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Seeking a Balance
Maureen Argon

At this time of year, one wants assurances Spring really is just around the corner. Who better to consult than a farmer? A man who works the land he knows so well and one who’s a lifelong birder at that, knowledgeable in reading the subtle signs and shifts of the natural world. Perhaps not only a farmer, but also an artist who sees more in the world around him than meets the eye. Such a one is Antony John.

Birds are the first thing Antony talks about when we meet up at his farm and greenhouses, Soiled Reputation, on the outskirts of Sebringville. “We’ve had a pair of song sparrows overwinter this year, and the male is singing a new song,” Antony enthuses. “There’ve been reports of migratory birds returning to Toronto.”

Birds figure prominently in Antony’s world, both in his life as a farmer of 25 years and a painter. They’re a measure of the health of his land, an 80-acre farm, Soiled Reputation – 40 of which are organically certified – on which he produces the heirloom vegetables and gourmet greens, and the subject of many of his paintings.

Visit the website and you’ll find a list of some hundred bird species sited on his farm – asterisks for breeding residents. He’s also a frequent winter traveler to the jungles and deserts in search of new sightings.

More than fascinating in themselves, for Antony, birds represent a world directly opposed to his own. Birds are the untamed, unknown and mysterious, while the farm is ordered, manufactured and familiar. It’s the tension in the duality between these two that inspires Antony’s art.

“The more I think about it, the more it makes sense,” explains Antony. “ It’s the contrast between the environment on the farm – the known and measured out – and the unknown environment of the wild world, say of Costa Rica.

“Birds exist outside our knowledge,” Antony continues. “They go about their business whether you watch them or not. But the farm is manufactured, it’s geometric and planned.”

The geometric composition forms part Antony’s sketches – the angles and relationships worked out to the nth degree – particularly in his farm-themed work. These paintings are anything but pleasant bucolic views. The tension is there and the reminder, that even on the farm, the wild and unknown – the uncertainty of life – is ever-present.

An accomplished painter early on, Antony put his brushes down for 12 years. He focused on the farm and the business, became TV’s Manic Organic (see clip from the show) for three years (HGTV and Canada’s Food Network, sold to 50 countries) and took on a few film roles.

“Maybe those were years, especially the TV and film years, I should have spent painting,” Antony wonders. “But I never stopped observing and thinking, and I certainly have lots to paint now.”

In 2006 Antony returned to painting. He’s at the easel every day from November to May when the farm is at rest, exploring the continuum between participant and observer, creating a body of work, which he hopes will garner the support of a gallery. And while Soiled Reputation is thriving, Antony sees the day he’ll step back from farming and paint full time.

“My goal is for painting to replace farming,” Antony says. “But I don’t think I’ll ever leave the farm.”

And yes, according to this farmer, Spring has arrived.

Anthony’s paintings will be exhibited at the Perimeter Institute . He’ll speak about his work on June 12th.