“There are people one meets in books or in life whom one does not merely observe, meet or know. A deep resonance of one’s entire being is immediately set up with the entire being of the other … heart speaks to heart in the wholeness of the language of music; true friendship is a kind of singing.” – Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
By J.S. Porter
Our colleague Clare Warwick, who taught literature with us in the Language Studies Department, used to say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” My friend Wayne Allan bloomed where he was planted – in Dundas, at Mohawk College, in the Hamilton arts community. He had a generous intelligence. He had a gift for friendship. He carried three thousand years of art history in his head and could articulately unspool large portions of it upon request.
A worker in the arts – he always preferred that label to “artist”— a Christian, a Mohawk on his father’s side, a reader, a teacher, a friend: Wayne had a teasing sense of humour. One evening I phoned him about a wood piece he had been working on for some time. I knew his tendency to cannibalize his own work, constantly remaking what he had just made. On repeated visits to his studio, you never saw the same sculpture twice. Something would be different—a colour, a shape, a posture.
“So how have you changed him now?” I asked. We both referred to his sculptures as he or she; they were like living beings to us. Never “it.”
Wayne paused on the phone, then said in a long breath, “He was a bit heavy looking, so I cut off his arms, tied rope around him and put him on a cross, but that didn’t look so hot, so I painted him blue and put him in a box, then I took him out of the box and cut the rope off and just had him standing armless and blue. And that’s the way he is now, armless and blue.”
I laughed. And he laughed.
A tall man with a vast imagination, he had a long stride, large soft-hands, a pause in his speech where you wondered if more was coming or that was all you were going to get. He was comfortable with silence. He worked, and lived, slowly, deliberately, carefully. He kept his desk tidy and his books ordered, his work table uncluttered, his tools sharp and oiled. He liked to laugh and he had a way of making you laugh.
He made ladders, shamans, angels, painted boxes with figures or crosses or stones inside, wood figures, stone figures, soul vessels, collages, abstract wood pieces. He usually worked in wood, but sometimes in stone.
My wife and I own a number of Allans: a small ladder; a wood figure cut at the knees with a single wing, whom our son christened “Birdman;” a small sculpture in Brazilian soapstone called “The Dreamer;” a collage of “The Burning Bush;” two black-walnut pregnant Madonnas on a single stand; an abstract painting entitled “Zen Garden;” a limestone sculpture with clenched fists and face looking upward which my wife named “Job;” and an alabaster angel, a small hand-sized figure with one shoulder higher than the other whom I call Seamus after the Irish poet Heaney. My son owns a beautiful white-marble ouroboros, which can be seen as a mother-and-child as well as a serpent eating its tail.
Not surprisingly, Wayne’s deeply spiritual art showed itself best in the church he attended with his wife Sheila – St. James Anglican Church in Dundas. Wayne was balanced and whole. At St. James, he worked in the garden, put the Sunday morning hymns up on the bulletin board, conducted a poetry class and helped select candidates for the Anglican priesthood. He had many friends of widely divergent views on politics and religion.
When he heard from his doctor that he had fourth-stage pancreatic cancer, he decided to begin a Gratitude Journal. Each day he noted something of grace or beauty.
I’m going to miss Wayne’s just and measured voice, ruminating on the world as he’d stain wood or polish stone in his backyard Dundas studio. Pause. Self-examine. Listen. And only then, speak some more. The mood was often contemplative, with funny bits. The conversation was exploratory, sometimes teacherly. Read this book, see this movie, see these paintings. His voice was gentle, patient, a little shy.
I met Wayne Allan in 1976. I walked into his office space in A126 and he said, “I’m looking for a card so high and wild I’ll never have to deal another.” I didn’t know at the time that he was paraphrasing Leonard Cohen, but I thought to myself, “This is an interesting place to work. People talk like poets.” I didn’t know then that his words would be the beginning of a 40-year-old friendship.