A Humble Painter of the North
One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance
By Steven Ross Smith
There’s a strange irony in the fact that the man who painted the mural on the north wall of the third floor of the Saskatchewan Legislature building, and the man who received a Centennial Commemorative Medal, and the man who met Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 2005, and the man who dons his uniform and reports for duty as a corrections worker at the Besnard Correctional Centre in La Ronge, are the same man – Roger Jerome.
I met this man, and all his aspects, recently in the front room of his modest house in Air Ronge, just outside of La Ronge in Northern Saskatchewan, where we sat surrounded by his paintings. Jerome was in his uniform, soon to go to work at the Correctional Centre, a one and a half hour drive from La Ronge.
Roger Jerome says “I have been painting all my life. I was encouraged in public school, and later went to study commercial art at Brandon.” Fine painting has hovered around Jerome like a constant but undemanding pal. It has gone along with him when he thought about becoming a veterinarian; when he worked at the Anglo Rouyn mine in the late sixties, when he had a sign-making business in North Battleford in the ‘80s. He’s done “hundreds of paintings.”
As a young adult, Jerome found that he could make money selling stylized chalk pastel drawings of wide-eyed young native children to customers – many of them American – in the La Ronge Hotel where he exhibited his work. But in time he did move on to more mature art pieces. Despite his quiet obsession with making art, and his early entrepreneurial start, Roger has rarely been aggressive with marketing and exhibiting. In fact he’s been mostly the opposite.
But there was that moment in the fall of 2004 when he applied to the competition for a Legislature Building mural commission. His concept involved two canoeists on a northern lake looking up at a float plane flying in over the tree line. Jerome feels that the float plane signifies the opening up of the north, and the canoeist represents Native life. The top curve of the piece (required to fit into the curved opening where the painting would be placed), features a floral bead work design representing Native arts and crafts; and there is a white outline to give the feeling of looking though a window toward another realm, another culture. To his surprise, his concept won the competition. This meant that he would have to translate his seventeen by twenty-five inch concept into a three foot by four foot maquette (a model), then into a seventeen and a half by twenty-four foot painting to be permanently placed on a wall of the Legislature Building. He began painting the mural on his sixtieth birthday, and hed the help of nine assistants. But I’ll come back to this.
Roger Jerome is of Métis heritage. His late father, Max, was from St. Louis, Saskatchewan, and Max’s mother, Liz Jerome, was a McDougall. The St. Louis McDougalls came from the Red River Settlement. Roger’s mother (Florence) is British. Jerome himself was born in Bournemouth, England. He was raised in Prince Albert and spent most of his formative years in Saskatchewan’s north. Forty or so years ago he married Flora Johnson, of Ile a-la-Crosse. He has a son Robert who is a carver, and a grand-daughter, Kiera Autumn Dawn who Roger and Flora are raising.
Jerome must have been born with an artist’s gene, because, no matter what else he’s been doing, he’s been painting and drawing or seeking situations in which to learn more about making art. He’s taken workshops with painters he admires, including Myles McDonald and Zhong-Yang Huang. He also admires Renoir, Alan Sapp, Michael Lonechild, Dean Bauche, Tom Thomson, Picasso, Miro, Van Gogh and Alex Colville.
Jerome works with paints and pastel chalks. He has even made his own charcoal from willow. His living-room studio is cluttered with his artwork, many pieces in-progress, some of which he will return to and some he has become bored with. One notable painting sits on the floor. It is of a prominent band chief and her young son. On his easel nearby (featured in the accompanying photograph) is a portrait of Leona Boyer, mother of the late painter. Bob Boyer was Roger’s first cousin.
Roger says, “I’m quite interested in portraits of old people. Their portraits are actually landscapes. Their wrinkles might come from squinting out on the lake.” Jerome also paints marvellous nature landscapes as well as depictions of northern people engaged in daily life. One example is a painting of young Natives spearing fish on the Montreal River, and there’s the evocative ‘Indian Summer’ which captures, close, from behind, the sensual wake of a small power boat heading out onto a beautiful lake surrounded by a finely painted forest. These two paintings now hang in the offices of Robertson’s Trading, the outfitting and grocery department store in La Ronge. “The people at Robertson’s have been very supportive of artists and craftspersons in the North,” says Jerome.
“I’ve always had an affinity with the north. I grew up in P.A., but always loved the pine trees and the lakes. I have to get busy and represent the north in my paintings,” he says.
Among his ideas is to paint the northern street people, and to show them in a romantic way. He believes he can capture their inherent dignity this way. “Troubled or addicted deserve respect. I’m for the underdog,” he says. “Maybe it’s a recessive Brit gene. I’ve been an underdog. I have compassion for them.”
He demonstrates this compassion occasionally by giving inmates at the Correctional Centre, where he works, arts lessons. “I also want to show and romanticize the good things from native culture in the north,” he says.
He has accomplished this, to a degree in the legislature mural commission. He completed the work in ten weeks with the painting assistance of other artists, including Ryan Arnott and Dean Bauche. The completed mural was unveiled on May 18th, 2005, 2004 by Queen Elizabeth.
Jerome and his family met Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Kiera Dawn, Roger and Flora’s grand-daughter, presented flowers to Her Majesty. Earlier that month, and on the day of the unveiling, Roger Jerome was given the Celebration of the Arts Pin and the Centennial Commemorative Medal by Lieutenant Governor Linda Haverstock. Jerome says he felt like he’d “entered Kiera’s world of Prince Charming.” Certainly he was celebrated by dignitaries and royalty. And he was treated well. “I want to acknowledge the kind sensitivity and hospitality extended to me and my family but the Saskatchewan Arts Board staff during our stay in Regina,” he says.
Two days after this high life in the provincial capital, Jerome was called back to work at the Correctional Centre. He traded his suit for a uniform and off he went. Roger Jerome seems to take this all in stride. Yet such juxtapositions have made him wonder what he really should be doing with his time and energy. “My retirement plan is still not in sharp focus.” Jerome would like to have a cohesive show of his art, but he’s not sure whether to take the leap and devote himself to his art now, or whether to keep working to feather his retirement package.
Roger Jerome is a gifted, celebrated, skilled, and accomplished artist, one whose achievement at the Legislature should guarantee him a position and a role as a respected senior Saskatchewan artist. Between the indifference to art of the majority of people of Saskatchewan and Roger’s own humility, tinged with a bit of doubt, Jerome seems unable to claim his art in a total way. He still does, after all, need to be certain of income to uphold his responsibilities, not the least being the future well-being of his wife and granddaughter.
It seems a shame if this responsibility keeps him from painting. It is a shame that here in Canada we have no tradition of institutional and personal veneration and continuing support of our senior artists and crafts persons, traditions which exist in countries like Japan and Ireland. We may celebrate an artist one day, then cast him or her back to the waters the next.
As I concluded my conversation with Roger Jerome, we walked into his yard together, where the van was waiting to take him to work at the Correctional Centre –– away from his living room studio, away from his paintings that sit on easels or lean against walls, just waiting for the touch of his brush. But that touch would not come today.
Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, reviewer living in Saskatoon.
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