At 18, Megaphone vendor Claude Ranville could have gone to art school, but a different path led him to a life of addiction and homelessness. Today, he has discovered his inner artist by using painting as a form of therapy. He talks about his approach to art and why he still thinks of himself as a work in progress.
By Jennifer Foden, Megaphone
In 1979, 18-year-old Claude Ranville was cleaning out his locker after graduating from Vancouver’s Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School when he noticed a mysterious piece of paper among his belongings. This otherwise innocuous piece of paper turned out to be a letter informing Ranville he had received a scholarship to an art school. But, he had never applied for the scholarship, or to any art school. “This was one of those forks in the road of life, where I wish I had zigged instead of zagged,” he says. Ranville assumed one of his teachers had recommended him, but eager to get out in the working world, he instead became a cabinetmaker – and never looked back.
Fast forward to 2014. Ranville, in his early 50s, was living a life he never imagined: homeless and struggling with an addiction to alcohol. He was still working as a cabinetmaker – and had enough funds to get his own place – but “just couldn’t get it together,” he says. Ranville had recently lost his job, was on EI [Employment Insurance benefits]. He was sleeping in a park when he answered an ad on Craigslist to work for two weeks at a temporary labour job in Vancouver. Ranville had no idea the job was for TED Talks. He got the job and took it (because he was “intrigued by the event”), but was expecting to interact with “wealthy, snobby types” during the short-term gig.
Instead, he encountered smart people into art, culture, science, and saving the world. He was immediately inspired to go back to rehab (he had been four times in the past two years) and make a commitment to getting sober. There, at rehab, they were running a weekly recovery group called Picture Your Recovery.
“Even though I was a little nervous about expressing myself in an open way doing art, I decided to join the group,” Ranville says. “This was 18 months ago, where I began to layout my first painting of the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver. This was my first painting in over 35 years – since high school. It was a two-month process to paint, but eventually I finished. I was kind of amazed by the reaction from the staff and fellow clients on my grad day from the centre.”
“I don’t paint for fame, or fortune or money. It’s who I am. It’s a form of therapy.”
The incredible thing is, Ranville has had no formal artistic training. “Will I make a living at it one day? I don’t know. I don’t paint for fame, or fortune, or money. I do it because it’s who I am. I can’t drink and paint. I can’t do both. I choose to paint. It’s a form of therapy,” he says.
Much like his artwork, I wanted to give him an opportunity to speak about his process.
On finding inspiration between the Marble Arch and the Crucifixion:
“It was August 2014 when I was inspired to do my first painting. I was sitting on the edge of my bed at City Centre Lodge staring out the window. I was noticing how the main tower of the Holy Rosary Cathedral was perfectly situated between these two buildings. On the right was the old Marble Arch Hotel where I started my drinking career way back in the early ’80s. On the left was Belkin House where I was hoping to go for my second stage of recovery. I remember saying to myself: I have to paint this scene.
“I did move on to second stage rehab at Belkin House. It was there where I got my first professional gig as a painter. Pastor Rafik and I were talking one day in his office about art. He wanted me to paint something. He said, ‘I’m leaving it with you. Paint whatever comes to your mind.’ This is when I decided to take on the big challenge of painting.”
On being self-taught and mysterious letters:
“For the most part, I am self-taught at this point of my painting career. Eventually I hope to take part-time studies at Emily Carr [University of Art and Design in Vancouver]. Because I find them more forgiving, I currently work in watercolours. With some training in a year or two, I will start painting with oil paints. I find it a bit ironic that I find myself living back in the neighbourhood where I went to high school at Sir Charles Tupper; and am now pursuing art, like the mysterious letter had wanted me to.”
On earning it:
“I have been a cabinetmaker for 25 years. It took six years before I looked at a finished project and said to myself: ‘Wow, I’m a cabinetmaker!’ For this reason, I feel that there is still time before I have the same ‘Wow’ moment with my painting. I am my own worst critic. My family and friends love my painting, which helps keep me motivated.”
On inspiration and imagined paintings:
“Because I’m early in my painting career, I have been experimenting with a variety of subjects. I have done some portrait paintings. I have also have done some Aboriginal-themed paintings. I guess so far street scenes have been my favourite. Because of my background in construction, I like painting historical buildings.
“My favourite artist is Norman Rockwell. I also like Charles Edenshaw and his work in wood. To date, my own paintings of The Crucifixion and John Lennon are two of my favourites. The Crucifixion painting now hangs in the pastor’s chambers in Belkin House in Vancouver. There are usually 100 years of religious teachings in that room at any given time. It is quite an honour for my painting to be hanging in that room.
“When something or someone fascinates or inspires me, I usually get inspired to paint. I have always liked the music of John Lennon, which motivated me to do a painting of the man. I have lots of paintings in my mind that want to be painted.”
On the art of putting one step in front of the other:
“I am really flattered by the response of my paintings from family and friends. But, the fact of the matter is, I believe that I am still a work-in-progress. Not only from an artistic point of view, but also, from a spiritual and recovery point of view.
“When I wake up, every day is a blank canvas. If I fall back into my addiction, I lose my inspiration and creativity to paint. Painting is an absolute bonus from recovery.”