These 2017 biographical art books commemorate occasions: what George Elliott Clarke observes to be “117 years since [John ‘Daddy’ Hall’s] death at age 117” and eighty years since the birth of Gerald Squires. Tony Miller’s Daddy Hall and Stan Dragland’s Gerald Squires are both beautiful, and often stunning, but very different materially: Miller’s book is a heavy, almost corrugated, black and white paperback, and Dragland’s is a large-format, full-colour hardback. Both are graced with appreciations from notable authors: novelist Michael Crummey writes a touching “triptych” about his friendship with the painter Squires; former parliamentary poet laureate Clarke writes the introduction to the legendary Hall; and art critic and professor George A. Walker introduces Miller and the development of his linocuts. These are books about culturally and historically significant people who speak from their communities to the world.
Daddy Hall is a worlds-spanning history dressed as a short biography; Hall is not born until page 103, appearing to float at the bosoms of his proud, tired parents—
an escaped slave of African descent and a Mohawk man—and the preceding pages are devoted to the African history of the slave trade and the revolutionary battles involving Britain, the US, Canada, and the Indigenous peoples whose lands underlie
the borders. The first half of the book is a visual lament drawn in part from an armoury of restraining and disfiguring devices: chains, bars, brands, whips, hooks, muzzles. One series of three linocuts shows a man framed by bars in the hold of the ship that transferred him from Africa to North America; then there is a grieving face obscured by hands, with a dashed line below implying chains or rope; and then a circle, likely a porthole, showing a vision of freedom: the ocean and birds above. All of Miller’s images are similarly stark, intense, and suggestive. The consequences of colonization and slavery include a tree in a forest cut straight through the trunk, but this is also when a woman escapes. Hall’s birth is soon followed by his career as a scout, his capture into slavery, and his escape on the Underground Railroad to what is now Ontario. There, as an older man, he became town crier, which Miller memorably depicts with radiant lines analogous to those that surrounded Hall when he was a Christ-like babe in his mother’s arms.
The religious theme is also apparent, even explicit, in Gerald Squires. Dragland admits it: “I think [Saint] Thomas is Squires: drawn to Christ the man and teacher.” Disclaiming biography but apparently not hagiography, Dragland produces a ruminant essay and sensitively researched biographical envelope for the many excellent reproductions of Squires’ paintings and drawings (and some sculptures). It helps that Pedlar Press has spared no expense with the glowing, satiny images of his mossy, heathered, rocky scenes.
As with Miller’s depiction of Hall as a visual reflection of his own “African roots,” Dragland’s book reaches out to his friend Gerry Squires with many of their similarities in hand, including their fascination with roots and uprootedness, wandering, and poetry. A brilliant but underestimated landscape painter, Squires also recited poetry and wrote creatively, as Dragland discovers. One section of the book is thematized after the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s conceptualization of duende. Closer to home, Squires worked through at least one of his paintings while reciting Gregory J. Power’s “Bogwood,” a necessary poem in the Newfoundland canon. Somewhat like Power but at quite a remove from power, Squires articulates a nationalist position and a lament for the treatment of Newfoundland by Canada at large: The Last Supper depicts a who’s who of Newfoundland, with Jesus in the centre symbolizing a nation betrayed and condemned, as in The Crucifixion. Squires had open-hearted empathy for his fellow people, shown in the polychrome ceramic plaque that depicts his own face in his Hands of Compassion—a startling parallel to Miller’s face of the slave. Although the parallel between African slaves and Newfoundlanders must not be stressed, a similarity of felt experience should not be strongly denied. For these artists, perhaps especially for Miller with his curiosity about the African-Indigenous exchange of cultures, art is an opening. In Squires’ Wetland, the bent trunk of a snow-crushed but surviving tree lifts above the maw of a green mastodon, opening a portal to a world of light—“holes as eyes,” holes as mouths to speak from.