A meticulous and prolific artist, Anthony Thorn produced nearly 1,300 works over his career – which took him from Canada to France, Mexico, Greece, the United States and Japan – and in the final months of his life, he made a decision that will have a lasting impact on Victoria, his last home.
Generous with his ideas, Mr. Thorn was always eager to discuss technique, form and approach in tête-à-têtes about his craft. He loved to smoke and never gave it up. As he thoughtfully discussed his work in his book-stuffed home, he would burn through multiple cigarettes, often distracted by the topic at hand.
"He … would slowly take a cigarette out of the package, he would light a match and then he would start talking. And then you'd be listening to him talk, but you'd be looking at the flame on the match as it got closer and closer to his fingers, worried that he would burn himself," recalls Jon Tupper, director of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. "Of course he never did. And then he would continue with this florid talk that he had: a measured way of speaking, and very colourful."
Knowing death was approaching, Mr. Thorn was eager to divest himself of his library, inviting those close to him to take what they liked. His books smelled of smoke, and it was that fact and a precious gift years ago – a valuable first U.S. edition of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake – that inspired a work of art made for Mr. Thorn by his friend Robert Amos.
Mr. Amos, an art writer who is also an artist, painted a passage from Finnegans Wake: "And the stellas were shinings," it began, ending with, "O dulcid dreamings languidous! Taboccoo!" Knowing how Mr. Thorn loved gold in his work, Mr. Amos finished it with some gold paint.
Mr. Thorn hung it in his studio. "But I could tell that he thought the idea of gold paint was debased and what I needed was gold leaf," Mr. Amos recalls. And so began a series of discussions and in-depth lessons into the proper application of gold leaf, the gifting of appropriate materials and tools by Mr. Thorn so Mr. Amos could make the "suggested" alterations, and then, once that was done, recommendations for additional modifications to the work. It was passed back and forth as the months-long tutorial continued.
"He was in love with technique … His practice was really profound and serious," says Mr. Amos, with whom Mr. Thorn had begun a correspondence after Mr. Amos wrote an insightful review of an exhibition of his work in 1990. Art remained a foundation for their years-long friendship.
"We shared a lot of sympathies. I'm not a fussy, persnickety, hermetic spiritualist like him; I'm not that person at all," says the art-critic-turned-friend. "But he recognized that I understood where he was coming from; I understood the practicalities of working as an artist and the frame of reference in literature. And I liked him. And these were enough things to bring us together."
Anthony (Tony, to his friends) Thorn – inexhaustible maker and appreciator of art, voracious collector and reader of books, unregenerate smoker until the end – died July 24 from bladder cancer. He was 87.
He was born Arthur Goldman on March 8, 1927, in Regina, the son of Dorothy and Leon Goldman, clothing-store owners who were dedicated and generous philanthropists. (They died a year apart in the 1990s.) He adopted the pseudonym Anthony Thorn when he began publishing poetry in the university newspaper – to spare his prominent family possible embarrassment, according to Mr. Amos.
He began to paint in his early 20s, studying in Regina, Chicago and at the Banff Centre, and – beginning in 1953 – at the Centre d'Art Sacré in Paris, which focused on applied art for churches.
"Sounds like a bit of a stretch for a Jewish boy from Regina," says Mr. Amos, "but the applied arts were the underpinnings of everything he did."
Not a traditionally observant man, religion and spirituality did figure prominently in his work and in his life. His art was infused with faith, sometimes subtly (you can see the influence of his Parisian study of stained glass in some work) and sometimes overtly – as in his painting Kaddish; a plaque for which he cast the Hebrew letter aleph in gilded bronze; or his carved and gilded shofar – a ceremonial Jewish instrument, made from a ram's horn. He painted church murals and read the Koran twice, he told Mr. Amos.
He also studied in Mexico, Greece and Japan (he was strongly influenced by Japanese art). During his years living in Toronto, he made, exhibited and sold oils. In 1980, he and his wife, Jacqueline Goldman, moved to Victoria from Thunder Bay, where Mr. Thorn had taught at Lakehead University. In Victoria, his practice expanded to focus on works he called wall jewels, intricate small-scale treasures that incorporated gilding, carving, miniature sculpture and calligraphy, using a variety of materials including, of course, gold.
The couple's first apartment was a few blocks from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and on his first visit to the gallery, Mr. Thorn was welcomed personally by then-director Pat Bovey, "who made me feel that I might become a good addition to the artistic community here," Mr. Thorn wrote in a fax to The Globe and Mail in January. (He did not use e-mail, and a telephone interview was not possible because of his hearing problems, so he responded to questions by fax.)
He never forgot that warm welcome. When he read an article in the local newspaper last year about the gallery's decision to stay put and expand rather than try to find a new, more central location – as it had been trying to do for decades – Mr. Thorn reached out to Mr. Tupper through the AGGV's Asian art curator Barry Till, whom Mr. Thorn knew. The three met in Mr. Thorn's modest Oak Bay home – he was ill by then and had trouble leaving the house. Mr. Thorn recalled Ms. Bovey's warm 1980 welcome, ruminated on his own parents' generosity and offered a large donation.
"I am a childless widower," he explained to The Globe when the donation was to be made public. (Ms. Goldman, to whom he had been married for 50 years, died last year.) "I had often spoken with my sister about my fondness for the gallery … One time, she said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you were to give the gallery a million dollars, if you had the means to do it?'"
His donation, made possible by transferring his shares in a family company, which owned an apartment building in Regina, amounted to $2.67-million, the largest monetary gift in the AGGV's history.
"Because we're a smaller institution, it means a hell of a lot. It's transformative for us," Mr. Tupper says. "Anthony wasn't a rich man. He had this one thing and he gave it to the gallery and it's going to make a big huge difference for us … We can actually achieve our dreams to transform this place from an interesting – but somewhat dishevelled – regional gallery into something much more substantive; something that reflects the capital city of British Columbia."
Mr. Thorn made the donation in memory of his wife, but did not ask for any permanent naming recognition at the AGGV. He called the gallery an important component of a civilized city, which "gives the inhabitants a wealth of experience and enjoyment," he wrote to The Globe. "I am one of those who value it, wish to add to it. I am grateful to be living and working here and as my upbringing has formed me to not be a parasite but a participant in the culture I live in, I do so.
"It will be for those who come after me an even greater treasure."
Mr. Thorn knew his death was imminent. A final art show was organized, but he was too ill to attend the opening. In increasing pain these past few months, he was ready for the end. There was a do-not-resuscitate notice posted on his refrigerator door; when he could no longer make it down the hall to work under the skylight in his studio, he did not want to continue living, says Mr. Amos, who curated that final show.
Shortly before his death, Mr. Thorn told Mr. Amos: "'When the Angel of Death makes his presence known to me I'll just put on my prayer shawl and pick up my shofar and blow that horn.' I took that as a kind of metaphorical thing, but as the conversation went on, I realized he was in deadly earnest," Mr. Amos recalls. "He was intending when he felt that death was coming upon him that he would blow the horn and give himself into the arms of whatever comes next."
Mr. Thorn leaves his sisters, Lyn Goldman and Barbara Gleiberman, other family, friends and patrons, and his caregivers Stella Daniels and Flor Albuleras.
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Editor's note: The original newspaper version and an earlier version of this article incorrectly called Ms. Pat Bovey "Mr. Bovey." This online version has been corrected.