Gerald Squires is an artist’s artist. He made art for the soul-satisfying ceremony of creating art, and his final product was astounding in terms of concept and execution. In the opening of the film, Gerry says, “Who cares whether you paint or not? Nobody. Nobody.”
For Gerry, it was all about what he got out of satisfying that creative impulse. In the film, artist Clifford George tells us Gerry would immerse himself so deeply in his process that he once collected dead gulls from a beach in Ferryland, and brought them to his studio to let them rot there, so he could feel and smell them.
I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night is Kenneth J. Harvey’s first feature-length documentary, and he paints a stunning picture of the man Gerry was through filler-free editing, nicely composed shots, and engaging interviews with Squires and those close to him. Harvey stays out of the subject’s way, recognizing that a man like Gerry can speak for himself. There is not a moment’s lull in the taut poignancy of the piece.
The film sheds light on much of Squires’ motivation as an artist, such as capturing, specifically, the texture of the Newfoundland landscape, or how the death of his son impacted a well-known period of his work.
It’s a beautifully rendered film — and homage — to one of our province’s most stunning artists, ever. Squires left a mark, a brushstroke, on those who met him, and you’ll see why upon watching the film, which is wonderfully shot through with the mysteries of art, and what compels us to create, to capture the world around us.
“I can’t live in the city and come out here to paint,” he tells us matter of factly, “I have to live in my painting” he said of living in the Ferryland lighthouse among nature, with no electricity or running water.
Squires’ wisdom is profound; his words ought to be heeded by this generation of Newfoundlanders cleaved from their connection to nature by an obsession with the empty wasteland of the digital world. He goes so far as to explain how it was a birch tree that told him he was ill.
“I do believe that human beings, if they didn’t invent things, invent their gods, and their religion, and their art, they’d all go mad because there’s nothing there … I think spirituality is a mystical connection with nature,” he says of rocks he paints, that live 80,000 years to his 80.
In the film, his wife says Gerry turned down many offers to make it big, if he would just “play the game” and paint the kinds of subjects a gallery could easily sell, but that would mean denying his own creative impulse for a sellable aesthetic, and thankfully he did walk away, as this film is bound to inspire anyone who sees it, especially artists.
Art is an important creative impulse that lets us tap into the world we’re in, and better connect to it, understand it. Squires’ best work says as much about the world as a history book, if we look and listen.
You can check out I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night this June at the Nickel Film Festival, this summer at The Rooms, or this fall on CBC.