In 2001, Walter Redinger, then 61, walked into the Mitchell Algus Gallery in New York for the opening of his solo exhibition. The young artists who filled the room, admiring the Canadian legend's vast sculptures and abstract drawings, did a double take: They expected an artist their own age to have produced this kind of cutting-edge work.
The same thing happened at his 2007 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) in Toronto. Many at the opening knew that he had been a hot commodity in the 1960s and 70s and represented Canada for sculpture at the 1972 Venice Biennale – including art legend Michael Snow and art dealer Avram Isaacs, who gave him one of his first breaks. Those who did not were surprised that the raw work on display came from this retirement-age man afflicted with Parkinson's disease. They had no choice but to get over it when the Walter Band took to the stage and the artist – a rough-looking character with a beard and shaved head – played guitar and sang the blues.
On display at the 2007 exhibit was the 13-metre Ghost Ship, a sculpture made of driftwood, sumac branches and fibreglass, a monumental piece that had several incarnations and was nearly a decade in the making. David Liss, curator of the museum, first saw the work in Mr. Redinger's barn in West Lorne, Ont., a few years earlier. "I was just instantly blown away by it," he recalls. "This has to be seen in Toronto," he told himself at the time.
Whether his work was in fashion or not, Mr. Redinger had a 50-year career creating the kind of sculptures that got people's attention. Mr. Redinger, who died on June 17 at the age of 74, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, also produced a vast number of paintings and drawings. "Walter had a voracious appetite for work," recalls Ed Zelenak, a childhood friend and fellow West Lorne-based artist.
Much of his later work was influenced by nature and his thoughts on the cosmos and the larger meaning of existence. "He wasn't speaking to the art world," Mr. Liss says. "He dealt with larger issues of life and death and who the human race is."
Although Mr. Redinger was diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 48, he continued to create at a diligent pace. "He was probably more careful about what he chose to do after his diagnosis. It took a lot of energy," says Marian Redinger, his wife of 53 years and long-time business manager. "He worked hard. Someone said to me: 'Can you imagine what he could have done if he didn't get sick?'"
Besides art, he was passionate about music. In 1999, he formed his own band with his son, Jeff, on drums, playing the blues, which he had listened to as a teen. The Redingers listened to classical music every morning when they got up and every night before bed. Mr. Redinger was also a huge sports fan. He followed the Toronto Maple Leafs but also adored baseball and its stats. His team, the Cleveland Indians, was a perennial loser, just as the Leafs were.
Below his gruff, almost biker-dude exterior, Mr. Redinger was a loyal family man who was authentic in everything he did, from his music to his art.
Born in 1940, Mr. Redinger grew up on a tobacco farm in West Lorne, a small town outside London on the shores of Lake Erie. His German immigrant parents owned a tobacco farm and Mr. Redinger and his five siblings helped out on the farm and were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Fortunately, that schoolhouse had a teacher who was an artist and allowed Mr. Redinger and his friend Mr. Zelenak "priority over the chalkboard." Though drawing was a daily part of life in public school, there was no art program in the 350-student high school in West Lorne.
Instead, the two friends went together to Beal Technical School in London to get the art skills they needed for postsecondary school, and then were both accepted at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). Mr. Redinger stayed for two years – he found he didn't define art quite the same way his professors did – then moved to an art school in Detroit, where he won an award for his drawing.
In 1961, he married Marian Manchester, a local girl he first met working the tobacco harvest on the Redinger farm when she was in Grade 9 and he in Grade 12. The young couple moved to Toronto and lived in various live-work studios around the city. He began working with cast fibreglass and kept needing progressively larger spaces.
Around that time, he met famed art dealer Mr. Isaacs, who gave Mr. Redinger a solo show at his gallery in 1963, when the artist was just 23. In 1964, with his wife running the business side of her husband's career, the couple moved back to West Lorne and, along with Mr. Zelenak, built a live-work studio on the Redinger property, taking breaks from their art for the construction but also to work the family farm, until the family eventually stopped growing tobacco.
In the larger studio, Mr. Redinger flourished and produced works for a huge number of group and solo shows through the late 1960s and into the 1970s. (Mr. Zelenak eventually set up his own, separate studio.) His fibreglass pieces, influenced by pop art and surrealism, put him on the cutting edge of Canadian art at the time.
"He was a true visionary," Mr. Liss says.
By the 1980s, his work no longer made headlines, but the young father – his daughter and son were born in the 1970s – kept producing art and Ms. Redinger kept booking installations and shows, many of which were local, in St. Thomas, Stratford and Woodstock.
He was always welcome in London, Ont., where his sculptures still reside at the provincial courthouse and the University of Western Ontario. Museum London owns more than 50 of his works. His work showed frequently in New York, often at solo exhibits, up until 2007.
A bout of cancer and his progressing Parkinson's eventually did slow Mr. Redinger down. He did his last show in 2011 in London and eventually moved to a care facility.
Walter Redinger leaves his wife; daughter, Jennifer Fulmer; son; siblings, Dr. Richard Redinger, Helen Mulcaster, Linda Royal and Shirley Vandenberg; and grandchildren, Jacobb and Emma.
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