By Lawrence Powell
Tom Forrestall sits down, stretches his legs out in front of him. He’s wearing jeans, and a heavy canvas shirt over a light brown fleecy vest and a black turtleneck. He’s back from Toronto and stops in his hometown of Middleton on his way to put on storm windows at his house in Upper Clements.
Unassuming attire for an unassuming man. His trademark Abe Lincoln beard is white. It looks like the artist is taking a day off. But he’s not. He’s snuck in a notebook. The hard, black covers are puffed out a bit because almost every page inside has been used.
But the notebook wasn’t intended to be part of the conversation. Forrestall is releasing a series of numbered prints from 10 carefully selected watercolours – most done right here in the Valley. It’s an exciting project. Not something he’s done in a while and he and business partner Larry Corneal (www.eastcoastfineart.com) of Hampton want to fill me in on it.
Forrestall’s work often finds its way into private collections and galleries. He has dealers in London and Milan. His work goes for thousands of dollars.
The irony is that so many ordinary people connect with his work but few of them can afford it. Hence, with Corneal doing the framing and Steve Bezanson of Bridgetown, a third partner, doing the printing, a Forrestall is within reach.
Corneal says each print will be original size and limited to 50 for each watercolour. The best possible press was bought especially for the project and the prints are on 150-year paper. They’re numbered and signed.
Forrestall says the watercolours were selected for their significance to the area from Halifax to Yarmouth and especially the Annapolis Valley.
The project is called ‘Tom Forrestall up close & personal’ and has been promoted in Dartmouth for three shows and sales: November 6 at the Prince George Hotel in Halifax; November 13 at the Old Orchard Inn in Greenwich, and November 20 at King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal. Each event runs from 1 to 5 p.m.
We discuss photo possibilities. As Forrestall stands up the notebook is in his hand and suddenly between us. The way he’s holding it’ the pages open up more and I can see black ink mostly. But there’s colour in there too.
I ‘d heard about Forrestall’s notebooks. He takes one everywhere.
We decide on the notebook for a photo. He wants me to select a page but the book falls open and two eyes are looking at me. They’re studies Forrestall has been doing.
“This is fine,” I say. Partly because it will be very visual for the camera but mostly because Forrestall had been talking about seeing perfection in his mind’s eye. It seems appropriate.
I take several pictures and then Forrestall leafs through the notebook to give me an idea of what it’s all about. Every page is filled with drawings, thoughts, notes, ideas. Everything from the eye studies to possible shapes of future paintings.
Thousands of Pages
There are probably about 400 of these notebooks – 150,000 pages. Forrestall’s mind on paper. I quickly grasp the significance. These would be priceless after the great man is gone. I picture everyone from art students to art historians wanting to get their hands on them. And they are art objects in themselves – valuable just by existing.
I’m not the only one who realized the importance of the notebooks. Virgil Hammock, professor emeritus of fine arts at Mount Allison University is writing a book about the notebooks and when Forrestall is gone they go to the rare book collection at Mount A’s library.
“They are books that document a life, drawings of friends, family, relationships, people he was spending time with, notes, ticket stubs, copies of articles -- they are all in these notebooks.” - Monica Forrestall
I’m still thinking about the notebooks the whole time I’m writing a feature story on Forrestall. I have visions of him with these notebooks going back decades. Particularly I see him with his children when they are quite young.
I contact Forrestall’s daughter Monica in New York. We’ve sort of been friends for a few years. I ask her about the notebooks.
"I remember Dad would have his notebook out with his morning cup of coffee, and it was never far from his side at any point of the day,” Monica says. “They are books that document a life, drawings of friends, family, relationships, people he was spending time with, notes, ticket stubs, copies of articles -- they are all in these notebooks.”
She described them as often being like diaries “that also have lots and lots of ideas and studies for future possible work.
“Where ever he goes his hands are never idle, with his ever-present note book,” Monica says. “It was his security blanket in a way and the notebook and pen were tools to make sure he never wasted any time.”
So the Abe Lincoln beard is appropriate.
Monica, as I suspected, also has notebooks.
“My notebooks are more diaries than sketch books,” she says, “although the memory books I make for my son are sketch books, diaries, and photo albums combined.”
A Love Story?
I suspect, but I don’t ask, that there might also be a love story in those notebooks. A word here, a sentence there, maybe a sketch or two of his wife of 48 years Natalie LeBlanc Forrestall. Little bits strung out from page to page, book to book over the decades.
“She believed in me,” Tom Forrestall had said during our conversation. “She got behind me. Then five years ago I lost her.”
I had met Natalie once, and only for a few moments. All I remember is that she seemed to radiate energy.
Monica tells me her parents enjoyed a complete love-filled marriage that truly defined her father’s life.
“She was his rock and anchor, and brought home all the bacon in the struggling early years by giving up her own painting career to support his by teaching art to children,” says Monica.
Natalie had her Masters in Fine Arts and a teaching degree.
Later she went on to manage Forrestall’s business, do all his bookkeeping, and travel with him. She produced his art books, curated shows, was his archivist, and took every photo that exists of him in his personal life and with his kids.
“They met at Mount A, fell in love, got married, traveled around Europe together for a year, came home, had babies,” says Monica.
Forrestall had told me that story. In 1958 as he graduated from Mount A, he received one of the first Canada Council Grants for independent study and travel throughout Europe.
He laughs at the amount of the grant -- $2,000. But he credits Natalie for making the trip a success and returning home with $500 left over.
And his role as a father cannot be overlooked.
“The mad, fun chaos of raising six children was always my parents’ priority as well as their staunch Catholic faith,” says Monica. “God, family, art.”