THE DREAM ALONE
“The dream alone entrusts to man all his rights to freedom.” Paul Eluard, The Surrealist Revolution
To really understand the mystery of the B.A.G. Stars, maybe you have to go all the way back to the big bang. Just imagine: somewhere in the darkness, a spark of creativity is exploding. Radiating outward, it ignites all possibility and transmutes dreams into reality. You can’t help wanting to be a part of something like that. Maybe you don’t even have a choice.
Surrounded by glorious chaos, you suddenly find yourself with a hammer, a paintbrush, or a mop in your hand. Or maybe it’s a handful of earth. And now you are contributing. Not for glory, not for gain, but for the sake of beauty, for community, for the sheer joy of being part of something greater than yourself. You look around and you see your purpose reflected in the faces of neighbors, family and friends, and there is nowhere on earth you would rather be. I’ll tell you what: you’ve got a bad case of the B.A.G. Stars. They’re shining like searchlights from your eyes.
Of course, there is a moment in every act of creation when it’s author faces doubt. Perhaps some inner fault or lack occasions this crisis. Maybe it comes in the form of a blunt object striking blindside from an obscure corner of the universe, unforeseen and undeserved. Sometimes it’s like a shadow passing over the sun; everything that once appeared wholesome and good is tainted with a sickly cast of malevolence and futility. At times like this, there is nothing for it but to soldier on, hoping that hope will return. It always does. As long as the Brackendale Art Gallery is standing – as long as it is growing – Thor Froslev is hanging onto that faith.
From the great white unicorn rising out the ground by the front door to the top of the Eagle Tower, the Brackendale Art Gallery, Theatre and Teahouse rises like a fortress against the encroaching tide of suburbia, industrialization and conformity steadily creeping northward from the city. Each work of art beneath its roof, every song played upon the New Stage, every bowl of soup served in that great hall pulsates with the same energy that brought the place into being in the first place: light from the B.A.G. Stars. It’s precious.
Pat once said that everyone who arrives at the B.A.G. comes with baggage and leaves a little lighter, and she’s not just talking about your wallet. Once you step onto those grounds – once you’ve discovered the Casting Wall, the chapel, the bell shop, Dorte’s garden and the gypsy wagon, once you’ve explored all those mysterious passages and cubbyholes and hideaways tucked into odd corners all over the property, once you’ve crossed the railroad tracks into the park or taken a walk with Thor down to the river to visit the eagles - you’re done. The kingdom has claimed you, and wherever you go from now on, you are a citizen. The Republic of Brackendale is a universal country extending as far as the light of B.A.G. Stars can reach. In other words, it’s everywhere.
THE EAGLE MAN
It’s been said that all good stories go something like this: a stranger comes to town, or somebody goes on a journey. This is a story about both. As long as you’re willing to stretch your legs, anyone who has ever felt like a stranger can travel all the way from hell to paradise - or so Thor would have us believe. I’ve been trying to follow his footsteps for quite some time now, and I still don’t know how this tale is going to turn out. I’m hoping that the telling of it will make it all come clear.
As for paradise, the town of Brackendale was the closest place to it I’d seen in some time. An hour north of Vancouver on one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the world, it’s a place where kids still go fishing on Saturdays, laundry flutters on the line, and folks eat stuff out right out of their gardens. Decorated with tidy homes from almost every decade, the little village is surrounded by the massive blue peaks of the Tantalus mountain range and hundreds of miles of forest. I’d forgotten such places could even exist, if indeed I ever knew. The day Thor came to get me, with his overalls, pipe, ponytail, and rattletrap pick-up, I thought he looked like something out of the Beverley Hillbillies. Myself, I just looked like hell.
At the time, I was living in downtown Vancouver on the corner of Main and Hastings, a neighborhood affectionately called “the war zone” by its residents. After a year of looking out the window at the sad parade of junkies, hookers and crooks chasing each other up and down the street, the cavalcade of cop cars and paddy wagons and ambulances, the hooting, the looting and occasional shooting - I was ready for a new kind of attitude adjustment. Suddenly, I had the chance to get out of Dodge, live in an art gallery in the woods for a few days of the week and collect a wage. The only catch was, I was going to have take orders from Thor. It was a prospect that made me nervous.
You’ve probably seen him on TV - he’s known around here as “the eagle man.” Thor Froslev - an old guy with a white beard, glasses, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ tie tucked into his overalls, a rebel ponytail, and a “Republic of Brackendale” cap. He’s always getting interviewed about eagles, and salmon, and pollution and whatnot. See, Brackendale is sort of famous, mainly due to Thor’s incessant trumpeting. Delivering his message in a clipped Danish accent peppered with colloquialisms, his nasal, biting tone is impossible to ignore. You find him on the radio and the evening news. His face gets splashed all across the papers – even the national ones. You can count on it – every year, between November and February, there’s Thor, turning up as regular as Santa Claus.
Winter is Eagle Season, following the autumn migration of salmon returning up Howe Sound to spawn in the rivers of the Squamish Valley. The fish die on the banks by the thousands, attracting clouds of eagles that feed on the carcasses. All across North America, there are places where bald eagles return yearly, and conservation groups do counts of the bird populations and compare them. Thor hosts the Brackendale count at the B.A.G., and it’s his busiest day of the year.
So maybe you already know about eagle season. I didn’t, and could have cared less. Thor’s world was as alien to me as another planet, and about as accessible. Especially since I began by irritating the hell out of him.
Back then, I was holed up at Michael Malcolm’s studio on Seymour Street, trying to learn how to write songs and playing the streets for spare change. Mike’s a painter and graphic designer who dresses like a businessman, smokes a like chimney, and supposedly has a pretty wild past. His studio - a maze of large contained spaces with skylights, concrete floors and eighteen-foot ceilings - had a revolving door through which all kinds of artists passed. Some of us were on our way up, some on our way down, but Mike tried to help everybody. Sometimes it even worked. The whole place was a buzzing hive of creativity, and every afternoon we all gathered in Mike’s kitchen to bullshit and exchange ideas. That was where I first met Thor.
“Are those your pajamas?” he’d said. They were. I’d wandered down the hall to cadge my first cup of coffee of the day from Mike. “For crying out loud, it’s three in the afternoon!” Even his beard was belligerent, sticking out at an aggressive angle that made me feel like reaching out and giving it a real good tug. Who’d this guy think he was?
“This is Thor,” said Mike. “I do the posters for his art gallery – you know, the one up in Brackendale I’ve been telling you about. Thor, this is Leslie Alexander, the songwriter -”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. “Are those your bedroom slippers?” I pointed to his clogs, a granola-and-grass fashion statement if I’d ever seen one. He was pouring coffee out of an old thermos and slurping it noisily. Right off the top, it was clear Thor wasn’t into social niceties.
“Mike says you need to make some money,” he was saying. “I need some help up at the gallery for the Eagle Count next Saturday.”
“Um, what’s that?” I said.
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you read the paper? Don’t you watch TV?”
Actually, I didn’t, so Thor filled me in, emphasizing all the romantic appeal he could muster in the idea of getting out of the city to visit the famous Brackendale Art Gallery, and incidentally, to view his personal flock of majestic eagles. Since I was broke, I agreed to show up, resolving to give Thor a wide berth until it was time to collect my pay.
The day before the count, though, Mike informed me I’d be put to work as a waitress, not an eagle counter. Now, I hate waitressing. I mean I really loathe it. I’ve been fired from every waitressing job I’ve ever had, and with good reason. Thor hung up on me when I called to tell him I wasn’t coming. I sort of made sure I wasn’t around when he dropped by, after that.
Mike’s not the kind of guy to lay down guilt trips, but I could tell he was disappointed in me too. He and Thor were old pals, and Thor was depending on me based on Mike’s recommendation. When Mike gave me some background about the place, I wished I’d taken the opportunity to check it out, because it didn’t seem likely I’d be invited back.
One day way back in the late sixties, Thor turned up at their favorite hangout in Gastown with the idea of building art gallery and performance space in the woods. Nowadays, Gastown is a speed trap for yuppies, tourists and addicts, but back then it was full of artists, and they all used to gather at Classical Joint. It was one of the few venues in Vancouver where you could find underground art and music, and Thor had gotten it into his noodle that if there was one thing the world needed now, it was more places for his friends to show their work. Mike got out his pencils and started sketching, and together they came up with a plan.
Brackendale was a tiny logging and fishing village in those days, just up the road from the larger mill town of Squamish, which wasn’t much more than a wide spot in the road itself. Not exactly an ideal place to start a business in art and culture. According to Michael, the locals were not impressed. All of the sudden, there were about hundred hippies – artists of every stripe, including painters, potters, dancers, actors, musicians, and other weirdos coming and going at all hours of the day and night with logs and beams and gravel and cement. Here they were, living in tents and eating around campfires, trying to put together this colossal barn-shaped art gallery and theatre space with absolutely no building or business experience. It was as if the circus had come town, but none of the locals were buying tickets.
All these years later, Mike told me, artists and hippies are still coming and going, but a lot of loggers and fishermen are too, not to mention environmentalists and politicians. It took about forty years, but today the Brackendale Art Gallery, Theatre and Teahouse is the unofficial community center for the whole Squamish Valley. Back in the beginning, though, nobody but Michael thought Thor’s ragtag crew of outsiders would actually be able to pull off their plan. But Mike’s good at that - taking an idea and illuminating its possibilities. Lucky for Thor, and lucky for me.
During the year I lived at Michael’s studio, he never missed an opportunity to kick my ass – in the gentlest possible way. I mean, I was stringing a few songs together, but really wasn’t very good – out of time, out of tune, and scruffy as an alley cat. But Mike looked past all that. Maybe he pictured me playing at someplace like the Classical Joint – or the Brackendale Gallery. As far as I was concerned, a gig like that was about as likely as an engagement at Carnegie Hall. All the same, Mike was always hammering at me to get off the streets and get my act together - literally. He said I had talent. I only half-believed him.
By the time we got word that the Seymour Street loft was going to be torn down to make way for condos, I’d come to depend on Mike’s steady encouragement and friendship. And without a recent employment history – or a job – I knew I was going to have a tough time finding another place to live. Against Mike’s advice, I took a room at the Ford Building on skid row. Looking out over the most notorious street corner in Canada and wondering what to do next, one day I got a call from Michael saying that Thor was sick. He some kind of lung condition that made him vulnerable to every passing bug, and after a recent bout of pneumonia, people were starting to wonder if he was ever going to get better.
Suddenly it had become very important that somebody put his copious boxes, bags, trunks and filing cabinets full of photos, posters, and newspaper articles documenting thirty years in the life of the Gallery into some kind of cohesive order. Apparently some famous writer I’d never heard of was going to write a book about the place, and Thor wanted the research materials organized. Mike told Thor I was the gal for the job.
Given my past experience with the guy, I was surprised he agreed to it, but Thor was willing to give me another chance. He must have been as desperate as I was. With no center or guiding force in my life, the idea of contributing to a book was a big draw, and I was heartily sick of the city. There wouldn’t be much money, Mike warned, but I’d meet some cool people up there, and anyway, it was I was already hooked. Truth is, I had the B.A.G. Stars before I ever laid eyes on the place.
A WORK IN PROGRESS
“Get in,” Thor said, throwing my gear in the back of his pick-up. In his overalls and cap, he certainly stuck out like a sore thumb alongside my neighbors – not that they were paying attention. We almost ran into one poor soul wandering against the light as we pulled out. “How can you live down here?” he asked.
“It’s not so bad,” I said. “Cheap rent.” My little pad had high ceilings and lots of light, and though it was noisy, it was all my own. I wasn’t going to give it up, either, no matter how this job turned out. The idea was I’d divide my time between the city and the gallery, where apparently I could have my own room. I was still a songwriter, and someday, I was going to do something about it. I would need to be in the city for that.
At the moment, however, I was counting my lucky stars for the chance to bust out. Crossing the Lion’s Gate Bridge, the sky and ocean opening up on both sides, we left the city behind and I began to breathe. Massive grey mountains still painted with winter snow rose up on one side of us while Howe Sound, green as jade, stretched out to the west. The road curved along the shoreline, dipping into little valleys, crossing streams and rounding corners, a new vista revealing itself every moment. I sort of felt like I was in a National Geographic spread – slack-jawed as a tourist, which I guess I was.
It was spring and it seemed like everything around us was bursting into celebration. The trees were glowing green neon in every direction, and wildflowers glinted in the sunshine, blowing around in the brisk breeze like they were trying to take flight. A few white sails out on the Sound were doing the same. China-blue islands floated like dreams on the waves. Thor putted along at a nice slow pace, letting the speed freaks pass us at every opportunity, and pissing them off anyway. Let’em pass, I thought. Anybody crazy enough to ignore this place deserves to miss it.
“This is the way man is supposed to live,” shouted Thor. He had to shout, over the rumbling engine. “I saw that right away when I first came up here thirty years ago. We went swimmin’ in Cat Lake this morning. It was gorgeous! ” He was grinning.
Relaxed behind the wheel, with the Sound glinting in the sunlight behind him, Thor pulled out a red handkerchief and issued a noisy honk into it, looking down contentedly to check the results before tucking it back into his overalls. This was his natural habitat – forests and streams and pine trees and blue sky. I saw that he wasn’t a hippie or a hillbilly, either. He had a rural European worker sort of look to him, the suggestion of rugged capability.
His rattletrap pickup didn’t seem shabby out here in the country – it seemed practical. There was a toolbox and some lumber in the back, and on the seat beside us were a rain slicker, a staple gun, pile of posters and a bundle of flyers advertising the gallery. The air was redolent with the blended aroma of gas, grease, leather and chewing tobacco – a combination that took me right back to my Dad’s pick-up on the farm. It was an association that left me feeling anxious.
“The late sixties were good years to wake up in,” Thor was saying. “They were fan-fuckin’-tastic years, and anybody who wasn’t there has no idea how fantastic it was. Everybody was alive and awake. And the music! You’d have somebody playing Japanese violin, somebody playing sitar, somebody playing pan flute - it was unheard of! And the food changed. It used to be chips and hotdogs. Now it was sushi and kebabs. It was the best of times, the best of people, the best of vibes. Wherever you went, you found the most honest musicians, the most honest actors and painters. A world of plenty.”
“Then I realized what we really needed were more places to hang paintings and put on shows. Back then, Vancouver was a very tight-ass traditional milieu. My friends were naïve, primitive artists, and didn’t have what the galleries wanted. If you were an actor, there were very few theatre spaces available. If you were a writer, forget it. It only happened to George Ryga. And if you were a musician, there were only a few coffeehouses. The Classical Joint was the best of them. I wanted to do something about the situation. Of course, there were lots of benefits. We smoked a lot of weed and got laid a lot. Hey! It was the times!”
A minivan raced past us, honking, and Thor gave them the finger, chuckling. Looking at him behind the wheel, I realized I was being chauffeured by a goatish, aging Pan. Except gods probably don’t suffer any consequences for doing what comes naturally, and here Thor was erupting into a nasty wet cough, hacking so hard I thought he was going to have to pull over. It roared up from the bottom of his lungs like a rusty rocket-ship, wracking his body so hard the truck swerved. Jesus! What did he have – tuberculosis? Just as I was about to ask that most useless of questions – are you okay? - he spit something into his handkerchief, grunted a couple of times and continued yakking as if nothing had happened.
“I was a longshoreman. All my life I worked for other people. I had to. I had to feed my family. And you can’t find a better job than working on the waterfront. But I knew I wanted more. I had this thing that I wanted to do.”
“The gallery,” I said.
“Right. This glow in my belly. I wanted to nurture it and keep it burning. So after my first wife went back to Denmark, I quit. Longshoreman would meet me on the street, and they’d say, when are you going back to work? I’d laugh and say I was independently wealthy. I was. And I still am.”
I realized he wasn’t talking about money. He was talking about environment. All the same, I wondered how an unemployed ex-longshoreman immigrant put together enough resources to build an art gallery. I wondered what had happened to his wife and family. Well, that’s why I’m here, I thought. If I last long enough, I’ll find out the answers to those questions and a whole bunch more.
We rounded a cliff and the town of Squamish appeared, hugging the north shore of Howe Sound. Laying before us like a spill of trinkets in the sunshine, its sudden appearance in the lush landscape was startling. The Squamish Valley spread out around it, wide open and wild, a green kingdom of forests and rivers beneath a circumference of stern blue peaks scraping the sky.
“That’s the Chief,” said Thor, pointing up. The mountain’s north face, apparently sliced from clay by a colossal putty knife, was decorated with colorful specks of Goretexed climbers. “They’re calling this place the outdoor sports capital of the world these days. Rock climbing and fishing and mountain biking and rafting and hiking and sailing, only an hour from the city. And then there’s Whistler, another hour up the highway, for all the ski bums.”
“All that must be good for your business?” I asked.
Thor only grunted in reply. We pulled up to the first stoplights we’d hit since leaving Vancouver, and I could see it all coming. There was a gas station, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, and a Taco Bell. I wondered how long it was going to take for Walmart and the gang to show up.
Crossing the river, the buildings of town disappeared behind stands of great cottonwoods waving in the breeze on both sides of the road. We were in the middle of a rainforest. Suddenly an eagle, swooping low between the treetops, insolently sailed right past the windshield. With a start I realized I’d never in my life seen a bald eagle except on TV and in pictures. The thing was enormous, balanced perfectly on the air, gliding with the slow majesty of the inevitable. Thor just pointed and smiled. To me, it felt like a benediction.
“Wow,” I managed.
“Eagle season runs from November to February, but we have a few that stay here all year round,” said Thor. “Squamish can be the outdoor capital of the world if it wants, but the eagles come to Brackendale. Well, here we are.”
Thor slowed the truck, and turned left off the highway into a quiet neighborhood full of large treed lots – a mix of old character homes and newer ‘60s and 70’s constructions. A trio of kids went by on bikes, and old folks worked in their gardens. Thor waved at everybody as we went by, and they waved back. Up ahead, a white waterfall rushed down the side of the blue mountain that frames the western skyline of the village. We crossed a set of railroad tracks adorned with nodding wildflowers and stopped at the crossroads of Depot and Government Road.
A huge circular wooden sign, emblazoned with the profile of an eagle in bold, graceful lines, announced that we had arrived in “BRACKENDALE – WORLD EAGLE CAPITAL.” Smaller signs posted below the huge medallion indicated left towards the Brackendale General Store and Post Office, or right, towards the Gallery.
We turned right, and in moments it appeared before us like Brigadoon – a massive complex of post-and beam, stone and concrete constructions. The biggest of the lot was a barn-shaped structure, which I guessed contained the main gallery. It was connected to another two-story building by a smaller construction, the roof of which seemed to serve as a patio of sorts. A Canadian flag was up there snapping in the breeze, above a collection of potted plants, benches, and a German Shepherd, who was barking its head off at us. “That’s Brackie,” said Thor.
A low stone wall separated the biggest building from the street, with a winding pathway leading to the front door. There, in the shade of a weeping willow, a gigantic white unicorn leapt out the ground beside a bubbling fountain. Eerie faces cast in concrete, dozens and dozens of them, lined the entrance like ghostly sentinels. To the right, the smaller building was enclosed by a wooden fence containing a lush garden bursting with early spring blooms. Inside I could see what looked like an authentic gypsy wagon. Butterflies hovered like winged flowers to a chorus of songbirds, while a pond dotted with hovering dragonflies bubbled in the shade.
A train whistle sounded. Across the back of the property the antique Royal Hudson chugged by, smoke from the stack drifting up against the dark pines that framed the back of the complex. The engineer waved a blue-clad arm out the window, and Thor waved back. Surrounded by a deep bank of blackberries, the Gallery rose up out the earth like a great big mushroom - a part of the landscape just as organic as the trees, the rocks, and the sky.
Suddenly I remembered why I was here. Somebody was going to write a book about this place, and I was going to help. Just looking at it, I could imagine all the stories that must have collected under that roof. It was built by people nobody believed in, people who had to believe in themselves.
“My God, Thor,” I said. “It’s perfect.”
“Almost, but not quite,” said Thor. “It needs a tower.”
A tower? Well, there was a slightly medieval vibe about the place. It’s solid, primitive architecture and sheer size gave it the air of a great fortress or castle – ancient, venerable, invulnerable. But as I was to learn, far as Thor was concerned, the Brackendale Art Gallery, Theatre and Teahouse was a long way from being finished – twenty-five years old, and still a work in progress. Like me.
Thor pulled the truck up and parked beside the garden, and we headed through a door marked “STAFF ONLY” into the low structure that connected the two big buildings. “Pat!” Thor yelled into the dusky gloom. No answer.
It took a couple of minutes for my eyes to adjust, registering that we were standing in a kitchen. Not a glossy-formica-and-stainless-steel sort of kitchen, but something more resembling, say, a medieval scullery. Gray concrete floor, great wooden slabs for counters, massive cauldron-like pots everywhere, a huge gas-fired range, and a couple of sinks the size of bathtubs. Stairs paved with river-stones led down to a musty dark cellar. Golden light poured in through the windows, revealing a few stray spider webs swinging from the ceiling. Otherwise, the place was spick and span. Though the building belonged to Thor, I found out later the kitchen was generally considered to be Pat’s domain. “I guess she isn’t in yet,” he mumbled, looking at his watch. “Hmmm. Well, let’s have a coffee.”
I followed him into an alcove that housed an espresso machine where Thor was now at work. “Look, you’d better watch how I’m doing this,” he said. “You’re going to be making me coffee next.” Ha ha, I thought. But he wasn’t joking.
A bar carved with ornate curlicues, home to an ancient-looking cash register, looked out over the main gallery space beyond. I wandered through a brick archway into the main hall and got a look at the big room for the first time, painted in shifting shadows and brilliant streaks of gold. The late afternoon light, filtered through the leaves of weeping willow, spilled though French doors where the unicorn and a bubbling fountain glowed in the backlight.
My first impression was that the space felt like the interior of a great sea-going vessel. The whole place was built of glossy, thick beams and slabs of wood. Great columns rose from floor to ceiling, one of which was carved to resemble a giantess clothed in leaves. The walls were plastered white, with a colorful profusion of paintings splashed across them. Michael’s – I could see that at a glance.
A round fireplace was set into the wall beside me, while a deep bench spread with pottery traced the length of the wall to the right. A rich red velvet curtain fell from a massive arch along with far wall, hiding what I assumed was the stage. Emblazoned above it in gothic letters was the word “Brackendale,” illuminated with stylized vines and curlicues, which at closer inspection also revealed the face of a beautiful woman. In one corner, a staircase led up into a mysterious hole in the ceiling, beckoning. I was dying to explore. Instead I accepted a tiny cup of espresso from Thor and took a sip – thick, dark, and sweet.
“So tell me how you built the place,” I said. “Begin at the beginning.”
He laughed. “You’re getting ahead of yourself, girl,” he said. He emptied his own cup in one gulp and pulled out a battered tin of Copenhagen chewing tobacco, tucking a wad comfortably in his cheek. “Nobody knows what we went through, except the people who were there. That’s why we need a book. Come on, I’ll show you the office.”
I followed him across the gallery and up the stairs as he talked. “Listen, it all starts in the blood,” he was saying. “I’m essentially a Viking, a Norseman. In the old days, my ancestors would sail off into the unknown, and when they found a beautiful location they’d pull up in their huge longboats, flip them over for instant shelter and call it home. As soon as I saw Brackendale, I knew it was the place to flip over my boat.”
We passed through a small room illuminated by rectangular skylights, hung with a collection of native wooden masks and carvings glowing in the amber light. “I think it was Arthur Erickson who said, when you put up a building, it should reflect the community,” Thor was saying. “But I was new to the country, and I didn’t know dick about the community. Or building, for that matter. I knew it had to be something simple, though, something that made sense. So we built a barn. And I knew I was right not to put it in the city. Too much competition. I didn’t know anything about runnin’ an art gallery either. Well, here we are. ”
If the gallery is like a sea-going vessel, then Thor’s quarters are the bridge. Natural light poured in from great windows spanning the width of the room, looking south over the deck towards the Tantalus mountains. The wall beneath them, apparently built of hollowed glass bricks, held colored glass knickknacks, transformed by the setting sun into blazing jewels.
Every inch of wallspace was covered with art – aboriginal masks, paintings, drawings, works in macramé and fabric. Bookshelves were stuffed with tomes on art and history and mythology and Denmark. On the north wall, a huge king-size bed, accessed by a tiny set of stairs, was suspended from the ceiling. Beside it, a sturdy ladder rose to an open loft used for storage. A galley kitchen occupied the west wall, along with a private bathroom and closet area. It’s like the prow of a ship, I thought - a captain’s cabin, built to withstand the storm.
The center of the room was dominated by a squat woodstove, flanked by a comfortable seating area. Thor marched over to it and gave the fire a poke before settling himself down with a grunt. “You be working here,” he was saying. “You can start by cleaning my desk.” It looked to me as if the whole place could use a good cleaning, being covered with enough dust to suggest a construction zone, which is exactly what it is.
As for the desk, it was about ten feet long, spanning half the length of one wall and covered at least six inches deep with crap. There were flyers advertising an upcoming concert with Bill Henderson. Slides and photographs of artwork. Pictures of hippies building the gallery, carrying huge posts and beams with equally huge grins on their faces. Exquisite line drawings of the same scenes. Statistics on eagle counts over the years. Stacks of bills. A half finished letter to the editor, evidently from Thor, scrawled in block letters – something about the airport. A flashlight. Duct tape. An axe. A hammer. A fishing rod. A stuffed duck. I was starting to get dizzy.
“And I wonder where the hell is Pat?” Thor was saying. “She’s supposed to be making soup today.”
“She quit, Thor,” came a voice from the doorway leading to the deck outside. A tanned, sturdy woman who looked to be in her middle forties stood there with hands on hips, frowning. Her voice dripped icicles, and she didn’t even register my existence. “She called this morning to say she wasn’t coming in. Ever again. I’m taking the dogs for a walk. Have a nice day!” She turned and was gone, slamming the door behind her.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Oh boy,” said Thor, ignoring my question. “I need a waitress.” He was looking right at me.
“I’m a terrible waitress,” I said.
“You’ll learn,” said Thor, with the supreme confidence of someone who has never seen me try to balance a tray. “You’ll start tomorrow at noon.”
“I’m here to work on a book!” I protested.
“You’re here to work,” Thor corrected me. “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do a good job. Hey, what do you want? You’re out of the city, you can go walking in the woods, fresh air, the works. You’re in paradise, girl! Settle in! How about another coffee?”
“Okay,” I said.
Thor just sat there expectantly. “Well?” he said. I clued in. I was supposed to make it.
“Uh, I didn’t – I don’t –“
“You didn’t watch me make the first one, so you don’t know how to use the machine,” he said accusingly.
Oh. So it was going to be this way.
“For crying out loud, you are going to have to learn how to pay attention, Alexander,” he said, getting up with a grunt. “Well, you’re here to archive, so start archiving!”
“Thor, I don’t know what to do with all this stuff!”
“Well, neither do I,” he said. “I guess you begin at the beginning. Good luck!”
He stalked out, leaving me standing there at a complete loss. Dust motes drifted peacefully through shafts of afternoon light pouring through the skylights, landing on utter chaos. I noticed a newspaper clipping that read, “AIRPORT FIGHT DIVIDES TOWN: EAGLES AT RISK.” The story below quoted Thor as saying, “I feel like the mayor and council are spitting in my face.” I looked for scissors. Then I noticed underneath the desk that there were boxes and boxes of old newspapers. Each of them was labeled FILE. Flipping through them I saw names like David Suzuki, Robert Bateman, Michael Ondantje. James Michener, Pamela Anderson. There were at least 25 years worth of stories in there about the painters, the artists, the environmentalists who gathered under this roof. This was going to be a long job.
Two stacks of filing cabinets to my left were stuffed with files. None of the labels seemed to bear any relation to the material inside them. I pulled out what appeared to be a foreclosure notice, dated 1979. To all appearances, it had been lit on fire. A letter from Thor to the longshoreman’s union, pleading for reinstatement, dated for around the same period. Ancient promo kits for musicians now famous - Shari Ulrich, Jim Byrnes, Ann and Jane Mortiffee, Roy Forbes, Dan Hill, Valdy. Gorgeous posters, some of them evidently done by Bob Masse, the famous rock’n roll poster artist. A handmade card with a skillful sketch of Thor on a throne, hammer in hand and an eagle on his shoulder. A ferocious look on his face. It was labeled KING OF BRACKENDALE. Well, obviously he’d come a long way since those hippie days Michael was telling me about.
Stuffed way at the back, I found a large envelope labeled, “The Booke.” Pulling out a scrap, I saw drawings and notes in Michael’s hand, dated around 1976. “A Participatory Story,” he’d written. “A fisherman turned wisherman, and friends that help when they can. Compiler and composer, Christine Hether. Curator and creator, Thor Froslev.” Beneath it were several pages of notes written longhand, apparently by the mysterious Christine. “Born on the island of Mors, Denmark, Thor Froslev emigrated to Canada in 1957 . . .” etc. etc. act.
Thor had said to start at the beginning. Was it here? Obviously, this book was a long time coming. They’d first thought of it back in the seventies. How many lives have collided under this fantastic roof since then? I wondered. In my minds eye, I could see them. Young idealists, gathered to build a dream. The shining stars of their generation. The risk-takers. The artists. The dreamers. Seeking enlightenment and liberation from the status quo in a paradise of their own making. And here it was, all sitting here on Thor’s desk – waiting to be discovered. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.
I’ve been tidying Thor’s desk for years now. Collecting stories, watching them happen and waiting for the famous writer I’d never heard of to turn up and write the book. At some point, I started chasing everybody around with a dictaphone (otherwise affectionately known as my “dick”), trying to bottle a firefly which I know, despite technology and all my best efforts, must remain essentially out of reach. To experience the magic of the B.A.G. fully, you have to go there.
As for Thor, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. He’s still coughing, still making periodic trips to the hospital, but he’s still building. A good thing too. Since then, the gallery has become a kind of personal True North, a compass point for my own growth as an artist. As I was to discover, I’m not alone in this. The B.A.G. Stars are everywhere - sparkling over a fairy tale of hope, determination, disillusionment, loss, redemption, romance, revolution, triumph over evil, magic, and the power of community.
Except it’s not a fairy tale. It really happened. You tell me if you think such a thing is extraordinary or not. A man living a dream, and taking an entire community with him.