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Longtime friend remembers artist John Laford

‘He was like a member of our family,’ Linda Savory-Gordon recalls
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Artist John Laford stands in front of a four-panel mural he painted for the newly-constructed Agawa Canyon Tour Train station. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday

Art lovers in the Sault and Algoma district - as well as many abroad - are mourning the passing of well known Indigenous artist John Laford. 

Laford, an Ojibway artist from Manitoulin Island, died suddenly in Sault Ste. Marie Tuesday of a heart attack.

He was 67.

“John was a very spiritual person. He was often sharing thoughts that you wouldn’t really have from somebody who is living constantly in the everyday world. I keep thinking that he’ll be comfortable in the spirit world because he already was, in many ways, in the spirit world,” said the Sault's Linda Savory-Gordon, who, along with her now deceased husband Alan Gordon, were longtime friends of Laford’s.

The couple purchased many of his paintings.

Alan Gordon and Laford had known each other since Gordon’s son Andrew and Laford attended a fine arts summer camp in Elliot Lake.

“Andrew ended up having one of John’s first paintings. They traded guitar strings for a painting, so that’s how John got introduced to our family,” Savory-Gordon said.

Alan Gordon operated an art gallery (Tundra) with John and Jean Burke.

“They became very interested in John’s work. It just got better and better over the years. We actually considered John to be very much a part of the family. He was like another son to Alan. There were times when he wasn’t living in the Sault, he’d be in Toronto or elsewhere, but when he was in the Sault he was often at our house,” Savory-Gordon said.

“My fondest memories of him are of Alan and John talking in the living room. He would come over with a new painting and John was trying to decide what to call it, and he’d be explaining it to Alan, what the thinking was behind it. They would spend hours talking about paintings and Indigenous thinking.”

“He was a gentle soul. He never, ever said anything negative about anyone. He was always kind. If unpleasant things were being said, he would just listen and nod and not enter into anything negative at all. He always spoke softly, had a real twinkle in his eye and a very good, straight-faced sense of humour,” Savory-Gordon said.

An early recipient of a Canada Council grant for artists, Laford studied with artists in New York City and Spain, Savory-Gordon said.

Laford’s paintings can be seen in many museums in Canada, the U.S. and Australia as well as in many private collections around the world, according to the Cedar Hill Long House Native Art Prints website.

Locally, his work may be seen in such locations as Roberta Bondar Place.

“It’s neat because you can see the influence of the city with all these high rises. It’s like a totem image but you can tell that it’s inspired by high rise buildings,” Savory-Gordon said.

“He has great works on display at Algoma University in the Wishart Library. There’s a beautiful big one there as well as in the Convergence Centre, and a three panel work at the Ontario Forest Research Institute (OFRI, on Queen Street East).”

Most recently, a four-panel mural by Laford has been put on display at the new Agawa Canyon Tour Train Station.

“I just think the quality of his work is unbelievable...he did sculpture and jewellery too. I have some pieces of jewellery that he carved out of sandstone rock,” Savory-Gordon said.

“I think what appeals to me about Indigenous culture in general is that there is so much that we could’ve learned from Indigenous people when the settlers arrived on this continent…and it’s getting more so with climate change and the need to go back to ways that they were looking after the land before we arrived.”

Savory-Gordon, a now retired Algoma University Social Work department professor, said she would share those views while instructing her students.

“In John’s work he often had ideas from the culture that he put into various images. I loved the balance and composition of his work and his use of colour. It appeals to my heart.”    

Laford also played guitar with others in ‘Nish Corner,’ situated in Station Mall parking lot, designed to artistically cheer the public during the pandemic, Savory-Gordon said.

“He was never a self promoter. I think he would’ve been really better known throughout Canada and the world if he was more of a self marketer. He was very shy.”

“I’ll really miss him.”