Canadian Jewish News, Nov. 19, 2015
MONTREAL – Painting one portrait can be a lengthy, painstaking process, but what about 185 – and all on the same canvas?
That’s the task Phil Kurtz undertook, and he is not a young artist looking for commissions.
He’s 84, and his intention from the start was to donate the finished work.
Kurtz, a retired chemist, did just that at the Côte St. Luc Senior Men’s Club gala, held in October at the Gelber Conference Centre.
His 7-1/2-foot-wide painting depicts 185 real people, their faces all minutely and realistically portrayed.
They, like Kurtz, are members of the club.
He never thought the project would become so ambitious, nor that he would be under the gun, so to speak, to get the painting delivered by the deadline set by club president Syd Kronish.
The club wanted a painting to be installed at the Côte St. Luc Aquatic and Community Centre, where it holds its meetings. The idea was to convey the happy times the membership – which has grown to over 500 – enjoys there.
Kurtz explained that at first he wanted to capture the membership – a significant number of whom are 90 and better – enjoying themselves with their female significant others at one of the club’s social functions.
“The original concept was to paint a dynamic arrangement of people talking and gesticulating while enjoying coffee and danish,” he explained. His proposal was to rough in a layout while wintering in Florida and, upon returning in the spring, collect photos from the members and their wives and girlfriends, and fill in the picture.
“I thought it would be a 9- to 12-month project. Our president thought it was only a one- to two-month job,” he said. “We compromised, I promising to complete the painting for the gala.”
Besides the time pressure, many more members than he expected wanted to be included. Even with a large canvas, Kurtz realized he would have to abandon the convivial scene he had had in mind and make this into a mass portraiture if he was to get everyone in.
“This included some very late submissions that I could only include as small portraits in the background,” he said.
“I worked many, many hours – an estimated 400 – to fulfil the deadline.”
Although the faces are faithful to life, Kurtz took the liberty of playing costume designer and dressing his subjects in clothing, the colour and style of which he felt would be most esthetically pleasing.
There were no complaints when the painting was unveiled at the gala and formally presented to then-Côte St. Luc mayor Anthony Housefather.
On the contrary, members were delighted as they gathered around the unveiled painting, delighted with the results. If they had trouble finding themselves, Kurtz could quickly point them out without needing to refer to any plan of the layout.
“When you spend so much time with these people, you sort of become embedded with them,” he said.
Kurtz has enjoyed art since he went to Baron Byng High School, but earning two degrees and then making a living left little time to take up a brush until his later years. He is essentially self-taught, not only in practice, but also in his study of art history and criticism.
“Lessons would be too slow,” Kurtz said.
Portraiture is not his specialty; Judaic themes often influence his work, but most of it, he said, “comes out of my head.”
He has been attending some of the classes artist Phil Goldberg gives to the club, which is entirely membership-run. Goldberg commented that he is awed by Kurtz’s talent.
The painting will hang at the top of the staircase at the aquatic centre.
In accepting the donation, Housefather said the work will be an inspiration to all who use the centre’s facilities and was especially meaningful as it was created by a local artist.