How one master’s art influenced another man’s life
By Ron Laing
I was 5 years old when I started visiting my grandparents on their farm in Aroostook County, Maine. Dad had died the year before from war injuries. Suddenly Mother’s parents became a big part of my life. Almost weekly I visited them in what I thought was the biggest farmhouse in the state.
If I stayed for more than a day, Grandma insisted I take an afternoon nap. It didn’t matter to her that I was not tired. “Children need naps,” she’d say. Occasionally she’d let me rest on her and Grandfather’s big bed. I loved the smell of their room—it was like springtime with an aroma of flowers and freshness everywhere. In my childish mind I rationalized that this came from the roses on the wallpaper, but probably it was the perfumes and powders on Grandmother’s dresser.
“Just lie down for a bit, even if you’re not sleepy,” she’d say.
“But Grandma, there are so many things to look at in here, why would I want to go to sleep?” But she had closed the door.
Putting Myself in the Picture
The thing I liked most in the room was a big picture with a brass plate that said in fancy writing, “The Guiding Light,” the same title as one of Grandmother’s favorite radio programs she listened to when I napped. In the picture was a girl about 4 and a boy just a little older walking down a narrow wooded path with steep drop-offs on either side. An angel with wings of grandeur and arms outstretched was walking close behind, a beam of light illuminating their way.
He’s just guiding them along, I thought, imagining that Lorraine, my little sister, and I were the ones on the path. We stopped now and then to watch a butterfly or to smell the blue forget-me-nots beside the path—and then hurried on, careful not to fall down the embankments.
“Come, sleepyhead, we have things we must do before supper.” I heard Grandmother’s voice. Naptime was over, and I hadn’t even been asleep! I tried hard to act like I just awoke. I walked in a wobbly way, wiping sleep from my eyes, but I was never sure Grandma believed my little act.
Years passed and my wife, Carolyn, and I had two little girls of our own. One day we discovered that a gifted artist, Harry Anderson, had painted a picture with a theme much the same as the one that hung in Grandmother’s bedroom. I hung a copy in the bedroom our daughters shared, hoping they’d receive the same nostalgic satisfaction from this picture as I did from Grandmother’s.
Years later Carolyn and I had an opportunity to meet Harry Anderson. New England Memorial Hospital, a medical center north of Boston, was given a monetary donation with the proviso that it “must be used to reflect God’s love to mankind for all people to see.” Anderson had been commissioned to create a painting to embody this theme. Hospital administration, impressed with my cabinetmaking skills, requested I work with him in designing a suitable frame.
On a warm spring day we visited the Andersons in their cozy Connecticut home. Harry was a tall gentleman in the finest and most specific definition of the word: gentle, well spoken, perhaps a bit shy and reserved. The kindness in his eyes made me feel I was seeing right into his soul.
Later we followed him through a flowering apple orchard to his studio. Standing before us in the sunlight was an aged building—all weatherworn, with large windows on three sides. Its faded redwood stain made it blend picturesquely with the landscape. What a wonderful place to work. Inside, the smell of oil paint and turpentine was heavy, and there were dabs of every color of paint one might imagine. The large 8-by-1l-foot painting hung on the wall. Without speaking we gazed at a masterpiece.
Pictured is a hospital sickroom—as real as if we’d walked into the canvas. A young girl lies quietly on white institutional sheets, beside her a concerned doctor. On the other side of the bed, a nurse looks on. The figure beside the doctor is Jesus, His hand resting lightly on the sick girl’s forehead. The solemnity of the scene struck us, yet we felt an unspeakable calmness. We expressed our personal appreciation for this picture. More than ever we felt we were with a man of greatness.
This seemed the right time to tell him of his picture that hung so long in our daughters’ bedroom and the joy it brought our family. He was delighted. “Call me Harry,” he said, “Mr. Anderson is far too formal. Come, let me show you some of my other work. You see, painting is my profession, but carving is my hobby.”
At the house we looked in amazement at sea birds seeming real enough to fly away if startled. Near sunset we got to the reason for our visit. We exchanged ideas for the frame’s design and soon had decided on its esthetics and details. He explained how to properly mount the canvas and even gave me a tool to make my task easier.
“Keep the old tool as a remembrance of our day together,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Together we rolled $40,000 worth of artwork onto a piece of 5-inch plastic drainpipe and said goodbye. I could hardly wait to start construction and see Anderson’s exquisite painting in our hospital lobby.
A Blessing Preserved
Visitors viewing the piece were in awe of the profound and powerfully conveyed image. For 20 years the piece remained where I hung it; then in 1999, after 100 years of health care service to the community, the 350-bed hospital closed.
For several years I did not know what happened to the Anderson painting, only that it was sold at auction. However, a few years ago I was delighted to learn that a friend, once an administrative intern at New England Memorial Hospital, bought the painting for a hospital where he was president. I visited the hospital in a brand new city called Celebration in central Florida and once again had the privilege to gaze at Anderson’s masterpiece, still in my frame.
I talked with Harry on the phone several times after our visit. I even persuaded him to go to see the painting in its new home. He was delighted at the display and lighting; I was pleased when he smiled widely and approved of the framework.
The tool he gave me so long ago still hangs in my office as a daily reminder of all that’s good in the world. Harry Anderson passed away in November 1996 at the age of 90. Like so many people around the world, our family’s lives were impacted by his images, and we feel we lost a friend.
Ron Laing is a naturalist and photographer of renown who blends his art with his writing—his favorite subject remains his native New England where he resides. He was employed at New England Memorial Hospital (later Boston Regional Medical Center) in Stoneham, Massa- chusetts, for 35 years.