Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same….
I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.
― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
A painter in search of paradise need only pass through the gates to the old city of Quebec and walk in any direction to enter a land of limitless enchanting subjects to paint; look in any direction and canvases appear in the minds of painters. This magical city within the ancient walls of Old Quebec holds a special place in the hearts of scores of Delaware painters who have gone there for decades.
How did so many painters from so far away happen to come to Quebec to paint? Delaware artist and teacher, Ed Loper, Sr., was an African American painter who believed he had achieved and, in turn taught to countless others, a unique way of looking at the world. It involved “hunting” for the true colors that made up an object, and building a painting by putting color next to color.
He painted many subjects in Delaware, but he especially liked to discover the world through travel to certain places to paint. His favorite destination of all, perhaps, was Quebec City. He loved the geometric angles of the streets and houses and the profusion of colors apparent in the patina of the historic buildings—all played against the background of the ever changing St. Lawrence River. And, because he believed in passing on what he knew and loved, he took devoted students along with him every summer for as long as he was able. Some students came nearly every summer, others dropped out only to be replaced by new students. For over 50 years, Delaware painters from the “Loper School” came faithfully to discover all the nooks and crannies of the beautiful city.
But alas, all good things come to an end. And, it was with sadness that the Loper students faced the fact that their teacher could no longer go to Quebec and that the trips would end. Sometime after the final trip, Ed Loper died at age 95. A number of years passed with no painting trips to Quebec, though a few artists continued to go on their own.
What made the “Loper Quebec Experience” so special and what motivated so many artists to go year after year?
Every year—during the crowded height of the Quebec Summer Festival—we students would gather in the Parc des Gouverneurs behind the Chateau Frontenac and traipse along behind our beloved teacher to discover possible paintings among the angular cityscapes, jutting roof lines, copper steeples and domes, old-world street scenes, and picturesque river vistas that comprise this visually compelling city.
Most of us stayed in the brownstone-style small hotels lining the Parc, and only had to “roll” out the door in the morning for a myriad of views to paint right there, or take a short walk up a hill to a nearby park to paint the gleaming rooftops. Often four or five people would pick the same favorite Loper view and settle in to experience the ebb and flow of this vibrant city.
As the years passed, our locations became more and more far flung—up on the Plains of Abraham for panoramic vistas of the St. Lawrence or looking out over the city; down the steps (or funiculaire from the boardwalk in front of the Chateau) to Rue du Petit Champlain, Quebec’s most visited tourist street; over to Montmorency Park to paint the foot bridge over the steep street in front of the Vendome Restaurant. Wherever we went, our teacher faithfully trekked up and down steep hills, whatever the distance was, to be sure to critique our paintings at least two times during the course of our painting day. Some students wished he wouldn’t come as his critiques could be harsh and relentless if he thought you were not practicing what you learned.
As he aged, he picked a spot and painted along with us, and critiqued our work some evenings. Finally, he reduced his activities to a singular critique of all the student work, going over as many as 25 paintings each evening.
Our paintings were lined up against the stone wall in the Parc des Gouverneurs and he would walk up and down shaking his head. “Everything is painted the same—you have no contrast of dark and light. You have painted rows and rows of identical windows in a straight line—it is boring and no building does that. All of your lines are the same size—you need a variety of thick and thin, dark and light. You have no color—why aren’t you seeing color next to color?
This is warm and that is cold, you have them the opposite of what they should be!” He once simply threw a student’s canvas on the grass and said, “You can do better than that!”
But the “Loper Quebec Experience” was far more than painting and critiquing. We were a special band of friends and painters. And painting was our special way to absorb and become enveloped in this mesmerizing city. When we painted Petit Champlain, we felt sorry for the bus tourists who would spew out, run up and down the street, buy a few souvenirs, and then speed away. They could not know the real Quebec. When we painted in the parks, lunching locals would gather in a semicircle around us and tell us our paintings were “tres beau!” French Canadians love the bright colors we use, rather than the Wyeth gravy tones so beloved by Americans (and so greatly disliked by our teacher). Many folks became accustomed to our “Loper School” style of painting and would look for Ed and “the Delaware artists” each year.
We developed our own rich Quebec traditions. Every year we picnicked just outside the city in the park surrounding the spectacular Montmorency Falls. Many of us took one afternoon off to drive the full circle around nearby Ile d’Orleans to visit its many churches and farms and bring back fresh picked strawberries. Some nights we gathered together to sample Quebec’s wonderful variety of fine restaurants. We fell into groups who liked classical music, popular, or folk and dragged ourselves, after a long day of painting, to free Summer Festival concerts all over Quebec City. We celebrated birthdays and toasted special occasions with wine and cheese and delicious French bread, sitting on blankets under the shady trees of the Parc des Governeurs, in the shadow of the Chateau Frontenac with the St. Lawrence before us. And no one missed our “everyone bring something” last night party on the flower covered roof deck of Manoir St. Genevieve, where we celebrated how the week had gone and began planning the next summer.
As the years passed after the last trip to Quebec, some artists became nostalgic for the “Loper Quebec Experience” and began to once more feel the pull of this entrancing place. One such student, Bob Richardson began to lobby for a reunion trip of former Loper students in honor of Ed Loper and the Quebec he loved so much. Bob, who had since moved to New Hampshire, had gone to Quebec with Ed perhaps 20 times over a 30 year period. While he had substituted summer painting trips to Monhegan Island, he still longed for Quebec.
“The idea of being together with other artists was the very basis of any trip to Quebec with Ed,” says Bob. “We were a unified and focused group because of Ed. He got us to go.”
Bob asked for my help in getting the word out about a Quebec reunion. We wondered: Could we recapture the spirit of the “Loper Quebec Experience?” Had the city changed too much? Had we changed too much? What would the experience be without the dynamic presence of Ed Loper?
We knew that some Loper School painters, including Ed, felt Quebec suffered when the city decided a decade or so ago to sand blast most of its historic buildings, removing the beautiful and colorful patina of hundreds of years. Some painters lost interest as the city became more pristine. Others felt the increasing crowds were claustrophobic for painters struggling in their midst. And many felt that it just would not be the same without Ed Loper.
Nonetheless, Bob and I sent the call out to over 75 artists for a Quebec reunion. We ended up with an intrepid band of eight painters who had been there three or four times to twenty, or so. Those who went included: One painting couple, searching for a place to “recover” after an unsuccessful political run; one painter who had been painting very little because of caring for an ailing wife; two brothers, both of whom have been involved in the Barnes Foundation’s unique approach to art history (also experienced by Ed Loper); one artist who wanted to rediscover the Loper School fundamentals she had either forgotten or discarded. And, of course, nothing could contain Bob’s enthusiasm for Quebec and our return.
My personal journey—I must admit I had my doubts about trying to “go home again.” But this time I took along a photographer friend who has an “eye” similar to mine. He saw a “Kodak moment” at every twist and turn of the streets, while I saw a painting. It was as if I had discovered Quebec anew through the fresh eye of someone else.
We gathered in the Parc, as usual; painted in the same places Ed picked out for us so many years ago; met every evening, with various artists leading a gentler critique; ate together in some of the same old restaurants and some new; went to Summer Festival concerts, and, had the annual last night party—this time on the back patio of Chateau de Lery. Most people even stayed in the same hotels surrounding the Parc de Governeurs. (Those hotels are still there today, but have now combined together for marketing purposes.)
One difference I observed was that the large crowds seemed to be gone, even though we were there during Summer Festival. Perhaps this was due to the economy or probably more likely that the concerts were moved outside the walls of the city and changed to performers that appeal to young people. The once free tickets gradually moved up to $75 per person for the week.
There were varying opinions as to whether Quebec had changed; some felt very little, some felt it is a dynamic ever changing work of art unto itself. But we all agreed that we had changed—growing our artwork in new and challenging directions, but never losing the influence of Ed and our many trips to Quebec.
And so, the question remains—would we go back for another Ed Loper student reunion. While everyone acknowledged that it could never be the same without him, there was a resounding yes to our return. Thanks to Ed, Quebec had once again enveloped us and pulled us into one of the most amazing places in the world—to paint or to simply love—again and again!
Kerin Hearn is a Delaware artist who has painted for decades in Quebec City and the Charlevoix region of Canada. She is also a free lance writer.
Dan Brody, a Mainline Philadelphia portrait photographer, took the photos for this story. Quebec photos © Dan Brody 2013 All rights Reserved