, Gloucester, MA

May 9, 2013

Rare works part of Balf retrospective in Rockport

By Gail McCarthy
Staff Writer

---- — ROCKPORT — A lifetime of work by an influential local artist will be celebrated when a show featuring some rarely seen work on loan opens this weekend at the Rockport Art Association.

The Oliver Balf Retrospective celebrates this artist and teacher, who died unexpectedly at the age of 83 on a family trip to Israel just days before a solo show was to open in 2010. To give a flavor of his work, that show was titled “An Appetite for Color.” This retrospective spans work done over the span of 60 years.

There is a free public opening reception Saturday, May 11, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Rockport Art Association, 12 Main St.

An award-winning artist, Balf was nominated to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and honored by the Rockport Art Association in 2009 as an Emeritus Member. He was a founding faculty member of the Montserrat College of Art, which granted him an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts.

The retrospective is the largest show of his work ever assembled, featuring more than 40 works including several of his early and rarely exhibited watercolors on loan from private collections.

This show is curated by Nancy Balf, his wife of 58 years, along with input from family and artist friends. The works are arranged chronologically, tracing his artistic journey, beginning with his student work from 1948 to 1950 and continuing through 2010 when he died.

“This show will have great diversity, which will be self evident upon viewing the works,” said Nancy Balf. “He was very diverse and would try anything.”

The paintings feature everything from the Pigeon Cove quarries to fishing vessels in Gloucester Harbor to jazz musicians — all depicted in a blast of color and powerful brush work.

Born in Rye, N.Y., in 1927 to Russian immigrant parents, he was a product of the blossoming Jazz Age, which inspired the young man on both a musical and artistic level. When he was a Rye High School coronet player, he helped arrange a Duke Ellington Orchestra visit to the school.

Toward the end of World War II, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a flight mechanic.

In 1946 Balf enrolled at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and later studied in New York with the German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. In that era, it was common for New York artists to flock to Cape Ann where art colonies thrived in the summer months. He made his first summer visit to Rockport as a college student in 1947, when he and a friend lived in a tent off South Street. In the ensuing summers, he “upgraded” to a converted chicken coop and a frame shop on Tuna Wharf where he was known to play jazz during down times to attract customers.

In 1955, Balf and his wife moved to Rockport to raise a young family of three boys. He worked as an illustrator in the art department at the Boston Globe, was the art director at TADCO in Gloucester, and freelanced as a children’s book illustrator and designer for publishers in New York, Boston, and Chicago. In between visits to Old Garden Beach and East Gloucester’s Hawthorne Inn jazz club, he knocked out three paintings a day, according to his family.

The essence of Cape Ann inspired Balf to try watercolor, a medium he would later declare his favorite.

“Watercolor is full of surprises,” he once wrote. “Colors are always different when wet, and unpredictable when dry. Accidents are part of the process and you handle the accidents differently each time they occur, so you never know what the final result will be.”

In 1970, Balf was one of several Cape Ann artists who taught at the New England School of Art in Boston who took part in a teaching experiment of their own when they opened a visual art school on the North Shore, which is now the Montserrat School of Art in Beverly. The art school’s approach was a less conventional method in which the teacher’s role was to treat the students more as fellow artists and coach them as they worked together in their own artistic experiments.

In the 1990s, he helped create and illustrate prospective board game ideas with the toy company Parker Brothers. But according to family and fellow artists, Balf cherished the opportunity to nurture the next generation of artists through his work as a teacher.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3445, or

If you go What: Oliver Balf Retrospective When: Show opens with a reception Saturday, May 11, from 5 to 7 p.m. It closes June 9. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Where: Rockport Art Association, 12 Main St. in Rockport. How much: Free to the public.