This retired surgeon turns classic paintings and N.L. landscapes into rugs like it’s no big deal

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If it wasn’t for Twitter, nobody but a lucky clutch of close family and friends would ever know about Alan Kwan’s astonishingly intricate hooked-rug renderings of classic French paintings and Newfoundland scenes.

« I just thought, ‘This is amazing, people need to see this, » said Nikki Gagnon, Kwan’s daughter-in-law.

So she posted a pic of a rug he made from a picture of the north shore of St. John’s, taken from Signal Hill, to Twitter.

Alan Kwan holds up his masterpiece. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

« She didn’t tell me, » Kwan said, laughing, adding that he was fine with it.

« But I just do it for a hobby. »

Kwan is remarkably nonchalant about his « hobby, » saying the work ethic, perfectionism, steady hand and excruciating attention to detail each of his works demand all come naturally — he was a surgeon for 35 years, arriving in St. John’s in 1975 after training in New York City and Montreal.

« I guess it fits my personality, » he said.

A hooked-rug rendering of George Seurat’s 1884 classic painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte looks almost like an early Regatta day on the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

But his inspiration for taking up rug hooking in the first place also has a connection to the medical profession.

A few years before he retired, he visited St. Anthony and saw some of the hooked rugs made during the mission established by Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell. He even bought a few of the rugs he found in antique shops in the area.

« I thought that I could do it, I could try it. » 

Kwan says rug hooking suits his personality. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

So when he retired in 2010, his wife enrolled him in a few courses at the Anna Templeton Centre in St. John’s.

« It was a retirement project, really, » he said.

Rug hooking is the ideal retirement project, he said, because it doesn’t cost much money — he uses burlap and yarn made of wool — but it keeps him creative and gives him something to do.

Making intricate hooked rugs like this copy of Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field Near Argenteuil is just a hobby for retired surgeon Alan Kwan. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

He figures he spent about four or five months on the St. John’s hillscape, noting he didn’t work on it every day.

Though rug hooking aligns well with his disposition, he said, he still learns a lot from it.

« When I started … I wasn’t sure I could finish it, I wasn’t sure I could do it. But you keep on plugging at it, and making mistakes and changing it and correcting it and all that stuff that goes on and you’ve finished it, » Kwan said.

« It takes time, that’s all. »

Pitcher plants, rendered in yarn. (Submitted by Alan Kwan)

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Artists fear paintings lost after long-running Vancouver gallery closed

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Artists across Canada are left hunting for their work after Vancouver’s Harrison Galleries quietly shut its doors in April. 

The gallery represented more than 40 artists including Bill Schwarz of Cambridge, Ontario and Drew Kielback of Langley, B.C. 

Schwarz started consigning his work through Harrison Galleries and its owner, Chris Harrison, in 2013. 

Harrison Galleries was a popular venue for artists and locals in Vancouver. (Marc Smith/Marc My Travels)

« He said all the right things. He said, ‘I’d like to see some of (the) paintings originally…because I want to see brush strokes.’ To an artist, that means the guy knows what he’s talking about, » Schwarz said in an interview at his studio. 

In March this year, after he asked for an inventory of 44 paintings he had consigned to the gallery, Schwarz says Harrison told him he was closing the gallery, because the landlord had quadrupled the rent but that he would try to open in another location.  

That didn’t happen. 

Chris Harrison took over Harrison Galleries from his father who opened it in 1958. (Marc Smith/Marc My Travels)

Lost paintings

After what Schwarz says was a lot of prompting, Harrison eventually sent back 33 paintings, but 11 are missing.

When he couldn’t get a clear answer as to where they might be, Schwarz decided to contact other artists.

« He has about 44 artists. so, at random, I picked 10 of them, sent emails to them and said this is my story. Within three hours, I had a deluge from the 10 of the eight saying exactly the same story, » he said.

Drew Keilback was one of them. 

He had met Alex Harrison, Chris’s father — who founded the gallery in 1958  —  years before and was thrilled to be able to consign his paintings there in 2010.

‘It was a big name in Vancouver,’ says B.C. artist Drew Keilback who sold his work through Harrison Galleries for eight years. (Daniel Beauparlant/CBC)

« It was the gallery I wanted to get into and finally when I had enough paintings we went in, and Chris looked them over and accepted them and I thought, ‘oh that’s great’ … it was a big name in Vancouver, » he told CBC. 

When the gallery closed, Harrison eventually returned several paintings, but Keilback says some were damaged, and he’s still missing six paintings.

« He said they were in storage and that he would get to it, but when I phoned him back I never got another answer, » he said.

The coffee shop at Harrison Galleries. (Marc Smith/Marc My Travels)

CBC News has been unable to contact Chris Harrison  by phone or email despite several attempts. Those who know the industry say the lack of written agreements between galleries and artists is a problem.

Business of art

« Unfortunately, artists are not necessarily always thinking about things like paperwork and contracts. The scene being what it is, oftentimes, it’s more by verbal agreement, » said Annie Briard, an instructor at Emily Carr University. 

Bill Schwarz has filed reports with Waterloo Regional Police and Vancouver police in an effort to find his paintings. 

« Title never really transfers to the gallery. The gallery is really kind of an agent acting for you to sell the paintings and then retains a commission, so the paintings are always yours, » he said.

Keilback says the loss of his work is hard to take.  

« You’re pouring your heart and soul into it more or less and you’re trusting them to represent you, » he said.

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