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This oil painting has hung on the wall in the hallway of our home – in fact, on the walls of the hallways of every home my husband and I have shared – for 24 years. It was a gift from a former co-worker who painted it for us. His name was Joern.
Joern was a lovely man, quiet and soft-spoken, small and stooped of stature, with thin grey hair. He worked as a court artist for the same Toronto television newsroom I worked for in my 20s. Court artists are needed in Canada, because cameras aren’t allowed in courtrooms. So newspapers and television newscasts rely on these gifted folks to sketch the faces and profiles of the accused and their counsel, victims and Crown lawyers, to help tell the stories of the legal battles that rage on – far from the eyes and ears of the general public.
I remember the day, shortly after returning from my honeymoon, when Joern approached me. He said he wanted to paint my wedding portrait. “I like to paint,” he explained almost apologetically. “It’s good practice for me. Just bring in a photograph and I’ll make a painting for you.”
It was a generous offer – one that took me completely by surprise. But I told Doug – my new husband – excitedly of Jorn’s kindness and he helped me select a few photos that we thought might be appropriate for Joern’s work.
This is the photo I first offered to Joern. Our wedding album isn’t huge. Wedding photos were costly in those days – (are they still?) – and for budgetary reasons our selection was limited to the 20 or so photos that made it into our final album. But this photo has always been one of my favourites. There’s something about the moment it captures – on September 21, 1985 – which even today, can set my heart to soaring with a mere glance at it.
We’re laughing – obviously – over some long since forgotten joke – but there’s a warmth, a tenderness and an intimacy captured by the photographer that I’ve always loved.
But Joern didn’t love it. “No. This is not good,” he said when I offered the photo to him. “Twenty-five years from now, you will look at this painting and it will make you sad,” he said. “You will say to each other – you don’t ever look at me like that any more. We need a photograph of the two of you looking straight out at the camera.”
So I offered him this shot. It’s obviously a formal, posed photograph, and I loved the way the photographer had arranged my dress – and the fact that the flowers in the background were at their peak that September afternoon.
But “no,” said Joern. That photo wouldn’t do either. The shot was simply too wide. He preferred something closer – a shot that would be formal, and yet one that would capture our expressions. He needed practice, he explained, on painting faces. Our wedding portrait would help him to practice.
So of course, we gave him what he asked for. He was the expert – after all – and it was an incredible gift he was offering to us.
The portrait took Joern a year to paint. Throughout that year, he seemed to delight in giving me little updates as to its progress – and once, as if to tantalize me, brought in a photo of the painting – sitting half-finished – on his easel.
He presented his masterpiece to us as a gift – for our first anniversary. I remember having him and his wife to dinner at our little townhouse – when he brought the finished painting along.
A fascinating fellow – Joern had served as Rommel’s photographer in the Afrikakorps during the Second World War. My husband is a military buff and so enjoyed Joern’s company and stories enormously. We had a lovely evening.
I lost touch with Joern when I left the newsroom to take a job with another media company. But often, as I’ve passed by our portrait, I’ve thought of him and wondered what became of him.
If I could convey a message to my old friend? It would be this: “Thank you for your labor of love and friendship, Joern. It’s held a place of honour in our home from the day you gifted it to us, and we cherish it still.
“But you were wrong about one thing: it’s been 25 years, and we still look at one another with smiles on our faces and love in our eyes. And we can still set one another to laughing.”
One recent morning, while sharing a few quiet moments over coffee in the kitchen
My hubby: “You see – being married to a billion dollars is no guarantee of happiness.”
Me: ”Neither is being married to a Swedish bikini model.”