Fredericton, NB, December 16, 2014 – Sculptor and former Marine Don Bonham was a colourful individualist with a fantastical artistic vision. He was an inspiring mentor to numerous art students, a godfather to more than eighty apprentices, and a surprising and formidable anomaly in the art world. He died on Monday, December 15 at age 74.
The first American visual artist to be appointed to the Royal Canadian Academy, Bonham came to prominence in the late 1960s in London, Ontario, where he quickly gained international notoriety for his highly original, finely crafted, figurative fiberglass sculpture based on evocative human/technology hybrids – motorcycles, cars, boats, airplanes, and helicopters fused with casts of the female body. Characterized by uncompromising attention to technical detail and finish, his work merged fantasy and reality, satiric humour and eroticism, high-tech and low-tech and high art and low art, in a life-long exploration of the physical, symbolic, and psychological relationships between ourselves and machines. With feature articles about his sculpture appearing in Playboy magazine in the 1970s, his approach to making art was viewed by the international art critic Edward Lucie-Smith as more firmly integrated with North American popular culture than the work of celebrated Pop Art practitioners Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.
Called “the original cyber-punk artist” and “the Evel Knievel of the art world”, Bonham was the bad boy of the Canadian art establishment, and personified the machines he created by living life and making art at full throttle. He stated: “What made me a good artist was that I didn’t have a lot of things growing up, so I had to make them. There’s nothing better than working hard to create something you’re proud of and excited by. It’s almost better than sex.”
Over the course of his remarkable career, Bonham operated studios in London, Montreal, Toronto, Florida, New York City, and the Hudson Valley, near Storm King, his place of residence when he died. His work was exhibited in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Montreal, Toronto, Florida, and Europe, including the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. In 1997, he was awarded the Alex J. Ettl Grant from the National Sculpture Society for lifetime achievement as a sculptor. More recently, in 2012, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, organized a monumental retrospective exhibition called Don Bonham, RCA: Stranger in a Familiar Land), which chronicled his extraordinary vision through the presentation of his many flying and ground machines, numerous sculpted portraits, and the various sculptures of fallen angels, winged serpents, mythical beings, and human-koi fish, along with many drawings, collages, prints, photographs, films, and assorted ephemera.
Bonham was born on November 9, 1940 at the height of the American oil boom in an oil field in the town of Moore, which is located in Tornado Alley and is today considered part of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area. Since his mother was only sixteen years of age and unwed at the time, he was raised by her aunt and uncle, Anna Lee and Melvin Bonham. As a youth, he was fascinated by the forest of steel derricks and the variety of shapes and patterns of the heavy machinery at the tool yards and drill sites in the large petroleum fields around the Oklahoma State Capitol. He never took art in school, but claimed his interest in sculpture and the aesthetics of technology derived from the industrial machinery he saw in the oil fields (he loved the smell of crude oil), as well as from reading Hot Rod magazine and fixing up used cars in the 1950s, such as a Model A Ford, a 47’ Ford Coupe, a 49’ Studebaker convertible, and many others.
From the beginning, Bonham was an outsider, and he often found himself in trouble. He got his start as an artist drawing naked women on bathroom walls and county jail ceilings. In fact, he made drawings for other prison inmates in exchange for cigarettes, which enabled him to get a mattress and several other necessary items. After a tumultuous adolescence, the local police, the court judge, and his own family determined that his behaviour required serious modification and strongly suggested that he join the military. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he considered his first real family, describing it as “the legion of the lost in America, home of the undesirables, and a place where I fitted in quite well.” Bonham excelled as a Marine, and ended up serving in an elite Recon unit in Southeast Asia. Later, he was honorably discharged to enter the University of Oklahoma as an Art History Major, but ran out of money and left before graduating to work in Detroit on an assembly line building Ford Thunderbirds.
In 1968, on a visit to Canada, he befriended Canadian sculptors Ed Zelenak and Walter Redinger, and decided to move to London, Ontario, where he discovered a dynamic arts community that reinforced his decision to pursue a career as a visual artist. Against the backdrop of a pronounced anxiety by Canadians about the need to shelter Canada’s distinctive national culture from the tidal wave of American ideas and values, and in the face of the regionalist/protectionist ethos espoused by London artists Greg Curnoe and company at the time, he launched a fictitious invasion of Canada with blue prints and war machines (coffins with wheels), such as MIDPU (Military Individual Disposable Personnel Unit). He recounted how some people thought he was dangerous and misunderstood his anti-war message: “This was a time of intense anti-Americanism, and here I was, an ex-Marine, infantry type no less, an Okie, invading Canada. Of course they thought Lyndon B. Johnson was my fault, the Black issues were my fault, and I was the one who caused the Vietnam War. I guess I alienated a lot of Canadians, but I also made a tremendous number of Canadian friends. The truth is I was really pro-Canadian and always have been.”
Bonham went on to cause further public disruption with elaborate legendary parody-events with his corporate artistic alter-ego The Hermen Goode Aesthetics Racing Team (A.R.T.). He attempted to break the World Speed Record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah with his “Bonneville Machine” (which had no motor), and competed with his sputtering “Little Miss 50” (which was powered by a 7 1/2 HP Mercury outboard engine) at the Spirit of Detroit hydroplane race on the Detroit River to bring the prized boat racing trophy back to southwestern Ontario. In all of his comical neo-Dada performances and films, he blurred the line between art and life, and his anti-hero always seemed to come up short or was disqualified. Referring to himself as a “North American Landscape Artist” (meaning the cyborgian landscape of Blade Runner, not of the Group of Seven), he made work that spoke poignantly about the foibles of macho male culture and reflected the wonder, pervasiveness, and often frightening aspects of contemporary technology. He stated: “The gap between human and machine is constantly shrinking. Are we to become more like machines, or machines more like us?”
In London, Bonham taught art at H. B. Beal Technical and Commercial High School, the University of Western Ontario, and Fanshawe College of Applied Arts and Technology. He also later taught at Florida State University and at the University of Guelph. Although he didn’t always get along with the administration (he was fired from the University of Western), he made a big impact on his students, becoming their mentor by removing the walls between the classroom and real life, and often involving them in the creative process of many of his own projects. About his teaching, he confessed, “I pushed to get my students excited, to give them a visual experience, and to get them to produce. I was always honest and straightforward with them, and I was a bit of a hard ass.” At Fanshawe College, he sometimes brought his Doberman, Adolph Coors, with him to his drawing classes.
Bonham’s art is represented in numerous public, corporate, and private collections in Canada, the United States, and Europe. With the support of the Simon Dresdnere Gallery in Toronto, he enjoyed much commercial success with his portrait sculptures, and produced many commissioned works, including one for filmmaker David Cronenberg. At the time of the artist’s death, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery was in the process of working with him on a major publication of his life’s work, which will be published in the near future.
About his colourful and challenging life, Bonham said, “I’ve been very fortunate. I was able to grow up and not get killed in a drunken car wreck, and to join the Marines and not get shot or crippled. I had some rough times. I was usually always dead broke. I got kicked out of a lot of things. But I always won. I got to do every one of my fantasies and can’t express enough how lucky I’ve been, because I was just a dumb-shit Okie kid, and everyone was betting against me. Even my mother thought I wouldn’t amount to much, saying to me, “Sonny, you’re always trying to be something you’re not.” She was damn right about that. I don’t know what drove me, but I really wanted something in life. The last thing I wanted to be was a dumbass gas station attendant. Today, I have a wife I love very much. We own our own home and I have a beautiful studio, and they’re both paid for. I miss my grandkids. I miss my kids. But they’re getting pretty good about coming to see me. I’m one of the luckiest bastards I know.”
Terry Graff, Director/CEO and Chief Curator of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery states: “Bonham was one of a kind, a shooting star like one of his artworks. He played and worked hard, and through it all always kept a smile and saw the humour in life. On a personal level, I will forever be grateful that Bonham was one of my first teachers when I was an art student at Fanshawe College, and I am fortunate to have had the privilege to work with him on his recent retrospective exhibition, a most unforgettable event! On behalf of the entire staff and board of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, I send deepest sympathies to Bonham’s wife, Lisa Jensen Bonham, his two sons, Nathan and Noah, his grandchildren, and all of Bonham’s many fellow artists, apprentices, colleagues, and friends whose lives he touched during his wild ride through life. We’ll all miss him very much!”
The funeral is scheduled for Saturday, December 20th at the David. T. Ferguson Funeral Home, 20 North Street, Washingtonville, NY 10992. Visitation is between 10 and 11:30am, followed by a memorial service and burial. To leave a message of condolence, please visit www.davidtfergusonfh.com.
For further information, please contact:
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The Beaverbrook Art Gallery enriches life through art.
La Galerie d’art Beaverbrook enrichit la vie par l’art.