Memorial for Founding Faculty Oliver Balf

November 10, 2010

Above is an image of a card made by Ollie Balf’s family to invite the Montserrat Community to Ollie’s memorial service which will be held Sunday, Nov. 28 from 2:30-4:30 pm in the Rockport Public Library, 17 School Street, Rockport. The family has requested that memorial gifts be made in his name to the Oliver Balf Scholarship Fund at Montserrat College of Art, 23 Essex St., Beverly, MA 01915.

This beautiful tribute to Ollie was published in The Salem News on November 1, 2010.


November 1, 2010
“For Founder of Montserrat School, Life was Art”
By Bruno Matarazzo Jr.
Staff Writer

Everyone’s life has a story. In “Lives,” we tell some of those stories about North Shore people who have died recently. “Lives” runs Mondays in The Salem News.

BEVERLY – When Oliver Balf and a group of artists worked tirelessly to raise money and recruit students for the inaugural class of the Montserrat School of Visual Arts in the late 1960s, a problem arose: The space they intended to use for classes at the North Shore Music Theatre was unavailable.

A new location was found at Crane Estate in Ipswich. There, Balf and others taught in an unheated stone barn, where one teacher remarked they would draw for 10 minutes and then warm their hands on a kerosene heater for five minutes, according to Balf’s son, Todd.

The frigid working conditions might have been an inconvenience to some, but Balf was doing what he loved — creating art.

Balf died Oct. 15 at age 83 at a hospital in Israel while visiting family.

Balf first came to the North Shore while studying art at Temple University. The New York native had heard Cape Ann was an artist colony of sorts.

“For some reason, Cape Ann and Rockport historically had drawn a lot of artists from New York, especially in the ’40s and ’50s,” Todd said. “It was a gorgeous place and, back then, cheap to live.”

On his first visit to Rockport, Balf spent the summer living in a tent. Following summers provided a bit of an upgrade: a converted chicken coop and then in a frame shop.

His time there was simple: work odd jobs, paint (usually three paintings a day), go for a dip in the ocean, then go to the jazz club at Hawthorne Inn in Gloucester to listen to live music. It was there he met his future wife, Nancy, whom he would later start dating in New York. Balf and his wife were married for 58 years. They moved to Rockport in 1955.

Whether it was in a frigid barn or a chicken coop, Balf did what he loved.

Besides his career teaching at Montserrat, Balf also had a long career as a commercial artist. Some jobs included working in The Boston Globe’s art department and as a designer for publishing houses in Boston and New York.

But upon reflection, Balf considered teaching at Montserrat his career highlight. “The most important work I’ve done has been teaching, and being a part of the founding group at Montserrat,” Balf said at a ceremony in 1998 when the school granted him an honorary doctorate of fine arts.

What separated Montserrat, which later became a college, from other schools was that there, Balf and his colleagues saw their relationship with the students less professor-to-student and more colleague-to-colleague.

Following his retirement in the early 1990s, he spent hours in his studio. The prolific artist used thousands of canvases to create works of art.

“He had a studio upstairs, and he would disappear upstairs, especially later years when all of us were out of the house,” Todd said. “I’d go and visit the house, and he’d come down with canvases and (I’d) see what he was working on.”

Born in Rye, N.Y., to Russian immigrants, Balf grew up poor in a home environment that wouldn’t typically create an artist, Todd said.

“His parents were Jewish and he grew up in Rye, N.Y., and there were very few Jews living in Rye at the time. Because they were immigrants, they were very quiet and somewhat repressed and not wanting to make waves,” Todd said.

That might explain Balf’s mild-mannered personality. His art, therefore, was a way he could veer away from that.

“Art was the one way he could express himself. Art was where he could really express himself and let his feelings shine through,” Todd said. “His struggle to become an artist was real considering his background. Maybe that’s why he was able to identify with students so well.”

Balf’s death leaves his family with a collection of thousands of canvases of his abstract paintings in his studio and in another building behind his home.

One of the last things Balf was working on before he died was a series of word paintings. Balf painted words that had a special meaning for him in oversized, bold letters in electric styles.

He couldn’t wait to do the next one and created about 25 paintings.

“He was 83 years old, and that sense of wanting to express himself in a dynamic way,” Todd said. “He was a mild-mannered guy; his form of expression came out in his art.”