History & Art: Helping us better understand the change this city needs

After last week’s post on Welland’s Black Lantern Experience and the role of artists in community-building, I noticed James Takeo added two more portraits to his ongoing project depicting “Welland Notables.” This week’s notables: esteemed photographer, Thies Bogner and 1930s parachute-jumper, Elsie Storrow:

Bog-Stor

Thies Bogner                 Elsie Storrow

As a history teacher, I am always torn when it comes to the purpose of history. Celebrating our heritage is a “nice” thing to do, but for me it is not the purpose of history. Nor is history simply a screening device to distinguish the educated from the uneducated. Historian Peter Stearns said it best: history helps us better understand societies & each other. It “offers the only extensive evidential base for the contemplation and analysis of  how societies function.”  It helps us understand how the society we live in came to be, and is therefore, an integral part of understanding the changes necessary for the future. “The past causes the present, and so the future.”

For me, the purpose of art is a much more difficult question; its purpose is as varied as the artists who create it. Obviously, art can be appreciated for its aesthetic purposes alone. It can also be a means to help us encounter and contemplate reality in a variety of ways; it can criticize life & show us how to live a good life.

The people depicted in James Takeo’s “Welland Notables” series of paintings remind us how those who came before us shaped this city in pursuit of that good life. Perhaps the paintings will inspire us to do some shaping of our own. Here are a few more:

ArmourMcRaeArmour McCrae is a “Welland Notable” and I have James to thank for revealing to me just how notable this man was. McCrae owned a sporting goods store and was characterized by late city councilor Sandy O’Dell as “the kind of person where if you came from a family without means he would lower his prices so kids could play sports.” As mayor in the mid-1950s (1953-58) he initiated the idea of annexation of Crowland, and, in 1958, led this city through its centennial festivities. After his term as mayor, McCrae served as a member & vice-chair of the Ontario Municipal Board from 1958-1983. After his death in 2007, the Welland Tribune described the era in which McCrae served this community as “an exciting time for the site where rails and water meet. It was a time of ideas and vision, of unbridled optimism and Mr. McCrae personified Welland’s vision of that era.” It was a time when average family earnings in Welland were above the provincial & federal average.

PaulBeestonPaul Beeston was the first employee hired by the newly-formed Toronto Blue Jays baseball team in 1976, a year before they would play their first game. He led the team during their back-to-back World Series victories in 1992-1993, became the first president of Major League Baseball in 1997, and is currently, once again, president of the Toronto Blue Jays. Though he left Welland to study business at the University of Western Ontario in the 1960s, when he is asked where he is from, he always answers Welland, never Niagara. I recall reading about Beeston’s praises for Welland in the Tribune a few years back. He said, “I didn’t realize until I left Welland that people disliked you based on race, creed, colour, religion, whatever it might be so there was something very special about it. People just got along and it didn’t matter who you were or who your father was or where you lived in the city.”

LBDuffLouis Blake Duff was a writer, historian, publisher of fine printing, bibliophile, and coach of the 1904 Olympic gold medal soccer team at the St. Louis games. Once called “Canada’s Dr. Johnson,” Duff merged 3 newspapers in 1920 to create the Tribune-Telegraph. He formed the Welland Historical Historical Society in 1924, which published several volumes of papers & records with Duff as editor. In 1925, Louis Blake Duff edited the first of five volumes of the Welland County Historical Society Papers & Records, contributing articles of original research to most issues, “usually biographical sketches of fascinating but previously ignored characters from Niagara’s past.” (Louis Blake Duff: The Composite Man, privately printed for George H. Smith, 1959) It is a cruel coincidence of history that Duff, known throughout North America & Europe in his lifetime, has now become one of these fascinating but ignored figures.

More portraits of “Welland Notables” can be found here.  There are more than a few lessons to be learned from the heroes of this city’s past. Let us hope the stories of ingenuity, intrepidness, passion & intellect will inspire us to learn those lessons. Welland has a good deal to be proud of. And it has the potential to be proud of even more.

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