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.

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL WIL­SON

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.

John Diefen­baker

Joe Clark

Louis St. Lau­rent

Paul Martin

Kim Camp­bell

Brian Mul­roney

Pierre Trudeau

Lester Pear­son

Justin Trudeau

Stephen Harper

Jean Chré­tien

John Turner

BARRY GRAY, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

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.

FAM­ILY PHOTO

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.

Robert Bor­den

John A. Macdonald

Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King

Charles Tup­per

John Spar­row David Thomp­son

John Ab­bott

Macken­zie Bow­ell

Wil­frid Lau­rier

R.B. Ben­nett

Arthur Meighen

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