Brent’s Early Years

I was born in Vancouver in 1954. My sister Roberta, preceded me by twelve years and my brother, Jim, by a decade. At five, my family relocated to Pitt Meadows, then a rural community in the Fraser valley of British Columbia. My father was a long-time employee for BC Hydro, while my mother dedicated herself to her family.

Our new home was a hobby farm, and we truly enjoyed the country life. There was an orchard of apple, pear, and cherry trees, hazelnut trees and blueberry, strawberry and raspberry patches. We got gallons of fresh milk and cream from our very productive cow, and there were lots of geese and chickens roaming the yard. I was often sent to our sizeable garden to retrieve fresh vegetables to feed the dozens of extended family members and other friends who would drop in on sunny summer days and stay for dinner.

The small farm was surrounded by property that had been logged years before, leaving log bridges over creeks and log roads through marshy areas that, as a young explorer, were great paths to adventure. Our own place had stands of big evergreens.

The farm also had its own swimming hole, a spring-fed pond that my grandfather transformed into a pool by hauling in huge rocks and cementing them together, and then laying in a bottom of sand. The spring kept it fresh, but occasionally, we would drain it and dig out all the dead leaves. Even before we were out of school for summer holidays and right into the next fall’s school term, my chums and I would play for hours in the swimming hole.

I had to walk a mile down a country road each day to go to school.  As with everything when you’re younger, the distance seemed farther, just as the house and the farm seemed bigger.

The only wild creature I tamed, besides a rangy billy goat from down the road, was a racoon.   She was a great magnet for attracting girls. Anytime I went to the park with ‘Bandit’, the girls would immediately invite me over.

For a brief time, I had a horse called ‘Mouse’. She was dapple grey and part-arab, part-Welsh pony. Our initial meeting was a memorable one. I had been bugging my parents for a long time about wanting a horse, and when they finally gave in and brought ‘Mouse’ home, she bucked me off the first time I got on her. I wasn’t so sure I wanted a horse after that. In fact, I wouldn’t go near her for awhile. Then I got tired of everyone telling me I was a chicken, so I met the challenge head on.

My dad would saddle her daily just in case I was ready to try riding again. I had heard that if a horse put its head down, it could buck, so to keep her head up – I tied a short rope from her bridle to the saddle horn. I also tied another short rope from a front leg to a back leg to keep her from running. I got on and let her limp her way out to a field. If she’d have chosen to go ballistic, I’m sure she would have rolled over me, but within minutes, I was hollering for my mother to come and see how good I was riding. Mom, the ever-enthusiastic encourager, ignored the ridicules way I had hobbled the poor horse and complimented me on how good I was doing. After that, ‘Mouse’ and I were inseparable, galloping for hours around the cow pasture.

My mother constantly encouraged me in most everything I did, especially when I drew. She appreciated the humor in my drawings. My father’s reaction to my creations was more along the lines, “You can’t make a living drawing cartoons.”

My siblings had grown up and left home so my father decided to take a leave of absence from his work. He sold the farm and moved us to southern Ontario to be near my sister who had relocated and started her own family.

As we drove past Kenora and Thunder Bay over the Canadian Shield, I felt relived that I could call this beautiful new land my home. But then we came to the industrialized cities in the south of the province, and my heart sank. Gone were the wild woods and semi-wilderness of my youth.

We settled in Dresden, Ontario, and I entered high school as a stranger to everyone around me. Fortunately, through my doodling, I had developed a knack for doing caricatures. Soon I had kids asking me to do a cartoon of them, or a friend or teacher. It was my ticket to popularity, and the beginning of a positive experience that forced me to rely on my own abilities and deal with the fears connected to this new adventure.

I enrolled in a grade eleven art class taught by Mrs. Suderman. Freda Suderman loved her work, and I guess she considered me a work in progress. She took me under her wing.

I was always eager to get to her class, and was embarrassed – yet secretly proud – when she would pay me additional attention, using my work as an example in front of the class, or encouraging me to draw a specific assignment yet again, from another angle or perspective. She showed concern. She made me work hard. She knew how to inspire me.

We all hopefully have a teacher or two we remember as having had a remarkable influence on our lives, such as Mrs. Suderman had on mine. It was well under her tutelage, that I recognized that painting was to be my great passion. I graduated from high school and floated for awhile. I came back to British Columbia that summer and travelled around, working on construction.

When I returned to Ontario, I took a job in Chatham in the suspension division of a factory that made springs for cars and trucks. In the course of my work, I discovered ‘paint sticks’, a kind of wax-like bar like an oil pastel that was used to number and code pieces that came off the assembly line. When you touched the stick to the side of one of the hot furnaces in the plant, the colour flowed from it as if it was a magic wand. And there were dozens of brilliant colours to choose. With my penchant for doing cartoons and caricatures, my love of humor and my new-found weapons, I waged war on the drab black of the furnaces in the factory. Within weeks, I had the entire place looking like Disneyland had collided with a paint factory!

One day a memo appeared on the bulletin board announcing the visit of a committee of major shareholders. It also pronounced that the factory was going to receive a new paint job. And there was an added paragraph that said, “We appreciate Mr. Heighton’s artistic talent, but we feel he should be expressing his ability elsewhere.”

While the edict was a warning I could lose my job, it was also public recognition that I should consider a career in the arts. It made me think. I was making good money, but did I really want to work in a factory for the rest of my life?

By the end of that year I had moved to Ottawa, begun working part-time in the shipping department of a furniture store, and painted landscape and architectural watercolours in my spare time. I was enrolled in arts courses at Algonquin College. My original plan was to sign up for the commercial art program, because I believed I would find it easier to make a living at commercial art, but when I showed the department head examples of my work, he steered me directly into the fine arts program.