By Tom Tebbutt (2014)
Many people knew Joe a lot better than me, so I feel a little uncomfortable writing this reminiscence about him.
But I have pictures taken at Joe’s place in Paris and at his home in Suffolk, so I thought it would be nice to put them together with some of my experiences with Joe. I did not realize, until reading something recently, that his full name was Joseph Francis Plaskett.
I first met Joe in late 1989 when I went to No. 2 rue Pecquay in Paris to introduce myself because I was to bring back some of his paintings for my friend Eric Klinkhoff of the then Walter Klinkhoff Gallery in Montreal.
I recall going over to his place in Le Marais and, after a short chat, I was invited to return for dinner another night. There were four of us at that dinner, a fellow from Toronto whose name I’ve forgotten, Joe and a fourth person.
At some point early in 1990, Joe was in Toronto and was ill and spent some time at Mt. Sinai Hospital. I visited him a few times and I think it was during that period that he said, knowing I went to the French Open (Roland Garros) tennis every year, that I could stay at 2 rue Pecquay – the 15th century house at the corner of rue Pecquay and rue des Blancs Manteaux in the 4ieme. Joe and his American artist friend David Hill had purchased it in 1962.
Joe noted that, obviously, the Le Marais area of Paris was not so popular then.
He was less than a month from turning 75 at the time, and I wrote about our conversations, one subject being the meaning of life. I said that for me it was about the simple things like orange juice in the morning, playing tennis, walking in the rain, that good-movie feeling after seeing one, nice chats with friends etc.
I wrote, “he (Joe) said he thought being ‘self-sufficient’ was really important.”
A little further along the text continued, “we talked about passions (euphemism for sex) and he said he was glad not to have that be such a concern anymore. He said he’d found he’d gotten happier as he’d gotten older.”
That aligns with the last line of a typewritten letter he sent to Eric Klinkhoff on March 8, 1999, about eight years later when he was 83. It finished with, “I have not for years been in better health. Because of old age I slow down, but not in painting!”
I finished the three pages I’d written about my visit to Suffolk in 1991 with this about Joe: “He really is a gentle, generous, bright and intelligent man.”
Joe in Suffolk
Pastel of Suffolk interior
There was a pig farm next to the home he had inherited in Suffolk, (from a clergyman friend of his father’s) and it emitted not the most pleasant of odours, but it actually wasn’t much of an issue. The house while not impeccably clean, was comfortable and cozy and big enough to accommodate a guest or two. By 1991, he had built an addition – I think he told me it was partly financed by a portrait he had done of (Montreal financier) Paul Demarais’s wife. He said it was the only proper studio he had had as an artist. In the back garden outside the studio there was an arching bridge over a man-made pond.
View from studio out to garden and arched bridge
The picture here is of Joe and Mario Doucet taken a few years later – the main part of the house is on the left with the studio (partially visible) having been added on the right.
Here are two things that Joe once said about paintings, and painters: the hardest thing to put in a painting is ‘the wind’ and his two favourite artists were Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse.
When I told him that I didn’t like Renoir, he said, “many people feel that way, that he’s too schmaltzy/saccharine etc., but there were some paintings that he did really well.”
Joe and Mario Doucet in the garden
While Joe found a healthy refuge at The Cedars, the name of the Suffolk residence – although he told me there were actually no cedars there – it will always be 2 rue Pecquay that most friends and acquaintances associate with him.
Works inside Suffolk studio
It was easy to believe it was “pre-Columbian” with a decided slant to one side as you approached it from the front on Pecquay, not surprising when you consider it being in Le Marais (the swamp). You entered through a very heavy black wooden door, and it took some effort to push it open.
2 rue Pecquay, bottom street on left, has a slight "forward sway"
Inside it was unashamedly dusty. Vancouver architect and professor Abe Rogatnick wrote about the house in ‘The Book of Joe,’ printed in 2006, “the ancient house, a collection of mostly separate rooms on several floors reached by a rickety spiral stair, which made you feel you were climbing back through time to Paris somewhere between the Hundred years War and the French Revolution. Dusty rooms cluttered with a kind of French wunderkammer collection of bits of statuary, paintings, books, furniture, curtains and innumerable other curious and faded objects selected over the years by Joe on his visits to the Paris flea markets. While many, probably most, of the objects through which one waded from room to room dated back only to the nineteenth century the feeling was like moving through a dream-like ambience which felt no more recent than the day Marie Antoinette lost her head in the Place de la Concorde. The dust, the frayed curtains, the anxiety of climbing the stair that threatened to collapse under your feet only heightened the intensity of the romantic surges welling through your mind and body.”
Joe's flea market acquisitions
What I remember most was that as the evening was winding down, somehow I was chatting with Molly and John had moved on and he was talking to the widow from Atlanta right across the table from us. Incredibly, he was pouring his heart out to her. It was at a time when he had broken up with his actress wife, Tatum O’Neal. I was talking to Molly but, as a reporter and just a curious person, I couldn’t resist listening in on the conversation between John and the widow. At one point he was telling her about how torn up (he and Tatum had three children by this point) he was about the split. He said that, during the Paris indoor tournament the previous fall, he had been so upset that he was putting his face in a towel during the change-overs in a match on the court and crying – even though no one in the Bercy arena at the time knew that’s what he was doing. Needless to say, it was tough to concentrate on my talk with Molly with him making such intimate confessions to a woman he had not met before that evening.
The other famous person who was once at Joe’s was Mavis Gallant, the expatriate Canadian author and a friend of his. She seemed a little dour and was at the other end of the room from me, so I never exchanged words with her.
Joe's bed - apologies for poor focus
Joe was the ultimate host, and it was always remarkable how he would have a dinner for six or eight or more people and carry it off with aplomb – bringing out each of the different courses from the very small kitchen sectioned off to the left of the fireplace. And everything was done seamlessly with ease and efficiency.
One of my most memorable meals at his place was one night when I was with six other men – all of them gay. I can recall a friend of Joe’s, Allard Tobin from Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, after a few drinks coming over and sitting in my lap. It was a little awkward with me being a heterosexual, but I didn’t mind and there was nothing at all menacing about it – just all in fun.
During that evening, the conversation turned to a certain subject. Joe was the one talking about it and he used the following phrase to describe what it was, “that game you play with yourself.” A few of us blurted out, “solitaire?” But the fact was that Joe wanted to say masturbation but was so prudish he felt uncomfortable using the word. That certainly got a laugh.
Molly Bobak with Eric Klinkhoff at gallery in Montreal
I invited an Australian journalist to be my guest, and two other couples, prominent Toronto squash player and private club owner Clive Caldwell and his wife Marianne as well as American expatriate Nick Stout, of the International Herald Tribune, and his wife Merielle. It was a fantastic evening – Grazia, a wonderful cook, produced some terrific food but mostly it was the thrill of being in that unique house in that magical city on a mild summer evening with the window open out onto Blancs Manteaux and the excited sounds of Paris on a Saturday night drifting in as a soundtrack.
View out to Blancs Manteaux
I think I must have stayed at 2 rue Pecquay about 10 times in the 1990s. It was very generous of Joe to offer the hospitality, especially to a freelance reporter like me who had to pay all his own expenses. I vividly remember all the times I took the Metro at Hotel de Ville and changed at Franklin Roosevelt for the Pont de Seves train and then got off at Michel Ange Auteuil and walked 10 minutes past the tony restaurants of Paris 16ieme and then the Etablissement Horticole – Ville de Paris (botanical gardens) to Roland Garros. And then there was the walk back home on rue des Archives to Blanc Manteaux past the flora and fauna of a distinct that was very gay – including a bar called “Le Cactus.”
Pastel of window out to Blancs Manteaux
I should add, knowing that’s a Paris street (Pecquay) outside the window adds an undeniable cachet. And, as well, the Seine is only a five-minute walk away.
The next day I went to the gallery and was even more thrilled – there’s nothing quite like love at first sight for a painting or a fetching female. I wrote about seeing it again, “it simply looked as good as ever. Such a nice warm light and such a nice feeling of the drapes stirring into the room, and the flowers were crazier and bolder than any other painting, albeit not as realistically painted which I didn’t mind at all.”
Parrot Tulips, New and Old, 1986
I managed to speak to Joe the night of the show opening when I bought the painting. “As things thinned out,” I later wrote, “I went up to Joe and asked discreetly if he could tell me a few things about the painting. We stood in front of it and he thought briefly and said offhand that it had been part of a certain number of them done together and then looked over at the painting above the mantle, the one on the cover of the catalogue, and said the dead flowers were probably from that painting. First off he said the flowers were parrot tulips. He then told me that it could be considered as being the life cycle. The one vase with the bright ‘new’ and lively tulips, and the one beside it with the ‘old’ shriveled tulips with four or five dead petals on the tablecloth.
“I asked him about the stem which seemed to be in the wine glass, and he looked at it and said he thought it passed in front of the glass.”
Things are ever-changing in life and in art, and ironically in his book “A Speaking Likeness” published in 1999, Joe wrote about his painting, “my inclinations are to make ‘an aphrodisiac of the senses.’ I once painted parrot tulips, in one vase expanding into life, in the other drooping toward death. Some may interpret this as pointing to the passage of time, to youth supplanting age, to mortality. I scarcely intend such deciphering. Meaning awaits discovery. The artist, or more likely the critic or art historian, lifts the veil. I prefer to think that the flower, fruit or table napkin is alive, begging to make its presence felt. This is, of course, subjective, animistic, and anthropomorphic.”
So, consider what Joe wrote about the painting in any way you please – anyone can see whatever they desire in a work of art. And, however “Parrot Tulips” is interpreted, it doesn’t diminish the pleasure of enjoying the painting.
That was a memorable night and I’m glad I wrote five pages recounting it and the events leading up to it.
There’s an amusing footnote to this. I added a ‘P.S.’ at the end of the five pages: “The subject of Joe’s paintings are often flowers and other things like fruit etc. which he uses in his ‘still lifes.’ I remembered Eric (Klinkhoff) told me, after he picked up Joe at the airport and drove him and (good friend) Gerald Budner into Montreal, that they (Gerald and Joe) spent the whole time on the way talking about flowers etc. etc. So the passion is quite real and the affinity for flowers is not just a convenient preoccupation for use in paintings to earn money.”
Confirming the Grand Central Station aspect of 2 rue Pecquay, Vancouver art curator Alvin Balkind wrote in the introduction to the catalogue for the Plaskett “The Cedars” exhibitions at the Bau-Xi Galleries in Vancouver and Toronto in November, 1990, about Joe’s “increasingly complex social life, as more and more worshippers streamed to that shrine leaving him little time or energy to paint.”
Catalaogue of 1986 show
Poster for Joe's 70th birthday party
I visited Joe in Woodbridge, Suffolk on June 15, 1991. Later, while waiting to change trains at the Ipswich station on my way back to London, I made some notes about the day that we had spent together. Joe talked about buying the house in Paris and I wrote, “he told me a little bit about 2 rue Pecquay. It dated to the 15th century and he said that David Hill (who died sometime in the 70s) used to call it ‘pre-Columbian.’
“He said Hill had found it and had $4,000 to spend on it. Joe put in $4,000 and they bought it from a fellow who was quarreling with his partner and wanted to spite him by selling it.
“That fellow had bought it two years earlier for $2,000 but he had fixed it up (I think) but Joe and David Hill still had to have bathrooms and other basics installed.”
Probably the time I most remember was in late May, 1993, on a Friday night after Joe had said to me as I left for the French Open in the morning, “are you coming back for dinner tonight? I think there’s someone coming you’d like to meet.” Molly Lamb Bobak was staying there that year because I had arranged for her to come to Roland Garros to do some paintings. A sidebar here: I’ll always remember being in the cozy No. 1 Court at Roland Garros – a 4,500-seat circular arena nicknamed the “bullring” – when an Argentine player, Florencia Labat, was playing. I vividly recall Molly saying about Labat, who was attractive and a pretty good player, “oh what a lovely South American face.” Labat definitely possessed ancestry from the indigenous people in her country.
Anyway, I got back that night in time for dinner and some people had already gathered for the meal. Then there was a phone call saying that “John was late” but that he would be coming. As soon as I heard “John,” I automatically thought of John McEnroe, whom I knew a little bit from driving him in from the airport and working all week with him at a tournament at Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal in December, 1980. I had also worked at a few other events with him and, for more than 10 years, interacted with him in my work as a reporter covering tennis.
So…John finally arrives with a stunning looking female friend. It turned out she was the daughter of Paul Resika, a New York artist who was a longtime friend of Joe’s. It certainly ended up being quite a night. John sat at the end of the table with Joe to his immediate left and me to his immediate right – across from Joe.
It was an interesting group of people with Molly a little further down the table, her daughter-in-law Edith Price and an older woman widow from Atlanta there as well, a friend of Joe’s. Mario Doucet was there too.
Things weren’t always idyllic in the house with a quixotic and colourful cast of characters regularly passing through.
And, one time, someone broke in through that window onto Blancs Manteaux, which was almost always open. A few things were stolen but maybe worst of all, the spotted blue vase that can be seen in the picture further down here of the Plaskett “Parrot Tulips” painting I bought in 1986, was smashed and destroyed. It had been in many of his paintings and poor Joe, heart-broken, tried gluing it back together. He eventually bought another blue vase but it somehow never could be as good as the original.
There was an article written about Joe in 1997 or 1998 in Canadian House and Home magazine and a woman author, who was staying at 2 rue Pecquay, was quoted as saying about Joe, “I don’t know how he gets any work done. There are so many calls from people passing through. They even ring the buzzer in the street, saying Joe put them up 20 years ago, and they just wanted to see how he was doing.”
Joe once told me about Johanne Harelle, a Montreal model and actress who was quite well-known in the 1960s – especially for playing a main role in Quebec director Claude Jutra’s 1963 seminal film “A Tout Prendre.” We had been talking about how 48-year-old Pierre Trudeau met 19-year-old Margaret Sinclair in Tahiti when she was wearing a bikini. That led to him telling me about Johanne. “I asked Joe,” I wrote of our conversation, “if he had known Claude and he said he’d met him when he came to visit Johanne and her husband (the French philosopher Edgar Morin) who happened to live right across from him. Joe detailed her sad life – a black father from Jamaica and a French-Canadian mother. The mother put her in an orphanage, she got pregnant (she didn’t know that would happen if she had sex) and had a child at 16, went to Paris to model, stayed with Morin who eventually married her but she had absolutely no sense of money, and sadly drank too much. Once Morin went away and returned to find she had spent all his money. They economized and went on a rice diet but there’s a famous story of her buying salmon (it was on sale for something like 100 francs instead of 125 francs) and he discovered it in the fridge. She said it was for someone else, so they couldn’t even eat it.”
The actual day was November 24 and I sat down and wrote about the whole experience the next day. I’m a tennis writer who doesn’t specialize in flowery prose but I somehow described Joe’s paintings as follows: “I always had an image of his work as being sumptuous, rich, textured in light, and formal and conventional in presentation.”
Reading that now, I probably should have saved some of that inspiration for the gorgeous tennis game of Roger Federer.
When I first saw the painting that I wound up purchasing – for what at the time was about one third of my total worth – I later described it as follows: “I guess two things struck me about it initially. First there was a lovely warm light through the painting, and two, the flowers were a little wilder, more free form and abstract than almost all the other paintings. I walked around a lot but kept coming back and liked more and more the way the light suffused through the painting. As I looked at it more, I liked the way the tattered table cloth fell from the table in the lower left hand corner, and also I liked the way every part of the whole surface was well done, there didn’t seem to be any weak parts, even on what would be called the background.”
But it didn’t really slow down the irrepressible Joe. He continued to produce work almost until his death on September 21, 2014 at age 96.
Living in Paris was an essential part of Joe’s life, and in the 1988 Fall issue of ‘Border Crossings: A Magazine of the Arts from Manitoba,’ he wrote about being an expatriate, “I am bound by every decision I have made. I cannot alter the course of my history and so far have not been forced to. It was quite other in the case of one of the first artists I ever knew. Delisle Parker was the art critic for the Vancouver Province during most of the forties. As a critic he was too kindly. He saw good in everyone. I like to think he saw more good in me than in others. Whenever I met him he would talk with such sorrowful nostalgia about Paris, which he had been forced to leave at the outbreak of war, that I too saw it was the Promised Land. He never stopped lamenting his loss. His pathos was an expression of true exile, a sentiment I have rarely felt. I am only an expatriate, a condition more pleasant than pathetic.”
Joe’s funeral took place on November 8, 2014, at St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Sapperton, New Westminster, B.C. In that fall 1988 issue of Border Crossings, Joe also wrote, “I have acquired an allotment in the Cimetiere Montparnasse for my burial, should I happen to die in France. But such is the attachment to what is the real subject of my art – “home” – that I now think my bones might decay more gracefully beside the graves of my father, my mother and my brother in the cemetery that crowns the hill in Sapperton and surveys the landscape from which I came; the sweeping curve of the great Fraser River, the frieze of mountains against the sky in every direction, the snowy cone of Mount Baker and the Pacific Ocean ten miles away. The thought of it draws me back so, though I find it difficult to think of living in Canada again, I am pleased at the thought of dying there.”
Looking back, the first I can recall learning of Joe was in about 1985 or 1986 when I asked Eric Klinkhoff who was the gallery’s best artist?
It was probably a silly question, but he answered “Joe Plaskett.” I think I had purchased my first painting, by Molly Lamb Bobak, by that time and decided that I would try to buy a Plaskett.
Joe was having a show at the Klinkhoff in November, 1986, and I went to my former hometown (until 1983) of Montreal from Toronto with the intention of purchasing “a Plaskett.”
Leslie MacDonald with Joe in his garden,Suffolk, 2007
(Please click on pictures to view larger images)
I can remember a girl named Allison from B.C. once being there, as well as a quirky B.C. painter/author named Jim Willer being around, and also a young artist named Thaddeus Radell from the U.S.
One night, someone set fire to a car – it seemed like a criminal act – and flames shot up about 30 feet in the air in front of 2 rue Pecquay, a narrow street. Thaddeus and I were staying alone there at the time and we watched from a window in the stairway. At first there seemed a danger the flames could threaten Joe’s house – but they just shot straight up until fire fighters came in their shimmering silver outfits and shiny helmets. Thaddeus the artist was quite mesmerized by the sleek gear they wore. The firemen eventually doused the flames.
The end of this story is that the next morning a meek-mannered guy rang the bell at Joe’s and asked if anyone knew what had happened to his car. At that point, it had been towed away and all that remained was some charred metal on the street about a foot square. You had to feel sorry for that poor bewildered owner of the car.
There were lots of stories about 2 rue Pecquay and all the people that constantly came through the house. It has to be noted how generous Joe was to so many people over the years – people who might not have had the means to live in or visit Paris but stayed in the ‘pre-Columbian’ dwelling for extended periods.
Entrance to Joe's main room
“Joe went to the tennis (at Roland Garros) one day with Allard Tobin and I think he quite enjoyed himself,” I wrote at the time. “Molly’s energy for 74 or 75 is legendary but Joe also is very impressive. For a guy with an artificial knee and a pacemaker in his heart, he really gets around well.
“I was able to bring him in and show him around the press area and I think he enjoyed that. I remember the first time I saw him after he’d been to his seat, he said he was surprised he was so close to the court. He ended up staying from about 2 until 7 pm and I remember he saw the Andrei Medvedev – Marc-Kevin Goellner match. I think he also saw Stefan Edberg and Paul Haarhuis.”
Mantelpiece at Pecquay - pastels of same on either side
Joe was so nice to so many people with his hospitality. Another terrific memory is having a meal in his place when Joe was away. A friend from Eric and my tennis club in Montreal (The Mount Royal), Nicolas Pourcelet, who worked in the investment business in Paris, and his then girlfriend, a totally charming Italian named Grazia, were there and she pretty well arranged a dinner in the main room of Pecquay on the first level as you enter. That was basically the all purpose living room/dining room, sometimes studio, small kitchen with a fireplace area where everyone who visited Joe congregated.
Joe as a young painter
A Montreal friend of mine was quite put off by the mustiness of the place one time when she visited with her husband. No doubt it was, but there was something mystical about it with the top-to-almost-bottom wooden spiral stairway beam, ceiling beams and assortment of spaces on the various levels. And that tilt in the house mentioned earlier was real. My brother-in-law Bob and my sister Pam toured it once and I showed them Joe’s bedroom and bed, where I was sleeping at the time because Joe was in Suffolk. There were dusty rugs and the floor sloped toward the head of the bed. “How can you sleep there?” Bob asked, “doesn’t all the blood just rush to your head?”
Thankfully, I suppose, the pillows were large enough to compensate for that.
Tiny kitchen behind these two arches
Door to Joe's place, apologies for graffiti