Our Home and Native Land: Frank Panabaker’s Canada

In 1936, Prime Minister Mackenzie King quipped, “If some countries have too much history, Canada has too much geography.” For artist,Frank Panabaker his country never had too much geography.

In the 1930s, Frank Panabaker was diligently pursuing an artistic vision of Canada’s natural wonders. What he saw and put in his sketchbooks and later painted on canvas included scenes often quite inaccessible except through difficult travel in a challenging environment. For Panabaker, there were always more visual delights to explore and record through painting. In a career that spanned eight decades he captured the beauty of the Dominion of Canada from coast to coast.

Frank Panabaker, born in Hespler in 1904, received formal training at the Ontario College of Art and then at the Grand Central School of Art in New York City. At OCA he learned the techniques of landscape painting as practiced by the Group of Seven and in New York he became acquainted with American Impressionism. From these experiences, Frank Panabaker developed his own sensibilities in landscape art, rejecting the painterly verve of the Group of Seven and adopting the more tranquil, picturesque approach of American Impressionists such as Canadian born, Ernest Lawson.

Upon returning to Canada Panabaker travelled extensively. He eventually settled with his wife in Ancaster, first renting then purchasing a home that housed his studio. In a country where living from one’s art alone was almost unheard of, Frank Panabaker succeeded, avoiding the necessity of teaching or working as a commercial artist. Until his death in 1999, he assiduously worked in his studio painting canvases developed from studies made in the Canadian Rockies, Algonquin Park, Georgian Bay, Nova Scotia, British Columbia and southern Ontario.

Although Panabaker is best known for his landscapes he was also an accomplished portraitist and figural artist. As a prominent member of the Hamilton region art community he was commissioned to paint portraits of prominent local figures such as the President and Deans of McMaster University.

It is appropriate that Creations Gallery is celebrating ‘Canada 150’ with an exhibition of the works of Frank Panabaker. Panabaker connected with David Faulkner of the gallery from its founding in 1985. Over the years, Panabaker dropped by the gallery on a regular basis, sometimes just to chat about art and at other times to deliver his latest works for sale or celebrate the opening of an exhibition. Dan Faulkner, the current proprietor of Creations Gallery, remembers Panabaker turning to one of his works on display and while holding an imaginary brush in his hand he mimicked his painting technique. In a single, smooth motion he swiftly mixed the paint on an invisible palette and then proceeded to make a solitary downward stroke on the canvas showing how he would apply a single band of multiple colours.

At another time, Dan recalls, Frank Panabaker looking at one of his small paintings of a canoe on a bank, said that it was “very similar to the painting that I showed my father when I was young. It was the painting that inspired my father to believe that I was worthy of going off to art school.” This work which convinced his father of his talent was painted under the tutelage of Farquar and Elizabeth McGillivray Knowles at their art school in Hespler.

Frank Panabaker was consistent in maintaining a style of painting that worked for him throughout his career. It not only reflected his vision of the landscape of Canada whether mountainous or pastoral but also appealed to his audience in urban areas. He sold many of his sketches to the manufacturers of greeting cards and he occasionally had his work comp attorney reproduced on book covers, an indication that his images had a special kind of wide appeal.

According to his friend, fellow artist Fred H. Brigden, Frank Panabaker had a “generous disposition” which found “a frequent outlet in song, at any time while driving or, in the midst of his painting.” This joyful attitude to life and enthusiasm for the forms, light, colour and sensations evoked in the natural world permeate the works of Frank Panabaker.