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Guelph artist commemorates her father who she lost in the Second World War

by Jon Wells


When the daughter was three months old, her father disappeared into the darkness on a bombing raid over Dusseldorf during the Second World War, his plane and four crewmates never found.

Decades later, in an unlikely sort of way, he reappeared in her psyche, and heart — and then today, finally, in her art, his memory gracing the walls of a Dundas church.

The daughter, Guelph artist Lyn Westfall, stood inside St. James Anglican on Sunday bathed in sunlight, speaking of a man she mourns but never knew, who became her most powerful muse.

"My life felt meaningful when I worked on these, creating this memory for my father, telling his story."

At a glance, the 10 paintings in her show, called "A War Story," which runs until Nov. 30, offer vivid but cryptic images. 

The plane, a Wellington bomber, is clear enough, but then also: roses, a crumpled piece of paper, an elderly woman in black, and Babar the elephant, from the children's story.

It was back in 1985 in a library that on a whim Westfall leafed through Babar, the story of a baby elephant whose mother is killed by poachers.

She had loved the father who ended up raising her, and over the years given little thought to her birth father. But now this book of all things made her feel something. What was it? 

She phoned her mother, who told her that her late father's family had given her the Babar book when she was a toddler.

That little spark connected Westfall with grief she never knew she had. She researched everything about her father, RCAF Flight Sgt. Wilfred W.H. Lavers, who was presumed to have died on Sept. 10, 1942, at 23 years old. She was his only child.

And then in 2011 she started creating paintings linking her father, loss, and the story of Babar. The project stalled when, that same year, her husband, Rod, died.

But this past year she finished the series, inspired by research that took her to Surrey, England, and the Runnymede Memorial, where more than 20,000 air force dead who were never found are commemorated.

That memorial, and words from the RCAF motto "Per ardua ad astra" (Through adversity to the stars) appear in one of the paintings, along with a ghostly outline of a Wellington bomber, and "The Old Lady" character from the Babar story.

Another work features the crumpled paper, representing the fateful telegram her mother received, and dozen red roses — which is what her father sent her mother to celebrate Lyn's birth shortly before his life ended.

This is Westfall's second art show at St. James, the first was in 2009. She chose November to coincide with Remembrance Day.

"Needless to say Nov. 11 is always a sad day for me, but a day in which I feel immensely proud of my father," she said.

The church offers a poignant backdrop, with a faded banner from Dundas' Wentworth Battalion hanging, and plaques with names of dead from both world wars.

She may paint another work in the series, but isn't sure. She said it's a heavy subject but at the same time everything else she might tackle now seems frivolous.

Sunday's showing attracted about 25 people, as Westfall, sporting a poppy and crimson-shaded hair, explained how she works.

She painted in stages, and one detail, a grey rose, took 19 months to finish. In another work, she poured paint on the canvas to begin changing a streetscape to forest.

In doing so she at first altered the scene and then reinvented it entirely before feeling it was complete.

"Everything evolves," said the soldier's daughter.


(This article appeared in the The Hamilton Spectator and in the Guelph Mercury on November 7, 2016) 

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