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Home Arts Frank Shirley Panabaker (1904-1993)- An Original

Frank Shirley Panabaker (1904-1993)- An Original

ARTWORKS by Tom Beckett

“Is your dad there?”, the booming voice would ask.  Before I could finish saying no… the line at our house was dead. Frank Panabaker was already dialling the gallery to find him.   He was a fascinating man, a family friend of my grandfather and father.

In fact, the first painting in my memory as a young child was a snowy Ancaster forest landscape that hung in our living room. A Frank Panabaker of course!

To be transparent, I sat down to write this column to discuss the appreciation and of various forms of original art, but I immediately reflected on my early experiences, so I thought I’d indulge in a little of both: focusing on the importance of original paintings and Frank Panabaker, renowned Ancaster-based artist.

Over a lifetime, my appreciation and knowledge about Frank and his work, or as a child I would call him, Mr. Panabaker, has grown exponentially. Born and raised in Hespler (now part of Cambridge), he studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto under two members of the Group of Seven (A. Lismer & J.E.H. MacDonald) and in Grand Central School of Art in New York City under Arshile Gorky (1904-1948).  Gorsky was one of the principal figures in what was then the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement. 

Panabaker’s international career spanned seven decades, took him around the world and across Canada, painting wherever he went.  Much of his work, however, focused on his native Ontario and the local Hamilton area.

Portrait of Frank S. Panabaker painting in his home, Circa 1957, Photo Credit – Thomas L. Beckett

Original paintings – from the eyes, mind and hand of the artist are special and coveted, they truly reflect the artist, their experiences, struggles and passion. The brush strokes dance magically on the canvas – some bold, some delicate to transport us to the artist’s world: the scene, image, abstract vision they have experienced.  The texture, colours and medium are all carefully selected to bring the art to life, the way that individual artist intended.

To love a piece of original art is to appreciate the artist, the artistry and the emotion and energy their art invokes.

An artist can spend hours, days, weeks or much longer to transform the image they want to convey to perfection on canvas.  Like I’m an art dealer, for many artists, it’s their career.  Their livelihood.

Frank Panabaker’s chosen career was “Artist”. While constantly painting, he organized his own shows, taught classes, cultivated patrons and eked out a living through good days and the Depression. 

Every day, no matter the weather, he got dressed, gathered his art supplies, wished his wife Katherine a good day, and went off to paint. If it was a rainy day, he’d paint from his car or shelter.  Often, he would take his piece home, to his attic studio, in what is now known as Brewer’s Blackbird (formerly the Rousseau House) on Wilson Street in Ancaster to complete each painting.  He created two or three paintings every week, often making his own frames to enhance the piece. Money was tight!

Although most think of Panabaker’s iconic local landscapes, his subject matter extended to wherever he was and those he met… and he did experience some extraordinary painting adventures! He travelled by train on a few occasions to the Rockies (1927 and 1929) and or by car to the East Coast and Northern Ontario.  He also made painting journeys to the Bahamas, Bermuda, Ireland, Scotland and England.

On one occasion, he and his wife Katherine travelled to Alberta with the intention to paint elusive areas then only accessible on horseback.  They bought two horses and hired an “Indian guide” to bring them up into the mountains. The next day, to their surprise, the guide was gone. They stayed on with Panabaker painting and the pair living off the supplies that had made their way up the mountain. 

The Panabaker paintings from his trip to the Rockies are incredible – notably scenes of Moraine Lake and Mount Assiniboine. Stunning depth of colour, magical skies and rare majestic images.

He took his young family with him on numerous painting trips. On many extended trips, he would stop at farms and introduce himself as an artist visiting the area to paint and ask for accommodations for his family. People were intrigued and happy to provide a temporary home for the Panabaker family.

On those trips, he captured spectacular coastal scenes in Nova Scotia as well as in Temagami and Georgian Bay in Northern Ontario.  It is felt by many that the series of paintings around Georgian Bay capture the essence of his personal artistic vision.

(left) Frank S. Panabaker – On the Beach, Chaleur Bay, Nova Scotia, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 20 in., Signed and Dated, Circa 1930, Framed

(Right) Frank S. Panabaker – Georgian Bay, Oil on Masonite, 15 x 20 in., Signed, Circa 1970, Framed

Frank Panabaker (right) & Dr. Richard Farmer having a visit at the Beckett family back deck, Ancaster circa 1985.

From the late 1930’s into the 1990’s his work largely focused on visually chronicling the Hamilton area landmarks and the local environment.

Panabaker’s works are beautiful and stand the test of time.  Most are quite painterly, capturing the weather and windswept rugged landscapes, horses logging and raw images of fields and lakes. Unlike many artists, he was also as accomplished at painting people, cityscapes and buildings.

His art could be described as post impressionism – magical captures of the world through Frank’s eyes, all signed with the unmistakable “Frank Panabaker”.   His original paintings, when they come into the market, have held their value and in fact continue to increase.

Panabaker’s paintings are included in many prestigious private, corporate and public international collections – including the Roosevelt’s and the Royal Family. 

In 1934, Panabaker organized a solo exhibit of his art at the old Birks Building in downtown Hamilton. A few days into the exhibit, Sara Delano Roosevelt, the mother of the sitting U.S. president visited and purchased one of Frank’s paintings: a seascape in Gaspe, Quebec, which he later learned hung in the White House for many years. 

In 1939, on the occasion of a visit of King George VI and the Queen Mother to Hamilton, he gifted them with a painting of Hamilton’s Basilica.

Panabaker’s work is included in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Vancouver Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, among many prominent Canadian public locations.

Early in his career he struck a deal to create a set of Christmas cards – the first time any of his art was commercially reproduced.   In that era, Christmas cards were popular, often displayed in homes during the holiday season. The cards drove even a larger demand for his original paintings.  People wanted a Panabaker. An original. So, Frank painted as long as he was able.  In fact, he held a brush in his hand right up to his death in 1993 at the age of 87.

In later years some of his iconic paintings were mechanically reproduced in large quantities.  Although some are signed and numbered, note that they are limited edition reproductions and do not hold great value in the “fine art” world as his original paintings do. Many galleries, like mine, only handle the sale of original art on consignment from owners so it may find a new home and owner.

So, Original Art. That Panabaker snowy forest landscape in my childhood home.  The hundreds of his paintings that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing through my life. The stories they hold of how and where they were created. Living with original art enriches your life and environment for you and your family.

Frank Panabaker is only one of so many. Every artist from the beginning of time has shared with us the imagery they witnessed, landscapes, cityscapes, portraits and abstract visions.  They’ve carefully selected their subject matter and medium and laid their unique work onto canvas, board, and other surfaces.

I encourage you to take the time to take in an original painting – if it’s in a prestigious public gallery, private gallery or in your home or a friends.  Let it capture your imagination and remember – it’s one of a kind.

Beckett Gallery on James St. South, Hamilton began representing Frank Panabaker in 1966 and Beckett Fine Art continues to proudly carry his work in 2022.

Tom Beckett is the owner/director of Beckett Fine Art, est. 1966, 196 Locke Street South, Hamilton. 416-922-5582

Frank S. Panabaker – Across the Valley (Ancaster looking into Dundas Valley), Oil on Canvas on Art Board, 11 x 13.75 in., Circa 1945, Signed, Framed

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