic.

Two dogs dance during a performance at ZoppeŽ Italian Family Circus

circus contortionist

Contortionist late 19th century

Juggling with fire

Juggling with fire, 19th c

circus clowns-or-798393

Congress of Clowns

circus tatoo lady national geo 1931

Tatoo Lady from National Geographic 1931

circus zelda boden

cavalia stallions

A final and beautiful image from Cavalia


Summer Teen Tragedy

Lupins by Kim Manley Ort

High School ends in June, and then Summer comes with all its promises.

A&W drive in restaurant

A&W drive in restaurant 1970s

In 1977 I’d just finished my sophomore year at Tantramar Regional High School in New Brunswick, and had a boyfriend who miraculously had a car.

We went on several dates that year with other couples to movies, to the mall, and to the drive-in A@W where they delivered burgers and fries and sundaes to the side of your car on a tray that hooked onto the open window edge.

This boyfriend took me out on Graduation night at the end of June to the Grad dance and then to all the parties that were happening all night long up at the beach and in the nearby woods.

beach bonfires

The night of Grad there were multiple bonfires along the beach (photo from

There were huge bonfires along the beach at Murray Corner; endless beer, and drugs available; crazy antics; fist fights; sex in rustic cabins; and driving around in cars all night to rendezvous, rev engines, and race.

It was the 1970s and we were living in a rural area and driving was a pastime that many of the teens in the area were involved in. There was a lot of reckless driving and speeding. Several kids during my High School years were involved in serious accidents.

The worst and most memorable for me, happened that summer. A boy I’d known for 5 years, who sat near me on the bus and joked with me all the time – a boy with a happy heart, bright sparkling eyes, pink cheeks and white blond hair was killed in a head-on collision.

It happened one night when my boyfriend and another couple arranged for us to have a lobster boil at a nearby beach. They built up a big open fire in the sand and set a giant pot of saltwater on it to boil. The live lobsters were from the nearby fishermens’ wharves and were waiting pitifully on ice in a cooler for their last hurrah – a fast drop into the boiling water. There was another cooler loaded with beer.

It was a gorgeous Summer evening with a warm breeze coming in off the water. We laughed, walked ankle deep in the ocean, ate and drank, and joked around. We were young and happy and feeling the wonderful, expansive, exquisite joy of being alive that comes so rarely in life. A time when kisses were blissful and being close to another person felt liberating and there were no responsibilities.

New Brunswick lobster boats and wharf

Lobster boats lined up at a wharf in New Brunswick.  (photo

We were basking in our happiness when a car pulled up to the parking lot and called us over. The driver leaned out of his window and in a hushed voice told us what had happened.

A friends of ours had just died in a head-on collision just minutes from where we partied. 6 kids were in the car and were all killed in one swift, brutal moment.

The news hit me like a heavy fist in the chest – I couldn’t breathe – I couldn’t comprehend how something so unbelievable could ever happen on a night like this. To kids our age. To a friend I sat with on the bus. A boy who was out for fun, just like us, on a warm Summer night. It could have been us.

They had been joy riding along a country road, swooping down a hill, when they smashed into an oncoming car. The police called in a local woman, an off duty nurse, to join them at the scene. The nurse arrived ready to help, but not ready to discover that one of the teens in the car was her son. The tragedy was too much – too horrible to comprehend.

We became robotic upon hearing the news.

We cleaned up our fire and garbage in silence and got into my boyfriend’s car for a slow and intense ride home. I know I was in shock when I walked into the kitchen to find my parents at the table, surprised to see me home so early. I told them the news and they seemed indifferent, to the point of being uncaring. It was incomprehensible to me that they responded so calmly and with such a bland response. I burst into hysterical tears and remember being told to calm down and go to my room – “these things happen” they said with a shrug.

These things happen.

Unfortunately its true, but no comfort when they happen to people close to you and you are young and unprepared for the shock and certainty of death. Unprepared for the reality that life can be beautiful and cruelly cut short in an instant.

I don’t know the details of how the cars crashed. Who, if anyone, was at fault. I don’t even remember if the other driver survived or had passengers in the oncoming car.

In my mind I imagined the scene – the carefree feeling in the car packed with six kids out for a night of fun: the windows wide open to the warm evening air; the feeling of freedom that comes at that age when you’re away from adults out in a car on the road; the joy of speed that teens seem to love.

teens in backseat Bruce Davidson Magnum Photos

Image Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos

I’d been in cars like that – kids laughing and joking, maybe a couple in the back kissing – a bottle of cheap booze being passed around for a swig. The defiant freedom of being a kid with a car.

I was terrified many times by show-off boys careening around roads at high speed.

One time the kid speeding his Dad’s giant Cadillac down the Trans Canada Highway, set it on cruise control and hiked his legs up over the steering wheel to guide the car –  I screamed hysterically in the middle front seat, to stop and let me out – the other boys in the car laughing even harder at my terror (they were drunk from shooting beers down their throats before going out on the road and no one was wearing a seat belt).

Returning to school in September was hard. The boy’s former girlfriend was still inconsolable – breaking into tears at all times of the day, unable to focus on anything. I remember that sappy song Last Kiss grating on my nerves every time I heard it on the radio – its whining refrain angering me with its stupid words.

The shock of that terrible accident has never left me, as I’m sure its never left his closest friends, and his loving and emotionally destroyed family.

It seems to happen every year- a group of kids out for a joy ride never thinking about the consequences, killed in a mindless accident. Its always a shock, and always a tragedy.


Note:  there are numerous websites dedicated to statistics for teen car accidents. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provides statistics based on American road collisions and goes back to 1975. Its worth noting that the numbers have significantly reduced since they peaked in the 1970s.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) also provides statistics and current information on youth and impaired driving in Canada. (Interestingly enough New Brunswick receives a D- from MADD.)











Queen and Adam Lambert World Tour


Betty 1978

Happy Me in 1978

All I want to listen to these days is Queen, and its all because I went to see Queen and Adam Lambert on their World Tour two years ago in Calgary in 2014. Yup, two years ago and here I am still going on about it…

You see, the sheer energy and brilliance of the music re-lit a fire in me and brought me back to my true self. My happy self. It was life changing.

I know this sounds overly dramatic… but its true – it was a powerful turning point for me.

Like everyone who listened to rock in the 1970s and 80s, Queen was a significant part of the music landscape back then.

And as the years passed, their music became the backdrop of my entire adult life. In a way I took their music for granted because it was ubiquitous; not that I didn’t love their music, but it was just such a familiar part of my life.

All four members of the band were amazing songwriters and musicians. Their blended talents produced some of the most original and memorable music of the Rock Era.

Queen 70s

A great shot of Queen from the 70s – I love how destroyed Roger Taylor looks. From left to right Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon.

When Freddie Mercury died in 1991 it felt like Queen died too.

But Queen is still very much alive – even without Freddie and John Deacon.

Adam Lambert has been touring with them as their new front man, and they rock…

Queen Adam Lambert Idol 2009 finale

Brian May, Adam Lambert and Roger Taylor, 2009 Season 8 of American Idol finale performance. photo Rolling Stone

During Season 8 of American Idol, we watched Adam Lambert dominate the competition with his intense artistry and powerhouse voice. We cheered for him from his first audition to his final performance. And when Brian May and Roger Taylor joined him for a finale performance, it was exciting to see the blending of such great talent. There seemed to be a natural and intuitive bond between them. We knew that if Adam Lambert ever toured with Queen we had to go.

And lo and behold – they joined forces, and as soon as the tour was announced, and the minute the tickets went on sale, we got online and frantically started trying to buy seats.

We lucked out. Our seats were near center stage, only several feet from Brian May and Adam Lambert. We were close enough to see their expressions as they performed, and even close enough to see May’s tears as he spoke of the late Freddie Mercury during one of the more emotional moments of the show.

Queen setlist calgary 2014

Setlist from the Saddledome/Calgary concert 2014, image from (I’m pretty sure they played I’m In Love With My Car at the concert – one of my many favorites – but it doesn’t appear on this list).

The first song they played got lost in the rotten acoustics of the Calgary Saddledome – it took a few moments for the crowd and the band to find a balance, and then we were off…

Queen and Lambert

Adam Lambert and Brian May – and you can barely see Roger Taylor on drums.

I sang and danced and laughed and cried throughout the entire concert just like everyone in the boisterous crowd. It released a pure joy from the very core of me that I hadn’t felt in decades.

I’ve been to other concerts and seen other famous musicians in person before, but in some cases it felt like they were just phoning it in – bored with having to repeatedly play their big hits, and road tired. But Queen and Lambert took on the show with commitment and energy. Each song built on the next, and one hit after another continued to amp up the crowd. It was clear that everyone onstage were of one mind and heart as they played.

INGLEWOOD, CA - JULY 03: Musician Brian May (L) of Queen and singer Adam Lambert perform at the Forum on July 3, 2014 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Brian May of Queen and Adam Lambert  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

And something that’s new to me – the crowd was comprised of all ages – grandparents all the way down to toddlers – which surprised me, though in retrospect its not so surprising given that Queen music is timeless and known to many generations now.

You hear performers say that they feed off the energy of the crowd, and I’d say that it goes both ways. The crowd got louder and more vibrant as the band and the vocalist threw themselves into each song.

Queen has never shied from the campy, and much of their lyrics are rich with humor; these qualities shone through. Lambert sang and performed with his superb voice and vibrant personality.

lambert killer queen

Adam Lambert singing Killer Queen – he’s an incredibly entertaining performer and a killer vocalist (and he has great outfits too).

And though no one can replace Freddie Mercury, Adam gave all the best of himself and he was truly amazing in his own right.

At one point, at the end of a particular favorite, the crowd went wild and Lambert turned back from center stage to walk back to May. You could see May gesturing and telling him that it was for him – to go back – take his bows – and revel in the mad hysteria of admiration that was flowing from the crowd. It was a surprisingly humble moment to witness. To see Lambert, who is such an incredibly talented and experienced performer, be so unassuming in front of the roaring audience. It was also telling evidence of May’s generosity of spirit and comradery.

I know I sound like a fan girl (my kids call me that) but Brian May’s solo Last Horizon, was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever experienced.


Dr.Brian May performing his solo on the guitar he built with his father when he was a teen – the famous Red Special. Dr May has been busy all these years. After the concert I looked him up online and found out about all his accomplishments including his PHD in Astro Physics; the scores he’s written for films, TV, radio and stage; his passion for stereoscopic images; his dedication to animal rights; and his commitment to social reform. Plus he keeps on rocking and not just with Queen, he’s had a successful solo career and plays with many other bands and solo artists who want to work with the great one.

It felt like it flowed directly from him across the crowd and into my heart, lifting me from myself – freeing me from the present. It was moving, sensitive, powerful and visionary.  I have never heard the guitar played with such mastery.

The images projected on the screen behind him were of the stars and the vastness of space and they helped pull you into the music, but his presence on stage superseded all the lights and special effects.

He played his piece with passion and soul. He was present in the moment and yet seemingly lost in his own world. The guitar was really a part of the man, and the artist was sharing something private from deep inside.

I was rapt…

… that is… until I was interrupted partway through the piece by my daughter who wanted me to go with her to the washroom. It was extremely hard to pull myself away from where I stood.  But May and his music were filling the entire stadium and I found that even as we hiked across the floor and up tiers of stairs to the tiled washroom, his music was just as powerful.

It was that performance more than any of the other numbers that made a lasting impression on me. It was a privilege to be there.

I found out what so many other people already knew – that Brian May is a masterful musician – a true artist.

After the concert, I began in earnest to listen to the recordings of Queen again. It was with a fresh perspective and newfound enjoyment. Being able to look back and understand the eras in which they worked and know who their peer musicians were, their music has taken on a new dimension for me.

queen-band-aid May and Mercury

Freddie Mercury and Brian May performing at Live Aid in 1985. Queen’s performance at Live Aid has been called the greatest rock performance of all time.

I’ve never been a real aficionado of music (I don’t know much about the technical aspects of composing, playing and recording) but I can now, with age and experience, appreciate the creations of this unique group of artists and more deeply feel the music and lyrics and vocals better than I ever could when I was younger.

In the 1970s their music was revolutionary and was part of the British scene that came over to North America. We only ever heard their big hits like We Are the Champions and Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio and at sports venues, even though they have a huge catalog of original music (including 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles, and 10 number one DVDs*).

Back then, albums were often conceived as fully realized works of art. From the cover to the careful planning of the progression of sounds and songs, the albums deeply reflected what the musicians wanted to express with their music.

queen Brian and Freddie

Freddie Mercury is consistently voted one of the top Rock vocalists of all time and Brian May is regularly voted one of the top Rock guitarists of all time. May and Mercury wrote many of the group’s biggest hits.

Nowadays with the downloading of music you can choose which hits you want on your personal playlist – which has its merits. But the unique flavor and vision of the artist somehow seems more watered down without the almost operatic rise and fall of the plot of a fully realized collection of works.

Within Queen’s oeuvre you can find a full range of styles and themes – hard rocking pieces like Tie Your Mother Down and Hitman; soft ballads like ’39; tender love songs like Love of My Life and Bijou; comical songs; songs about life and death – love and loss (Who Wants to Live Forever); humanity. These aren’t superficial pop songs – they’re far more intelligent and complex than most of the rock music out there (and yes, Fat Bottomed Girls is a smarter rock tune than most of the junk on the radio today).

Freddie and Daffodils

1,001 yellow daffodils and Freddie Mercury. A still from the video of I’m Going Slightly Mad, from the album Innuendo.

It has been a remarkable reawakening for me – to rediscover this band after so many years – its like they are brand new to me again.

Lately I’ve been listening to Innuendo, the last album that Queen recorded with Freddie Mercury. Knowing that Mercury was suffering with the last stages of HIV/Aids at the time of the recording only adds more depth to many of the lyrics and music. His voice can bring tears to my eyes in The Show Must Go On and These Are The Days of Our Lives. While the song Don’t Try So Hard seems to come from a man who wants to share what he’s learned about life.

Queen_Innuendo Headlong, Ride the Wild Wind and Hitman from Innuendo are my favorite driving songs now – they’re great for speeding along the highway and singing out loud, (and also great for dancing in the kitchen).

And the song I’m Going Slightly Mad sums up my general state of mind at this stage of my life.

I’m grateful that these artists shared themselves with the world. It takes a real bravado to do so – to create something completely new and gift it to everyone out there.

And it takes a real commitment to their art to continue working and performing and honing their mastery.

Like many great artists Queen has suffered blistering reviews from critics, but they weren’t making their music to suit the critics or go with what was the next in-thing – they followed their own path, making music that was true to themselves – never getting into a rut, never just making the same old sound over and over again to sell records.

queen adam lambert adamlamberttv blogspot

Roger Taylor is also a prolific and incredibly talented musician. In addition to being a song writer, vocalist and drummer for Queen, he has released several albums of his own. Like Brian May he is a multi-instrumentalist and performs with many major artists. Image from:

And like all real art, Queen’s music stands the test of time.

There have been multitudes of rock bands over the years but in my opinion few have the same breadth of talent, breadth of material, and incredible musicianship of Queen. I guess I really am a fan girl after all.

Queen AL and crew hollywood treatment com

The entire band on their World Tour: left to right: Neil Fairclough on bass, Rufus Taylor on percussion and drums, Adam Lambert lead vocals, Roger Taylor drums, Brian May guitar, Spike Edney keyboard

Note: You can still catch the tour in Europe this year if you’re lucky – everywhere they play they get rave reviews and perform to sell out crowds (wish I could go again!). For a full listing of venues check out Queen online at

To finish, I’m including some quotes that speak to Brian May’s unique and brilliant musicianship: 

“May delivers the magic dust that makes the music insanely interesting and provides an everlasting durability.”

“Brian May plays very dynamic solos. His riffs are often just running scales, but he does it with incredible variances in timing and attack. Other guitarists can attempt to copy his style, but they fall short of his abilities. He injects such emotion into his work that the listener not only hears his solos, but feels them, as well – often with lightening bolt intensity. He rises above most all other rock guitarists and certainly deserves a spot in the top ten.”

“…the greatest guitar-god fans say Brian May is one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, guitarist of all time…”

“Even other guitar greats admit they cannot replicate what BM does. His sound is unique, his solos so intricate and clever, his playing is precise. He dips under the radar because he operates in his own incomparable universe.”

(the quotes are from the following website:

* statistics from

Bernard Safran Gives a Talk on His Method of Painting – 1974

When you are a practising artist, your limitations become quite evident to you in a very short time. As you meet various situations, some cause you great difficulty and frustration; and if you are concerned with your development as a painter, you quite naturally look for some way to solve them.

Bernard Safran 1974


Introduction/background information: We moved to Jolicure, NB Canada from New York in January 1973. Jolicure was situated about 10 miles from the town of Sackville, where Mount Allison University is located.

Mount Allison University at that time, had an art school led by Lawren Harris Junior – son of Lawren Harris Senior, a founding member of the Group of Seven (a group of 20th century Canadian landscape painters).

The art school had several Canadian realist artists they could boast about – Alex Colville was also associated with the school (we had dinner with the Colvilles that first winter), as were Mary Pratt and Christopher Pratt, and Tom Forrestall. On staff at the time were Ted Pulford an accomplished watercolorist and David Silverberg a remarkable and internationally recognized printmaker.

The Studio, Jolicure by Bernard Safran 1980

This self portrait shows my father Bernard Safran in his studio in Jolicure. The studio was in the kitchen loft of the old farmhouse. The Studio, Jolicure by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, December 1980.

As soon as we’d moved to New Brunswick, my father’s arrival to the local art scene was celebrated. In 1974 (a year after we’d moved to Canada) my father had a show of his New York paintings at the Owens Art Gallery on campus. In 1976 The Owens Art Gallery purchased a major work of his entitled Canadian Gothic for its permanent collection. He was also commissioned to paint several formal portraits of senior University staff. And he was asked to give several talks to the art students on campus and to other interested art lovers in town.

My father was initially led to believe that he was being courted for the head of the art school position. Not only were members of the art school faculty telling him this, but other leading academic figures on campus and leading business people in the town were forming alliances and pushing for him.

The University eventually hired a more radical, non-representational artist to head the school – it being the 1970s when the tide had already turned dramatically against realism throughout the art world.

Despite the official change in department philosophy, a yearly van of personally motivated students would venture out to our remote farmhouse in Jolicure to spend a day with my father. He would take them up to his studio in the kitchen loft and show them his work, talk to them about how he painted, and discuss art.

life drawing lesson sketch Bernard Safran

A quick sketch my father drew for me to show how to the figure’s weight is balanced.

He would have enjoyed being a professor – he was a good teacher, and understood the business end as well as the creative end of the art world. He’d had extensive training in all forms of art and was open to everything…

He was a patient and supportive teacher, and was able to clearly demonstrate how to do things. He gave me one-on-one instruction one summer when I was a teenager… so I speak from experience.

But the head of the art school job never came to passwhich only fed his theories about being black balled by Time Magazine and their minions.

(Please see my previous posts about his paranoia – )

This is one of the first talks he gave to students in 1974. In it he describes in simple terms how he chose to paint – his basic approach, and the basic techniques he employed to build a painting.


 “My Method of Painting” by Bernard Safran

Gardner Fine Arts Building  – Mount Allison University, March 11, 1974

Mr. (Ted) Pulford has asked me to talk to you today about my method of painting. Some of the things that I will speak to you about are elementary, and I’m sure that you have heard them before. For this I apologize, but I feel that they are necessary to what I am going to say.

Atalanta and Meleager hand detail copy by Bernard Safran

Copy by Bernard Safran, completed July 1956: detail from Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are two primary ways of painting in oil. One is the direct method which is in the most common use today. The other is the indirect method which is the one I use.

When you paint directly as you all know, you mix whatever color you want on the palette and apply it to your canvas, aiming as closely as you can for the final result. You are painting in the old phrase “alla prima”. This allows great flexibility, because anything that you do as the painting progresses can easily be changed. The basic design can be altered as you go on, if you so wish.

The indirect method, or underpainting and glazing is based on a diametrically opposed concept. Here your picture is built as a house is from a plan, on a sound foundation, and in several stages. Therefore your picture must be conceived before you begin to paint, and any innovations should take place then or in the early stages. After that you cannot easily alter your original idea.

As you can understand this is a far more complex procedure than painting directly and places a severe restriction upon you. Why use it then? The answer is that in spite of this shortcoming, which really has not in practice hampered anyone’s creativity, this way of painting draws the widest range of possibility out of the paint. If done properly, its superiority in terms of its life-like qualities, greater subtlety, and the chance of a profounder statement, when compared side by side to the other method are, I feel, instantly obvious to the most casual observer.

Titus copy by Bernard Safran

Copy on canvas by Bernard Safran, August 1956: Titus by Rembrandt, Metropolitan Museum of Art

When you are a practising artist, your limitations become quite evident to you in a very short time. As you meet various situations, some cause you great difficulty and frustration; and if you are concerned with your development as a painter, you quite naturally look for some way to solve them.

In my case, after nine years as a free lance illustrator in New York, I decided that I really did not know how to paint very well. I wanted a way of painting that would allow me complete freedom from the process. In other words, it seemed to me that I was spending way too much of my time fighting the paint; trying to make it do things that I or it was not capable of doing.

So I thought that the best place to learn what was wrong and how to correct it was to go to the best painters of all time, and see whether I couldn’t learn something from them. These artists were in my view the old masters.

bernie copying

A double page spread in Life Magazine on Bernard Safran copying Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. photo by Farrell Grehan 1964.

I chose Rubens, Velasquez and Rembrandt to emulate. The pictures were available to me in New York. I decided to copy these artists. This is the old method of learning and has been practiced by almost every artist of note in the history of painting. It was my idea to try to reconstruct the pictures I was copying with the intention of learning how they were done. I had for many years read many books which described the various ways of doing this. They frequently are contradictory, give many confusing details, and are valuable where they agree on general lines only.

Holy Family with Saints copy by Bernard Safran

Copy by Bernard Safran, June 1958: Holy Family with Saints by Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is a very different matter to approach this problem brush in hand than it is to read about it, and I concluded that it was necessary for me to take and empirical point of view, that is – if it works it is good; if it doesn’t work it is no good.

Rubens and Velasquez knew each other. Rembrandt lived at the same time and geographically close to Rubens. It appeared to me in looking at the paintings that they used the same methods. The different results were due only from the differences in their backgrounds and personalities. The paint quality seemed to me very similar. The striations of the brushes in the paint looked alike to me.

I chose Rubens to study primarily. For one thing he was the most versatile of the three. He could and did paint an enormous variety of subject matter and everything from very small pictures to acres and acres of canvas. He is the most brilliant colorist of the three and for sheer beauty of the handling of his paint, is in my opinion the most superior. His method is the most obvious and there is also a good deal of material on how he worked. Velasquez watched him at work in Madrid, was strongly influenced, subsequently went to Italy to study on Ruben’s recommendation, and completely changed his work as a result. From a very good court painter of stiff labored portraits, he became one of the greatest painters of all time.

So what I tried to do was to construct my pictures the way I thought Rubens did based upon what I had read and what I could see.

The theory is fairly simple. As you know you cannot reproduce life. If you have tried only to copy the model the result is something poor. What you can do is transpose the conditions that exist to the paint, and through the use of the qualities of the paint contrive an effect of life. You are in reality fooling the eye. It is much like an actor who must whisper on stage. If he actually does whisper, he will not be heard beyond the first few rows of the audience. But he must whisper into the upper reaches of the balcony! So that is what you are doing in paint; giving an impression bound by the limitations of what you are using. If it is well done, you should achieve something which gives to the observer an increased awareness of life, and, this is where the art lies.

What I mean by transposing the conditions is this: You look at a model for example. Most models are painted under a north light which is cool. If the light is cool, the absence of light is warmer. The shadows are therefore warmer than the light. The strongest light on the model is the highlight. The strong light washes out the color so there is little color in the highlight. Where there is no light there is also an absence of color. Therefore there is a minimum of color in the shadow and the highlight. The color is in the areas between them – the half tones.

Between the half tones and the shadow there must be transition tones. If you actually place a model in a strong cool light with warmer shadow and stare hard at the model, you will find that the transition tones are quite cool. You can see a bluish cast to them. As you continue to gaze at the model, you can see that the lights have an opaque quality and the shadows have a translucent quality. These then are the conditions that actually exist, and these are the conditions you must reproduce in your paint if you wish to give the feeling of life.

How do you go about doing this in a practical way First you must consider the ground that you will paint on. Remember that I tried to follow Rubens’ procedure. He went to a gesso ground. This was considered a regression in his time to the early tempera painters since painters of his day to aid in rapidity in finishing had been painting on dark grounds. The reason for the white gesso ground in his panels was because, as oil paint ages, it darkens and also becomes more transparent. The white gesso ground tended to counteract this and also provided in effect an inner light which gave a glow to the color superimposed on it. In his canvases I believe he used a white lead ground. Many writers speculate that gesso grounds were used on canvas, but anyone who has tried it finds that on the first pressure of the brush, the ground cracks. The paintings on canvas also have a slightly lower tone than those on panels.

After the white had been suitably applied, Rubens covered it with a grey coat. The purpose of the grey was this: To paint transparent shadow the paint must be thin, and this is possible with a toned surface. On white your tendency is to paint the shadows too heavily to counteract the white. Also on the grey, as you put your lights in they stand out. So that when you apply your shadow and your lights, you immediately get something of a three dimensional quality. Rubens’ streaky grey also had the purpose of livening the ground, and because of its uneven nature breaking and vibrating the color that was to be placed above it. This grey coat, in addition, isolates the white ground from the rest of the painting and allows it to function as I have previously described it.

oil study of hands by Bernard Safran

In this study piece, you can see how Safran prepared the board and put down the color following the directions laid out by Rubens. Study of hands by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 1963

When this was done, the next stage was to draw the composition on the picture and paint its value pattern. This way of painting is a logical division of the labor. You must think only of one thing at a time, and therefore you make fewer errors. This underpainting was done in a brown which is neutral and will not adversely affect the color upon it. The shadows were loosely and thinly done, the lights were painted in grey. So then, you had a monochromatic underpainting which defined the composition and the black and white pattern. It was then allowed to dry.

The next stage was the color. This was put on at first very thinly. The color in this method is mixed very simply. Never more than two colors and white, mostly one color and white, and the shadows in translucent glazes without white. The color mixed in this way is very fresh and is actually blended on the picture. The grey ground and underpainting are allowed to come through here and there, and what happens is that you mix the colors with your eye. This is known as the use of optical greys.

The ground and underpainting add to the unity of the picture subliminally. As you all know one of the chief characteristics of painting is that it presents an idea at one blow as it were. This is of course its greatest strength and severest limitation. Anything that adds to the unity of the idea advances this and the optical greys are a means of exploiting this quality. In the final stage, the impastos or thick paint in the lights is strengthened and the form is finally defined. The picture is actually worked from dark to light.

I would like to quote something attributed to Rubens himself. Quote: “Begin by painting your shadows lightly. Guard against bringing white into them; it is the poison of the picture except in the lights. Once white has dulled the transparency and golden warmth of your shadows, your color is no longer luminous, but mat and grey. The same is not the case with light areas. There one can set in the color as one thinks proper. They have body still one must keep them pure. Good results are obtained if one sets down each tone in its place, one next to the other, lightly mixing them with the brush, while taking pains not to torment them.” Unquote.

Atalanta and Meleager copy630

Copy by Bernard Safran, July 1960: Atalanta and Meleager by Rubens, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another quote from Rubens on the painting of skin. Quote “Paint your highlights white; place next to them yellow, then red, and use darker red to carry them over into the shadows. Then fill the brush with cold grey and go tenderly over the whole until it is subdued and softened to the desired tone. Since flesh is of a soft nature, we find pearly reflexes playing on its surface, and for the most part they are visible where the color is tenderest.” Unquote.

At this point, I would like to discuss something related to all of this. You are all familiar with linear perspective which is what everyone thinks of when you say perspective. There is another kind of perspective called aerial perspective. It had been used by painters before Rubens, but he applied it systematically in his work so that it is possible in a general way to codify it. I will partially quote from Jacques Maroger who says, “This is the perspective of values – the gradual fading in intensity of tones and colors as they recede into distant planes, and are veiled by the intervening atmosphere. Such effects could be produced on canvas and the impression of reality could be greatly enhanced by contrast in transparence and opacity.

composition studies Goya by Bernard Safran

Studies of the compositions of three paintings by Goya by Bernard Safran. Safran used this method to study many paintings to better understand composition and the use of tonal qualities in masterpieces. From one of Safran’s sketchbooks – early 1960s.

What we use to obtain these effects is one of the artist’s chief weapons, that of contrast. The light and shade; the contrast of transparence and opacity; the contrast of emphasis or accent by means of the brush stroke; the contrast of the quality of the color – that is of warm and cool color. So that the center of interest carries the most of these contrasts; the greatest transparency and opacity; the greatest differences between light and dark and warm and cool, and the sharpest accents. The subsidiary parts of the painting are all graded to their proper place. The furthest horizon has the least contract for example. Even in individual details this principle is applied so that the picture is orchestrated toward whatever purpose is applied so that the picture is orchestrated toward whatever purpose the painter has in mind.”??

In considering the color of these pictures, I would like to say again that the chief aim in this type of painting is to present a single unified idea. Therefore the color scheme is adapted for this purpose. Only a minimum number of colors are used. The smallest number compatible with the main purpose. This limited use of color means that a greater unity is achieved. By the use of contrast as I have said it is possible to draw endless variation of color in this way and also contribute to the completeness of the whole. So that in Rembrandt’s pictures there are only a few colors on his palette – rarely any blues or greens. My analysis says that he used Naples yellow, yellow ochre, an earth red in the skin and accessories, what corresponds to alizarin crimson, one or two browns and black and white. His effects are achieved by the extensive use of the contrasts I spoke of; by varying the texture of the paint; by scraping it with his brush handle; by rubbing it with his fingers; by laying it on with the knife. So that with a very limited color scheme and by using his materials ingeniously and to their full capacity, he displays works that have and are exciting wonder to this day.

There is one more aspect of this and a very important one. That is the medium that is used to paint in this way. You can see that you must have a proper material to do all this. It cannot be achieved with linseed oil alone. There are many theories on what mediums were used and a good deal of controversy on this subject. There are endless formulas, some that work many that don’t. Again this can be very subjective. It has been supposed by many writers, that the painters I have discussed did a very careful tempera painting before they glazed with oil color. While I believe that this was true of a great many painters into and beyond the Rennaisance, I don’t believe it is true of Rubens, Velasquez and Rembrandt. I believe their underpainting was loosely done with the same medium that was used for the overpainting.

ingredients for making paint medium

An assortment of some of the raw materials Safran used to make his Black Oil Medium and to paint with.

I also believe that the medium had to contain one of the soft resin ethereal varnishes such as mastic or damar, since they do reproduce the paint quality of these men when used properly. Restorers complain about Rembrandt because of the fragility of his glazes, which indicates a soft resin was used.

The medium that I use was formulated by Jacques Maroger, former technical director of the Louvre and President of the Restorers of France. He spent his life working on the reconstitution of the painting media of the old masters from Van Eyck through Velasquez. I believe that the formulas that I have tried are pretty near what was used. Of course the materials and how they were produced long ago are not the same as today, so there is some difference.

Time frontpiece on Safran's methods detail

Safran preparing Black Oil Medium in his studio in Bronxville NY. From Time Magazine’s Letter from the Publisher, 1961

Maroger’s work has been derided by contemporary technical experts because it basically is a cooked linseed oil with lead, and has a dark brown color. In my case it is combined with mastic. This is contrary to the modern concept of using the most refined and colorless oils. I can only say that in my experience of nearly twenty years of use, it has stood up beautifully. None of the whites have yellowed, none of the pictures have changed. They are as they were painted. I don’t think anyone can ask better than that.

What I have told you is general. It is applied in a multitude of ways, and must be thought of as a guide and not a series of hard and fast rules. It may sound complicated, but after you are accustomed to it, it is not. It permits a rapid result. The evidence is the great quantity of work that was done by these painters in relatively short periods of time.

That is my way of working. Everyone has his own preferences and finds his own answers. It has given me a much larger scope in what I am able to do, and hopefully allows my work to evolve and inspire as time goes on.

I have brought a few examples of what I have been talking about, and we can talk about them now.

The Window

One of my father’s original works from the New York series, The Window by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, June 1970.

UFO sighting – and that’s the truth…

Yes, its true, my father the late artist Bernard Safran drew a UFO in color on fine grey drawing paper in 1974 for the RCMP investigators who came to visit. They came because our little family all witnessed a UFO at our isolated farmhouse in New Brunswick, Canada. But we weren’t alone – many many people saw it that night too.

red house dusk147

Our house and barns in Jolicure – behind the house and down the hill was Long Lake. The house was alone on the rise, surrounded by open fields and then miles of forest in all directions.

It was probably February or early March the first night I saw it – I remember that my mother was able to drive to “Club” (the local quilting club) by herself because the dirt road was still passable, and I was busy at the kitchen table doing geography homework. My father was upstairs and I don’t remember where my sister was – probably at University.

encyclopedia britannica set

Our Britannica set.

I had the giant Atlas from our giant Encyclopedia Britannica set open on the kitchen table to one of the maps for industry in Canada – you know the kind that show little pigs for pig farming, trees for timber, oil rigs for oil drilling… I had to draw the same kind of thing for one of the Provinces for grade 8 Social Studies.

It was a year after we’d moved to Jolicure; a year in which we’d grown accustomed to the enormous night sky including the plane routes overhead, the rare satellite arcing above, the northern lights, and the constellations and planets that my mother and I regularly looked at with our star chart and flashlight.

We knew how to find the Andromeda galaxy and star clusters and recognized falling stars. In other words we knew our night sky like the back of our hands. And we knew the night sounds around our house that came from the forest and the lake and fields.

From our house there was only one barn light visible across the ridge in the opposite direction from the lake, in the direction of the Trans Canada Highway – several miles of forest away. It was very isolated there.

house and barns small image

The barns were clustered around an open barnyard next to the house. You can see the cupola of the long hay barn clearly in the middle of the roof line – it was above the cupola where I saw the bright light that first night.

Anyway, I was working away at my project when I suddenly looked up out the kitchen window to my left and saw a huge bright light hanging just above the long hay barn next to the house.

At first my mind didn’t understand what was going on – I’d never seen anything like it over the barn or in the sky before, and as I watched it it turned from an orange-red to white. I ran to the hall of the house and called my father to come down to see the strange light – he came running – but when we got back to the kitchen the light was gone.

The next night my sister was at home – and she and I had gone to bed. My parents were watching the night time news. Their bedroom window looked out over the black night scene of the sky and the forest and lake. A report came on about a UFO sighting in the area and as the report was being read my father, lying on his bed, looked out the window and saw a mysterious light rise up out of the forest behind the lake and travel across the lake toward our house. My mother and father woke us up and ran downstairs to the kitchen and our always handy binoculars were already being used when I got down there.

moon over barn jolicure oil sketch617

Looking out towards the huge, long field where we watched the UFO – this photo was taken from our backyard – the back of the long hay barn is visible on the left. The lake was down the hill to the right.

Out the window in the field beyond the barnyard was a mysterious glowing object moving quietly around the giant field. It wasn’t marsh gas – let me get that straight, and it wasn’t ball lightning – it was a conscious object moving consciously – up a little, then over a little and then down a bit and then up again and over, and so on – moving in a way that indicated it wasn’t being moved by the air or by nature but by some intelligence inside. I was the last to get a look at it through the binoculars as it was moving away. My father had the most time to observe it. That’s why he could draw it.

The next day everyone was abuzz. The RCMP had chased a bright object across the long flat highway of the Tantramar Marsh that night and clocked it at a high speed but never caught up with it. People in Sackville and all over the area saw it – my sister’s friend at Mount Allison saw it out her dorm window as it made its way across the Marsh.

The next three nights we witnessed tall columns of light rising out of the black forest behind our lake – they looked like those giant klieg lights they use for Hollywood openings.  One or two straight columns of white light rising up into the western night sky. It was a bright blueish white light – crisply defined against the black sky – not at all like the northern lights that sometimes rose up into the night in the north.

ufo kang and kodos

Was it Kang and Kodos visiting us in their UFO? From the Simpsons.

My mother was convinced that we were being visited by peaceful beings – so why don’t we go and find them in the forest?

…gee, I don’t know… why not?

jolicure close up map

The red dot is approximately where our house was located. You can see that its adjacent to Long Lake and behind the lake is wilderness and more lakes and bog. The entire area pretty much from Sackville (lower left) up through Jolicure is the Tantramar Marsh. The RCMP chased the UFO across Highway 2.

So she and I hiked for miles around our lake and into the marshy scrub that lay behind the tall trees on the far side. It took hours, and when we got there it was desolate wilderness as far as the eye could see and no sign of equipment or light towers or anything that could have made those columns of light. Nor was there any sign of a vehicle driving in – it was boggy and there would have been evidence.

The next day we took our canoe out and went all along the edge of Long Lake looking for anything unusual, but never found anything.

jolicure sunset Long Lake

Looking across the lake to the forest from our backyard.

Soon after farmers started reporting burned rings in their fields. People were asking a lot of questions and were getting worried. And guess what?, there were even several cattle mutilations reported, that the RCMP claimed were due to a pack of wild dogs – really?  wild dogs?

That summer the Air Force were ever present in the sky (and the only summer they spent training there while I lived there). Fast fighter jets flew in formation up and down the marsh basins.

cf18s in formation

Canadian fighter jets in formation (for the purist these are CF18s that Canada started using in 1982 – I couldn’t find a picture of what we saw flying in formation in 1974)

One hot day my mother and our cat and I were out in the vegetable garden in front of the house, and a jet came screaming down low over us and flipped straight up over the roof of our house – all three of us went flat onto the ground in terror… those jets move so fast that they are gone before you can breathe. The pilot must have thought it was sooo funny to do that…

Anyway, that year came and went and I never saw anything like it again in my life. It opened a new fascination for me for science fiction and the X files but like anyone experiencing  paranormal experiences – you don’t talk about them because people think you’re absolutely nuts.

Men in Black - Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith

Thank goodness we have the Men in Black to protect us from bad aliens.

But all four of us saw that thing that night, and the investigators came to our house and were very respectful to my parents and took the drawing that my father had done of the UFO. It was shaped like a squashed disc with lights that rotated around the central edge of the thing.

Lily Tomlin as Edith Anne and Herry Monster

Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann with Herry Monster from Sesame Street. Image from

So before you start telling me why UFO’s can’t possibly exist and I must be making it up or I must have been a victim of mass hysteria… let me just say… (As Lily Tomlin‘s character Edith Ann used to say)  “and that’s the truth” (with a Bronx cheer)



Byway Boy – a horse story

When I was in Junior High (1973-1976) I had a friend who worked part time in the stables at the local race track near Port Elgin, New Brunswick (Canada). The track was, as far as I knew at the time, a training track for Harness Racing. My friend was especially fond of a beautiful gelding there named Byway Boy. Byway Boy was golden brown and was young; only two or three years old.


A painting by my father Bernard Safran, aptly called Harness Racing. It depicts the former racetrack Brunswick Downs, in Dieppe, New Brunswick, Canada. Oil on masonite, approx 24″ x 41.5″, October 1991.

One night someone stole into the stables and slit Byway Boy’s tendons on his hind legs – a cruel, horrible thing to do. The wounds healed but he was never able to race again and his owner, unable to use the damaged horse, was going to have him destroyed. My friend asked the owner to give him some time to see if someone would buy the horse – the owner agreed and offered to sell Byway Boy to anyone for a few dollars.

I was heartbroken by the story.

I told my cousin about the horse, hoping she’d be able to help somehow, as she had her own horse and knew people in the area. Byway Boy had not been trained as yet for pleasure riding, but he could be with patience.

Soon after, it was arranged for us to go see him  – he’d been taken to a pasture near a friend’s house in the Port Elgin area, where we could look him over. So my cousin and sister and I went.

stubbs whistlejacket

This is a portrait of a famous English racehorse of the 18th century named Whistlejacket. I remember Byway Boy being very handsome with a similar shining, golden-hued coat. Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, c 1762 – life size portrait, National Gallery, London.

He was easily spooked and skittish, and was not used to being saddled or ridden. I vaguely remember several people were there to try the horse, and they rode him first – they got rocky rides and were not impressed with the difficult horse. I remember my cousin riding him too – and her experience showed, as she took him through his paces and he behaved for her. And then it was my turn.

I calmed myself and approached him quietly. He let me get on him and I rode him without thought – just feeling – leaving him enough room in the reins to move his head, guiding him with my legs and weight. We cantered around the field. It felt right and he didn’t fight me, and I fell in love with him.

I wanted him so badly. I wanted to take him home with me – he was so beautiful.

Eatons catalogue 1976

Eaton’s was a Canadian company much like Sears.

Even before I knew about Byway Boy, I’d already taken the Eaton’s and Sears catalogues and figured out how much fencing would cost for pasturing a horse; we lived in a farmhouse with a number of barns at the time so that wasn’t a problem; and hay and straw weren’t too expensive, especially since we lived in the country (of course I never considered the cost of a farrier or a vet or any of the other myriad expenses of having a horse). My father had already said no to me having my own horse – he didn’t want to have the extra expense and responsibility, and what would happen when I went off to school?

Someone eventually did take Byway Boy, but after that I don’t know what happened to him. It was a sad story, but unfortunately not that unusual for the racing business – race horses are for making money – they are a commodity – not pets. And to some people animals are even less than that…

… and some people will do anything for money.

Even in the sport of show jumping there are stories of atrocities to the horses – anywhere people can make money there can be someone corrupt and hardened enough to hurt animals.

I was at Spruce Meadows during a competition years ago, and found myself sitting in the stands next to a few farriers. When one well known competitor came onto the field they told me that he sometimes taped tacks onto the backs of his horses’ legs to make them jump higher.

Equestrian legs

This is a random picture of three equestrian riders in competition – it isn’t of the “bad guy” in my story.

It may have just been innuendo and nasty rumor, but the other things they told me about this man were true and came to light a few years later in the press. I could never stand to watch him ride after that.

No wonder when years later I was reading the book Black Beauty to my daughters, that I got to a part where I just couldn’t stop sobbing (when Ginger dies) – and my youngest took the book from me and read it out loud – braver than me, or perhaps still too innocent to understand the agony that animals endure at the hands of people.

horses london 19th c

The book Black Beauty was written by Anna Sewell in 18 77 to educate the public on the abuse and suffering of horses. It became a best seller, and has since been lauded as one of the most influential books of all times in the battle against animal cruelty. The eponymous horse, Black Beauty worked as a cab horse in London after he was injured in an accident. This photograph shows a street scene in London, England, from the 19th century – taken around the time that Black Beauty was written. You get a sense of the multitude of horses that were used everywhere. (Note that the double decked buses in the picture are being pulled by only two horses each)





More Bear Encounters

I wrote previously about grizzly bears in Alberta, Canada. In this post I have a couple more stories about bears – this time in New Brunswick,Canada and also in Siberia, Russian Federation…

The black bear can be found in almost every province and territory in Canada. And as evidenced by my discovery of a bear trap in the woods when I was a young teenager, we knew there were bears lurking around our farmhouse in New Brunswick.

Ivan Shishkin Morning in a Pine Forest 1878

Morning in a Pine Forest by Ivan Shishkin 1878, oil on canvas. This is one of a few rare images of bears from the 19th century that is beautiful. Its so depressing to look online for pictures of bears and mainly find images of bear hunting, zoos, circuses and bear baiting… what a despicable history we’ve made for ourselves.

In fact one of my friends in Junior High had a locally famous mother who once shot a bear.

black bear wikipedia

Black bear, image

So considering that we lived in a remote place surrounded by lake and forest, its surprising that we personally never saw any bears. On occasion we would come across a large, odd looking scat and surmise it was a bear’s – but we never found any other direct evidence.

A neighbor of ours did, however. She and her husband had a cattle farm in Jolicure, and they worked a number of fields in the area.

One summer they planted corn in a field situated along the road to our house, about a mile in from the crossroads. As far as I remember, it was the only time they planted that crop there. By the end of the summer in the early fall, the corn was very high and thick.

One day the wife went out to find her husband in the field – she had his lunch to deliver. So she parked her truck on the road bordering the field and went out into the corn rows.

Cornfield_pennYan wikimedia commons

Commercial corn grows densely in a field, and can be anywhere from 5 feet to 12 feet tall, so you can see how hard it is to see anything inside a cornfield. (photograph by Jlantzy from Wikipedia Commons). Ever see the movie Signs by M Night Shyamalan with Mel Gibson and Joachim Phoenix? If you have, you know why I ask… if not, you should go watch it…

Ahead of her she heard rustling and saw stalks moving. Thinking it was her husband she pushed through the stalks, calling to him, when all of a sudden she came face to face with a black bear. She screamed, and turned, and ran back to her truck.

black_bear head shot

Black bear (Ursus americanus)

The bear, just as startled and terrified, fled in the opposite direction. Her husband, meanwhile, was fine – he heard the whole commotion but never saw either of them.

Soon after that epic moment, they harvested the corn, and all the stalks were cut down and the bear was never seen again.

Back then (in the 1970s), I spent many hours walking through game trails in the woods alone with my dog, and though I saw scats and prints I never encountered any large or dangerous animals. But because I knew that the farmer’s wife had come face to face with a bear just a mile from my house, I was always noisy in the woods and on the road (singing out loud and whistling) just to let “everyone” know where I was at all times.

My paternal grandfather Harry Safran wasn’t so lucky.

In 1907 he was exiled to Siberia (a long and exciting tale for a future post) where he lived in a cabin in the woods with several other political prisoners.

siberia map

One day he was out in the forest foraging for nuts or firewood, and found himself face to face with a big bear – the bear reared up on its hind legs in front of him and roared… and my grandfather spit in its eye…


Siberian Brown Bear also known as a Grizzly Bear

… at least that’s what he tried to do, because he’d been told to do that just in case he ran into a bear. The idea was that the air in Siberia was so cold that your spit would freeze as soon as it left your mouth, forming a sharp sherd of ice that would blind the bear on impact.

Well, my grandfather never found out if spitting at a bear would save his life. When he came to, he found himself lying on the ground and the bear was gone… and he was alive. Whether spitting in the bear’s eye saved him, or fainting and looking dead did, my grandfather lived to tell the tale.

Casey Anderson and Brutus

This photo should be called “Living in Harmony”: Casey Anderson with his 800 lb buddy Brutus at the Anderson family Thanksgiving dinner… I’m not recommending wild animals as house pets, but this picture was too good to pass up.

Its a wonder that the bear literature in Canada doesn’t include that piece of advice. Perhaps I should tell Parks Canada and suggest they tell tourists and hikers to practice spitting shards of ice before heading out into the woods.

I just hope I never have to find out for myself.

Many thanks to my Aunt Rhoda for details about my grandfather’s Siberian bear encounter and spitting ice.

(Also, a couple of posts back I mentioned I was going to write about a Memento Mori painted by Bernard Safran in the 1960s – I intend to soon – I’m still trying to get a good photograph of the painting before I publish it. Until then I have some other posts to share.)