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EJ Hughes calender celebrates master painters life

E.J. Hughes was a quiet artistic icon.

In some ways he personified the modest Canadian with monster talents.

Most Cowichanians knew of Duncan's famous watercolourist, maybe enough to say 'Hello' on the street or in his favourite Dog House restaurant.

Considering Hughes' national status as a war artist, plus Order of Canada and of B.C. member with a sheaf of honourary doctorates — and steady price hikes for his delicately detailed coastal landscapes — I think of Hughes as a Cowichan superstar.

His star shone like that of Victoria-Cross recipient Maj. Charles Hoey, Salish master-carver Simon Charlie, historian Jack Fleetwood, and a few others.

I never knew Hoey.

Simon had his irrepressible smile; Jack had razor-sharp memories of local people and places.

Hughes (I eventually called him Ed; he always called me Mr. Rusland) wore his polite modesty like his sturdy Harris Tweed jackets.

"I follow Hughes in Sotheby's and Heffel," he said of his third-person self's auction sales.

Ed sure was flattered when his Fishboats, River's Inlet fetched almost $1 million through Heffel in 2005 after he sold the masterpiece for about $250 in 1952.

But wealth wasn't Ed's focus.

I guess he had more than enough money to support his daily painting regimen, punctuated by naps, at his modest place on Heather Street until his death in 2007.

You didn't just drop in on Ed at age 93, you respectfully called ahead to fit his timetable.

That included thumbing through books about his favourite impressionist masters, and Leonardo da Vinci.

I heard Ed and friend Pat Salmon quietly visited the Victoria Gallery stop of the national tour of Hughes works in 2004.

Ed said he was most pleased seeing his long-gone paintings, including some wartime works.

My favourite Hughes story happened during the war when Ed was in England.

"A gruff sergeant marched up and said, 'Hughes, if you're going to the front, you'll have to know how to ride a motorcycle.

"'You see that big Harley over in that field? Go practise on it.'

"The problem was I couldn't even ride a bicycle," he admitted to me. " But I started it up and rode around — I fell off a few times, but I got the hang of it.

"Fortunately, I never had to ride a motorcycle again."

That was Ed's approach — give it your best shot, keep trying, and things usually turn out fine.

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