Back in the Day: Ken Walsh and The Bonart Gallery

To pair with our Throwback Issue that’s coming out Memorial Day weekend, Christopher Walsh sent over a retrospective film gallery (above) of his father setting up shop and hanging around Gosman’s + Hither Hills back in the day. He also penned a piece (below) to accompany the gallery—a personal, reflective dispatch in preparation for Father’s Day next month.

If you’re like us and haven’t talked to your dad in two weeks because “enter unworthy excuse here,” this might have you dialing within the next 30 minutes.

I hope you are okay with what I’m trying to do.

It was strange, all that stuff the tarot card reader said about the King of Swords—an older person that has an important part in my life but with whom I have a conflict, and who might not agree with this project. But she also said I live on the edge and that’s the way I’ve always been. What’s more, Charles said that, near the end, you’d asked him if your art would ever be known. “I answered yes, of course it will, not knowing,” he said. So let’s stay the course.

It was only after you were gone that I assembled a larger portrait of the 44 years you’d lived before I came into the picture. It’s a big canvas, and my efforts have given me a greater appreciation for you and what you created.

You were born in Medford, Massachusetts, one of nine children, and joined the 95th Bombing Division of the Eighth Air Force in 1943. You were co-pilot of a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” based in England and getting shot at over Denmark and Holland. You earned a Silver Star. I knew that much.

“After World War II, I think Dad was a housepainter in Massachusetts while going to the School of Practical Art in Boston,” Dona said. “After school we moved to Queens because he got a job in the art department of Lever Brothers Company in New York.”

“At some point,” she said, “he opened Bonart Studios. It was there that he did work for RCA (at least one Elvis album cover), Transogram Toys, and Schrafft’s candy. I have a vague memory that Bonart failed in the first attempt but he launched it a second time and it was a success.”

I know you started going to Montauk in the Fifties, after your divorce, when this place was relatively undiscovered. I know you built the house in the early Sixties, and began to depict the area’s natural beauty, selling your work at the Bonart Gallery, at Gosman’s Dock. Dona and Charles would visit in the summer, before I was born. “I remember him painting the fishermen down at the docks,” Charles said. “Wherever Dad went, everybody seemed to really like him. He was very popular.”

By the mid-Seventies, I was around and witness to your new style as one after another canvas was pinned to a wall of the living room and a new vision committed. Abstract figures, neat lines and shapes filled with bright acrylics, blending and overlapping in bursts of movement and emotion. It was all a bit weird to me, until years later when I saw a Picasso exhibition at MOMA, after which it made a lot more sense.

I remember your exhibitions, some of them at least—the Gillan in Bridgehampton, the Bittersweet in Montauk, the Marchand-Parson on Shelter Island, the Fine Arts Building at Southampton College. I know you wanted a lot more, but you ran out of time.

That’s why I’m doing this, and I hope you’re okay with it. I’ve been searching for your work, and found some of it in private collections. I’ve got a lot of them here, and Kenneth has some, and Charles and Dona have some, and there are still two hanging at the old school (and I’ve got slides of a lot of the work I can’t find). I want to get them all together, dust them off, document everything, and, finally, have an exhibition, at a place we’ll rechristen, just for a while, the Bonart Gallery.

I wish you could be there.

Christopher Walsh

E-mail Chris, and check out more about his father’s work at the Bonart Gallery’s website.