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A book of condolences laid open for Bruno Bobak at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. Words filled the pages paying homage to one of Canada’s great artists. They spoke of gratitude for the time he lent to the art community, as well as to his friends.
Bobak, who received an honorary degree from St. Thomas University in 1984, passed away at the Saint John Regional Hospital last Monday night at the age of 88 from throat cancer.
“Sometimes he was quite shy,” said Germaine Pataki-Thériault, manager of Gallery 78. “Sometimes people take shyness as being standoffish but when you got to know him then it was very, very easy.”
Pataki-Thériault’s mother, Inge Pataki, started the Fredericton gallery. Bobak not only had many of his works shown at Gallery 78, but was good friends with the Pataki family.
“Molly [Lamb] and mom used to make bread together and go fiddle head picking and Bruno would go fishing with my dad. He was a guy who did lots of things with so many different people.”
Pataki-Thériault met Bobak as a young girl when her family moved to Fredericton from Germany. She has spent many meals with Bobak and his dry sense of humour. Pataki-Thériault said it was the best way to break the ice, his good sense of humour.
“It’s funny to say that he felt like a grandfather figure because obviously we’re not related or anything, but we would spend lunches and dinners together at times and my dad and Bruno were really good friends,” said Pataki-Thériault.
Bobak was born in Poland and moved to Canada at the age of three. At 13, he began taking art classes in Toronto and working under Arthur Lismer, a member of the Group of Seven, the influential collection of Canadian landscape painters.
In 1942, he enlisted in the army and served as the youngest official war artist during the Second World War. He met Molly Lamb, a fellow war artist, and they married three years later. They settled in Vancouver before moving to Fredericton in 1960.
Pataki-Thériault said his time spent as a war artist helped him grow in his art, as well as a person. Many European influences translated into his later works, especially his figurative paintings, she said. He had his hand in many different mediums such as paint, watercolor, sculpture and printmaking.
As well as receiving an honorary doctor of letters from St. Thomas in 1984, Bobak was also recognized by the University of New Brunswick two years later with an honorary doctor of literature.
Two years after his move to Fredericton, he accepted the position as the director of the arts centre at the University of New Brunswick.
“He created this community and the community wasn’t just for visual artists it was a community for literature, for music. It was just this golden era for art in the 60s and 70s that happened up at the art centre when Bruno was there,” said Pataki-Thériault.
During Bobak’s 26-year stay at the centre, he worked with Betty Craig. Craig worked as Bobak’s secretary for 12 years and got to know Bobak and Lamb outside of the centre.
“He’s an easy man to know. A wonderful boss, easy going and kind. If I’d make coffee one day and take it over to his desk, he’d say ‘you made coffee yesterday so today I’ll bring the coffee to you,’” said Craig.
Bobak never went anywhere empty handed, said Craig. “He’d always bring something. If beets and carrots were in season, he’d take some from his garden.”
Bobak gave the Pataki family, from their perspective, the gift of naming their gallery.
“My mother Inge, who started the gallery, was trying to figure out what to call it and Bruno said ‘just make it simple, just call it 78 because that’s where it used to be, at 78 Brunswick [Street]. He’s been with us for 36 years,” said Pataki-Thériault.
Like many others in the Fredericton art community, Pataki-Theriault still finds it difficult to speak of Bobak in the past tense.
“The things he would do, the clever things. He wanted to have a one of those beautiful ceilings that are gold, like metallic. There’s a type of cigarettes that had a gold lining so he saved all those and he plastered the ceiling with them. He was a very patient man,” said Pataki-Thériault.