Ferdinado Bilanzola (1956 – 2001)

By Paul Ropel-Morski and Judi Burgess

    “I believe that art should be a synthesis of the social environment, physical environment and visual sensations…I would hope that my images would encourage the viewers to participate in a dialogue with themselves, or rather their feelings, and share those feelings with others. I do not presume to be in a position to preach or swing opinion but to use my work as catalyst for reflection.”    Ferdinando Bilanzola *

Ferdinando (Fred) Bilanzola was a Hamilton artist, born in Belgium where his parents had come from Italy. When Fred was three months old his family moved to Canada, settling in Hamilton. Fred’s colourful experiences growing up on Harvey Street in Hamilton, a working class and largely Italian immigrant neighborhood, would lay the groundwork for his richly symbolic approach to portraying the subjects that interested him. Fred attended St. Ann’s Elementary School in the east end where he and his close friends Lou DiStefano and Fabio Gasbarri, were already intensely involved in art. Fred spent grade nine at Scott Park before transferring to Sir John A. Macdonald for the remainder of high school because of its excellence in the arts. Fabio encouraged Fred to take drawing classes at the Conservatory on James Street, where they met Allen Scott, an artist and illustrator, who taught them about drawing and the use of oil paints. 

After high school Fred attended Sheridan College, taking classes in cartooning and then focusing on media studies. He also became a DJ and the station manager for the campus radio station. It was at Sheridan that Fred met Denise. They married and had a son, Cristiano. Fred valued family life and it inspired much of his artwork. Indeed, images that resemble Denise and other family members wove their way into many of his works. “Harvey Street” and “Wedding Day” are perfect examples. Fred celebrated his Italian roots, evident in various works – perhaps most notably “The Muses”.

In the early years of his marriage, Fred found employment at Japan Camera. There Fred learned hands-on about photography and developed a life-long passion for the subject. In 1983, Fred decided to return to school to fulfill his need for artmaking, and enrolled full-time in McMaster University’s Art and Art History program. He was now 29. Becoming the manager of the university art supply shop, he quickly connected with students and faculty.

At university Fred found his true niche. Intellectually, he conversed on a level equal to that of the professors. He became great friends with and was particularly influenced by artists and professors Hugh Galloway and Don Carr. In a way, Fred seemed to us like a professor with his abundance of knowledge about art history, music, politics, film and almost any topic. He seemed to have a photographic memory. Fred was known for his enthusiasm and ability to articulate this knowledge. He was very bold in his opinions – which were many! In discussion with Fred, whether at his studio, over coffee, or at one of the sumptuous and stimulating dinners that he and Denise hosted at their home, we always came away feeling enriched and better off. Despite all his talents and knowledge, Fred was a surprisingly modest person who was self-critical about his artwork.

Throughout university, Fred was an avid painter but he developed a great passion for printmaking – so much so that he purchased a custom-built printing press. After his death, the family donated this press to the McMaster University Art Department where students use it today. During his years at university he distinguished himself with several scholarships and awards and graduated summa cum laude in 1987.

Fred encouraged many local artists to use and share downtown spaces for both studio and exhibition spaces, such as the one he occupied along with other artists at a studio overlooking Gore Park. This was at a time when there were few galleries located anywhere in the city. Fred loved the studio environment and produced paintings through much of the eighties. He became a member of a group of Hamilton artists called the Contemporaries. Companions and like-minded in their aesthetic, The Contemporaries exhibited in Hamilton, Dundas and Toronto. In addition, Fred mounted solo exhibitions at the Carnegie Gallery in Dundas and the Hamilton Artists Inc., and showed work in Burnaby, BC and Barcelona, Spain. Much of his work during this time period turned to a more political nature. He was not afraid to tackle such controversial subjects as the Gulf War (“Media Sideshow”), “Free Trade”, and abortion (“False Messiah”).

In 1987, Fred applied to Western University Teacher’s College and graduated the following year. He said, in reference to teaching, “If I am going to work at something, I want to make a difference.” He took a position teaching art in Niagara Falls, at Saint Paul High School, where he worked for thirteen years, until his death. Fred was active in organizing student trips to various parts of Europe and the United Kingdom and assisting with school plays. He was also instrumental in designing the new arts wing, ensuring that the school had a theatre for school plays and a television studio. He had his students design the school chapel, including a series of stained glass windows. During his time at Saint Paul, he instituted a program whereby the local school board would purchase one piece of artwork per year from a student to hang in the Board office. After Fred’s death, the school, with help from staff, students and parents, undertook to change the student common area into the Ferdinando Bilanzola Gallery, where these works are now displayed.  Fred had always wanted to change the inner courtyard into an area to display student art. This courtyard has now become a place for quiet contemplation, exhibiting student sculpture. In addition, the school established a scholarship fund in Fred’s name.

On March 1st, 2001, Fred and his son were returning home to Niagara Falls from Hamilton. Snowy weather conditions caused his car to swerve out of control into oncoming traffic. Fred did not survive the accident that followed. He was 44.

Since his passing, it has become abundantly clear that Fred touched many lives – more than one would think possible. It is truly fortunate we have his artwork to remind us of his complexity and wit. He lived large and is sorely missed.

* A Ferdinando Bilanzola quote from The Hamilton Spectator, Ego Section, October 1992, in reference to work in "The Contemporaries – Seize and Desire", an exhibition at the Broadway Cinema, Hamilton. Article by Paul Benedetti.

Now, enjoy the artwork of Ferdinando Bilanzola.  °

[Distillate © HA&L +
Paul Ropel-Morski and Judi Burgess  |  {from the Greek bios} -- the course of a life.]