Ottawa artist discovers long-lost sketches of former prime minister Diefenbaker

OTTAWA – Shirley Van Dusen was decluttering her Ottawa apartment when she rediscovered a fascinating chapter from her past in a crumpled cardboard box.

“I was raving,” said a smiling Van Dusen.

“The they or they are. And there he is, ”she said.

“They” is a series of sketches drawn by Van Dusen almost 50 years ago. “He” is John Diefenbaker, the 13th Prime Minister of Canada and a dear family friend.

Van Dusen, now 95, is a famous landscape painter and portrait painter from the capital. In 1975, the artist went to Diefenbaker’s office on Parliament Hill to draw “The Chief” while he was working. The sketches would help Van Dusen in the eventual painting of a portrait.

“He said come in and do whatever I want, so I did. “

Diefenbaker, who was no longer prime minister but sat as an MP, never posed for Van Dusen. He was working at his desk and taking phone calls while Van Dusen watched from his easel in the corner, completing a variety of sketches and taking photos.

“He was invaluable,” she says.

“That big face and those sparkling blue eyes.” He was awesome. And he had a great sense of humor, ”said a smiling Van Dusen.

Diefenbaker sketch

Shirley painted her portrait, but it was lost in a devastating fire in her studio. The sketches, however, have survived, some slightly damaged by water. She hid them and only discovered them recently.

“She goes through those old boxes and, voila, brings up those forgotten sketches,” said former host Mark Van Dusen, one of Shirley’s seven children.

“We said, ‘Mom, these are treasures, precious heirlooms,’ he said.

The Van Dusens cherish the sketches because they cherish the Diefenbaker.

Shirley’s late husband, Tom Van Dusen, was Diefenbaker’s executive assistant. Under “The Chief”, Van Dusen ran twice in Gatineau for a federal seat in Parliament. The two were close, and soon their families were too.

Diefenbaker sketch

“They quickly became friends. More than a boss and a staff member, but very quick friends, ”said Mark Van Dusen.

“Dad had immense respect for Mr. Diefenbaker and his wife, Olive. And through that connection, Mr. Diefenbaker, who loved to get out of Ottawa, would come to our home in Wychwood, outside of Aylmer, Quebec, and later in Russell, to spend a Saturday and Sunday.

“The chef liked coming to Russell because he said it was flat like the west with a huge sky. They went out a bit. They were nice, down to earth, very nice people, ”said Shirley.

Over the years, the Van Dusen family have collected several items donated by the Diefenbakers. There are autographed photographs, signed books and engraved silver platters.

Shirley even has a tuxedo, once worn by Diefenbaker, which the former PM gave to her late husband, Tom.

“And Tom wore that tuxedo a lot,” Shirley said with a laugh.

The family collection, along with Shirley’s “forgotten sketches”, will have a new home in Russell. They are on display at the Keith M. Boyd Museum of the Russell Historical Society.

Diefenbaker sketch

“It is a miracle that the sketches have survived,” said museum curator Harry Baker.

“But because they survived, we can show them here,” he said.

Russell became the second hometown of Tom and Shirley Van Dusen. The family made profound contributions to the tapestry of community life.

“It’s a nice little museum and it’s the right place for everything,” said Shirley.

“We have kids, grandchildren and great grandchildren who live in Russell so they can come in and see this whenever they want,” she said.

Mark Van Dusen believes many Canadians will also want to make the trip to Russell to view the Van Dusen-Diefenbaker collection. The sketches, he believes, provide a rare and poignant glimpse of a fiery orator and eloquent parliamentarian.

Difenbaker sketch

“These are important to all Canadians. They were made just four years before his death, ”Van Dusen said.

“I look at these sketches and if I stop, listen carefully and let my mind drift a bit, I can hear this incredible and characteristic voice, with the shaking jowls, the speeches on the radio or on the television or in the House of Commons. communes. “

And the family matriarch, who has spent most of her 95 years at the easel, is grateful for the time she spent with “The Chief”; a gift she is happy to share.

“I am honored that this is happening,” she said.

Shirley Van Dusen will continue to honor her gifts: a close, caring family and the freedom to do what she loves.

“I’ll be 96 in February and paint for as long as I can,” she laughs.

“I know I had a great life and thank you, my God.”

Shirley Van Dusen


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