FPLG2Painting images courtesy of Stefan Jonasson
At the centennial convention of the Icelandic National League of North America, which was held in Winnipeg in 2019, I was pleasantly surprised to see a painting on display that my father had created many years earlier. It was part of an art collection that had been assembled over half a century by Íslendingadagurinn, the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, from the prize-winners at its annual Art Show. In all honestly, it wasn’t his best work and he suspected that the judges had made their decision based on the painting’s title rather than the work itself. It was called Brander Pass and Dad surmised that they assumed it was somewhere in Iceland, but it’s actually a place in Scotland. Naturally, it warmed my heart to see it there and I felt as though Dad was somehow with me during the convention.
This month marks another centennial – 100 years since Victor O. Jonasson, my father, was born on May 14, 1924, the firstborn son of Ottó Jónasson and Ásrún Vopnfjörð, who operated a dairy along Rosser Road, just beyond the western boundary of Winnipeg at the time. He grew up speaking Icelandic (with a smattering of Ukrainian from the neighbours) until the family switched to English when he started public school. But he always had an ear for languages and he studied several as an adult. The Great Depression brought an end to the family dairy, and they moved to the city where his father worked as a milkman until his untimely death in 1939.
At the age of 16, Vic enlisted in the Canadian Army with the rank of “boy,” one of the last to hold this rank, and at 19 he married my mother, Eileen Dipple, shortly before being deployed to England. He took his ukulele with him, developing a taste for Celtic folk music and the songs of George Formby. Later in life, he performed at neighbourhood parties, community gatherings, and the Icelandic Festival.
Following the war, he returned to school and completed his Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Manitoba the year of the Winnipeg Flood. He worked briefly for North Star Oil before joining the real estate department of Canadian National Railways, where he eventually oversaw the railway’s mineral lands across Western Canada. Continuing education was a lifelong pursuit and he studied real estate appraisal and town planning at college, as well as reading in a wide variety of topics, including art, music, anthropology, history, and literature. His quest for knowledge was insatiable.
Sometime in the 1960s, he took up painting, working primarily in acrylic, and this pastime filled his leisure hours for the remainder of his life. When he wasn’t reading or gardening, he could be found in his workshop with a paintbrush in hand. After he learned to drive – in his 40s! – weekends were often spent out in the countryside in search of scenes to paint. I often accompanied him on these journeys. He was especially drawn to Hecla Island, and his scenes of the island and Lake Winnipeg proved to be especially popular, although his work also included scenes from elsewhere in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the West Coast, and overseas. He exhibited his work in art shows around Manitoba, selling most of what he painted and giving away the rest to family and friends.
Today, Vic’s paintings hang mostly in private collections in Canada and the United States, most of them discretely inscribed “V.O. Jonasson” with the date they were painted. I’ve seen them in homes and offices that I have visited and, many years ago, one of his pieces appeared in the background of a local television station’s recurring commercials. I can no longer remember exactly what was being advertised, probably because I always focused my attention on the painting, but I do remember the warm feeling I experienced whenever programming was interrupted by that particular commercial.
Dad died suddenly in 1978, at the age of 54, leaving unpainted many of the scenes he intended to commit to canvass. We’re fortunate that some of his work remains in the family for us to cherish, and I often find myself gazing at his work, admiring his craft, and wishing his days had been longer.