I completed this piece, which I called Black Ghosts of Fall, on Thursday night, just before I retired for the night with no idea what the coming morning would bring. When I painted it, I may have, on some level, had in my mind's eye a favourite pastime and a favourite spot. As anyone from Fredericton knows, there's a spot on one of the walking trails, on the North side of the river where there's a little bridge and you can stand on that bridge and look out at the Saint John River, framed by beautiful trees. It doesn't matter which side of the bridge you aim your gaze, the view is just as spectacular. Of course, my favourite time to enjoy the view is fall, when the frame around the river is bursting with reds, oranges, yellows and greens. And yes, of course there are crows and ravens.
The piece may have been an ode to cherished memories. Then I woke up yesterday to hear the news that there was a shooting, leaving four people dead and who knows how many injured, in my picturesque, peaceful hometown (caution, I love you, my American friends, but this is not an invitation to argue about gun control as I've seen all over Facebook). The place where I was born and spent most of my life. The place where that bridge is. Now I could lie and say I painted this piece in honour of that, but that would be a lie and make me, well, an asshole. But what I can say is looking at it now, while it still reminds me of that nice walk on a wooded trail, it seems to mean much more than that now. We Frederictonians aren't used to such tragedy and violence, in fact, I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said it was pretty much unheard of. But what we are is resilient and strong. We face blistering cold and feet of snow at a time and then contend gracefully (or not so gracefully if you're me) with near tropical heat, and that's all in the same year, and we do it every year. We hunt and fish and enjoy art and theatre, sometimes in the same day (okay not all four, but yes, I know people who have gotten a deer in the morning and went to the Playhouse for a show in the evening). It's just how we roll. We're a community of friends and neighbours, where everyone knows maybe not everyone, but you can bet everyone knows someone who knows someone. Sure, that makes the gossip mill run at full tilt sometimes, but it also means that when someone's in need, or something happens, we're quick to band together. And all of that is set against the most beautiful backdrop you can imagine. It's the stuff of postcards.
Even though life has taken me far away from my city, it's never really far from me. It's still, and always will be a large part of who I am, This horrible tragedy breaks my heart and of course, that heart goes out to all those affected by it, those who died, who were hurt, their families and even those who are just shaken, reeling from this thing. But now, when I look at this painting, its meaning has shifted a bit, it's shifted to how I choose to think about my hometown. Yes, a terrible thing happened, but we're still strong, we're still beautiful. and together we'll get through this. I'm reminded of the words of my late friend, Richard Howard, one day he told me, "your back will never bend, my friend." Well, neither will Fredericton.