It is with great sadness that we pass along the news of the passing of Morton Baslaw who was a major figure in the growth and development of the Ottawa School of Art.
Morton was born and raised in Ottawa, attending York Street Public and Lisgar High School. In his high school years, his artistic talents emerged in both music and art where he was a drummer in the marching band and his drawings were featured in the school magazine. In 1943, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was trained as an Air Force photographer, serving in England, Holland, Belgium, Germany and France. While on duty, he drew cartoons for the air force magazine. All of Morton’s pay cheques from the Air Force were sent home to support his parents. Morton returned in 1945 and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Art where he studied cartooning. It was in Chicago that the school’s Director, Ruth Van Sickle Ford, introduced him to watercolour. He graduated from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art in 1948 and returned to Ottawa where he opened his first graphic design studio.
Morton’s graphic design company grew and flourished through the 1950’s and 1960’s with major clients like Canada Post, the Boy Scouts of Canada and Macies. Morton also created designs for Expo 67 and for the opening of the National Arts Centre. During this time Morton continued his devotion to watercolour and painted on holidays and weekends. He developed his unique style that was marked by its intense attention to detail and colour. His work focused on landscapes and interpretive realism that were painted on location. He had his first solo exhibition, “Creativity Among Us” at the JCC in 1966. Soon after he was named an Exhibiting Member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour and the Ontario Society of Artists. After his solo show, his work was displayed at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Cultural Branch of the Government of Alberta.
Morton began teaching at OSA in 1972 where he taught for over 35 years. In 1976 he founded and was the first president of the Ottawa Watercolour Society and guided the society to its first exhibition in 1977. His artwork also received much deserved recognition at this time and he exhibited his work extensively with the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour and the Ontario Society of Artists, becoming a permanent member of these prestigious organizations in 1970 and 1974 respectively. In 1978, Morton became the President of the Board of Directors of the Ottawa School of Art and led a major building campaign that saw the school raise the money needed to renovate and move into its main campus building at 35 George Street. This was a major turning point for the school and began its transformation into one of Ottawa’s flagship cultural institutions.
Morton continued to teach watercolour at OSA and Algonquin College in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He also continued to paint and exhibit his work. As an art teacher, he met and taught hundreds, if not thousands, of students and was able to inspire them and provide them with the technical skills they needed. Morton had a devoted following and would often take his students “on location” to paint in the countryside around Ottawa or up in the Gatineau Hills. This included trips in mid-winter when a drop of gin would be added to the watercolour water to keep it from freezing while the students painted. Rumour has it a few drops of gin were consumed to keep the students (and instructor) from freezing, too. He enjoyed teaching and continued to teach well into his 80’s.
Morton Baslaw was a great artist and an extraordinary teacher. He served the Ottawa School of Art very well and with great devotion over many years. He played a key role in the school’s development as an institution and as a centre for visual arts training. He was always keenly aware of the needs of his students and tried to ensure that they had a positive learning experience. He will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues at the school as well as in the arts community.