CANADA’S PRIME MINISTERS THROUGH 150 YEARS
The sparkling portraits of Canadian prime ministers by Julio Ferrer are revealed in Spectator columnist Paul Wilson’s profile of the artist and his mission.
Julio Ferrer’s eyes are closed. He’s conjuring faces of men from long ago. “Sir John A. Macdonald,” he says. “Alexander Mackenzie, Sir John Abbott …”
And on he goes, right through 150 years of Canadian prime ministers. How many of us could do that?
And Julio is a relative newcomer, arriving in Hamilton from Cuba about 10 years ago.
He knows the PMs because he’s painted them all, in a way you’ve never seen. Musty black and white be gone. Think gorgeous pinks, luscious blues, pretty purples.
The reason Julio painted those 22 men — and a woman — is that a Hamilton doctor wanted us to know and care more about Canada’s history.
Bill Benson, a highly-regarded rheumatologist, had a big personality and a couple of side passions — art and history. He was not shy about quizzing his staff and patients on this country’s past.
Regarding prime ministers, he found most people couldn’t name very many. So he and wife Wynn decided a great Canada 150 project would be to somehow make the PMs come alive.
They thought about commissioning a group of wooden folk art sculptures of the prime ministers. But late in 2015, they walked through the door of the Earls Court Gallery on Ottawa North and one painting leapt from the wall.
It was called Chelfie, with Cuban Revolution figure Che Guevara taking a selfie with his iPhone, set on hotpink background.
“We were just blown away,” Wynn says. How about giving the PMs a popart Technicolor treatment?
The Bensens bounced the idea off gallery owner Bob Daniels. And he said, “If you’re looking at a project like that, there’s only one guy to do it.”
Julio is 44. He grew up on Cuba’s south coast and studied art in Havana. In the early days, he did make a living by painting — but had to sign his works with the name of another artist who had state permission to sell to tourists.
Eventually Julio made a name for
himself and his work found its way to Canada. So did he. At The Print Studio on James North, he met artist and high school teacher Keira Miyata. They married, and three years ago had son Gabriel.
Julio said yes to the Bensen commission, but the deadline of this spring scared him. After all, he had a toddler to look after. But his mother came from Cuba for three months, followed by his aunt for four months. “Without their help,” he says, “forget about the PMs.”
Julio found the best photos he could and made sketches, first in pencil, then ink. Finally, in the basement of his bungalow on the west Mountain, he projected those images on canvas and began to paint with everything in the rainbow.
He started with Justin and worked back. But a few paintings in, he said to himself, “The palette is too light. I’m starting over.”
So he cut those first works into little pieces. Then he began at the beginning, with Sir John A. He went bold, then bolder. Ties, vests, eyes started popping.
And on a Saturday in March, he sent digital images of the final batch of PMs to Bill and Wynn Bensen. They loved them. The following Wednesday, Bill died at 67.
It was an 11th-hour diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. They said he had three months. He got nine days.
Wynn knew what Bill would want. A few weeks ago she travelled to Fredericton to help open “Prime Time” at Government House there. Each painting comes with a brief and lively bio by historian John Boyko. The first starts this way: “Sir John was a charmer and a rogue with a quick smile and brilliant political mind …”
The show heads to Saskatchewan, B.C., the Yukon. But first, it comes to Hamilton in September.
Before it opens here, you might try to learn that list of leaders. Nothing would please Bill Bensen more.
Lester B. Pearson served as Canada’s 14th prime minister from 1963 to 1968.
Kim Campbell served as Canada’s 19th prime minister June to November 1993.
Sir John A. Macdonald served as Canada’s first prime minister from 1867 to 1873.
John Diefenbaker served as Canada’s 13th prime minister from 1957 to 1963.
Louis St. Laurent
Artist Julio Ferrer, who came to Canada from Cuba, has painted portraits of each of the Canadian Prime Ministers in his bold, vibrant style. Here he sits with son Gabriel, 3, who is helping to show one of his dad’s paintings.
Wynn and Bill Bensen set out to make Canadians more interested in their history, and the result was an eye-popping collection of prime ministers.
John A. Macdonald
William Lyon Mackenzie King
John Sparrow David Thompson