The Bill Alexander Story – Part 3

A note to the reader: This article and the ones which follow are drawn from Bill’s 244 page autobiography, The Bill Alexander Story and from a live interview filmed with Bill in 1989.

Photo of Bill Alexander taken in Toronto in 1956

Bill Alexander, Toronto, 1956

A New Life

Many thoughts went through Bill’s mind as the tramp steamer pulled into Halifax Harbor. He thought of a farm, beautiful green fields and cows, lots of cows. He thought of a happy family, plenty of good food and the chance to be with Mother Nature. Thoughts like these can help a man forget the loneliness of separation. Bill had a new start in a new country. A country where he could live and believe as he wanted. Bill Alexander decided he was going to have it his way.

Arrival

Bill arrived in Canada in 1952 with a box of nails, screws, bits, a hammer and a saw — materials and tools for building his first home. The immigration inspector laughed when he saw what Bill brought with him. “Didn’t you think we sold those items here in Canada?” he said. Worse, everything rusted on the trip over, so Bill had to dispose of them almost as soon as he disembarked. This was only the first of Bill’s disappointments.

Bill had big expectations for Canada, but the reality was quite different. People made little money in Halifax and the rich lived in big houses on the outskirts of town – much like in his village back home. For a time, he lived in a barracks with other recently arrived immigrants. Disappointed, but never discouraged, Bill found a job as a printer making sixty cents per hour. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get out of the barracks and pay for a small room over a restaurant. Bill used a broom and some wood to represent the ‘tools of his trade’ — a palette and a brush. He hung this sign out in front of the restaurant to attract attention to his business. Soon he began painting portraits. That brought in a little more money, but it still wasn’t enough. So he took a night job as a janitor in a hotel. He worked two jobs and painted in his spare time. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

Audrey

The owner of a clothing store was the subject of one of Bill’s first portraits. He hung the painting in his store. One day, a young woman saw it and asked to meet the artist. When she met Bill she asked him to give her painting lessons. At first Bill was reluctant because of the language barrier, but Audrey wore him down and he began teaching her. One evening, over dinner, Bill told Audrey about how he had to leave his family in Germany. He hoped, one day, to bring them to Canada. At the rate he was earning money, though, that would take quite a while.

A few days later, Audrey showed up at Bill’s apartment. She drove him to the immigration office, took $600 out of her purse and paid for a ticket for Bill’s wife and daughter to come to Canada. Bill, shocked, told Audrey he could not even begin to think about how he could pay her back. Audrey told Bill this was her gift to him. Bill faced many hardships and disappointments in the first years after his arrival in America. He always seemed to find people, though, who cared about him and did what they could to help him. Audrey introduced Bill to many influential people and Bill painted their portraits. He painted so many portraits that soon his customers started asking for lessons. At first, Bill refused. However, he did not want to disappoint his new friends so he became a teacher.

Railroad

Bill held many jobs during the years he lived in Halifax. One Christmas season, the head of Union Station asked Bill if he would like to work on the railroad, as a pantry man, to earn extra money. This was a prestigious job and Bill would have an opportunity to travel and visit more of this new land he called home. One of the stations was in Winnipeg. During a brief layover Bill jumped off the train and visited some of the printing plants. Bill learned they would pay him five times what he was earning in Halifax for the same job. Later, in Toronto, he discovered he could earn almost ten times as much. It didn’t take Bill long to decide to pack his belongings and move his family to Toronto.

Toronto

Bill was a good worker and a great printer. He excelled at repairing and upgrading old equipment that many of the companies possessed. But the best printing job was at a company that also provided microfilming services. Bill knew nothing about microfilming but he liked to learn new things even if they were difficult at first. He took apart the microfilming machine, learned how it worked and even made improvements to the device. Bill and his boss became good friends. Shortly before Bill left Toronto, his boss offered Bill the printing side of the business.

Toronto was a big city and more than one person exploited Bill’s trusting, naïve nature. There were times when Bill was so disappointed he wanted to return to Germany. He refused, nonetheless, to let negativity stop him from achieving his dream of a better life. Upon reflection in later years, he said that he always felt the good times outweighed the bad.

Meistermaler

In spite of Bill’s early successes, he always felt he could do more. He was like the itinerant painter of his village when he was a boy. Perhaps he missed the wandering he did as a youth. Once again, Bill took to the open road to, as he put it, “…capture the images of this mighty country on canvas.” Bill still had much to learn. And he had a big decision to make.

Next Week: Becoming a Happy Painter

The Bill Alexander Story – Part 2

A note to the reader: This article and the ones which follow are drawn from Bill’s 244 page autobiography, The Bill Alexander Story and from a live interview filmed with Bill in 1989.

Photo of Bill in the art studio his captors made for him while he was a prisoner of war at Marseilles.

Bill pauses to be photographed in his new art studio while an American soldier tries his hand at painting a portrait of his brother and his wife from a photograph. Bill’s paintings are in the background.

Bill awoke that cold early morning to the sound of bleating. As he poked his head above his foxhole he saw sheep running toward his position. Sheep move toward people, he thought. As the sheep came closer, he realized they were crying in terror. Behind them, Russian soldiers were firing their rifles and throwing grenades. In a moment the whole area was in uproar with sheep, exploding shells and flying bullets. “Why the devil am I here?” thought Bill. It was no time for philosophical questions because in the next moment a Russian soldier smashed Bill in the head with a rifle.

“I hate wars. I wish our leaders would find a way of dealing with people and countries as our brothers.” — Bill Alexander

Landscapes of War

Bill’s dream was to be a game warden. With his love of nature and the opportunity to continue painting, it would have been the perfect job. A job like this, though, required twelve years of military service. So Bill joined the army. Unfortunately, the rise of the Nazi party, another World War and three bullets would end Bill’s dream.

Early Army Career

By the time Bill joined the army he had a wife and daughter. He was a sergeant stationed on some islands off the coast of Norway. Assigned to the boring and tedious work of digging ditches, Bill and his men developed a signaling system. It would alert them when officers arrived for inspection. The officers, though, discovered Bill’s system and were insensitive to the soldiers’ dreary circumstances. As punishment, they reassigned Bill to the Russian Front where the fighting and tactics on both sides were brutal.

The Eastern Front

Combat on the Eastern Front was fierce. Yet even in war, Bill sought beauty in nature. While walking in the nearby countryside during a lull in the fighting, he encountered a Russian solder on a bridge. Bill befriended the man at  risk to his own life. It was a brief moment of friendship in the midst of war. For the third time a bullet found its mark on Bill. He was recuperating at a hospital on the Rhine river. He learned that recovered soldiers went to the Eastern Front one week and to the Western Front the next. If he waited for his wounds to heal completely, he knew he would  go to the Eastern Front. Preferring to face the Americans rather than the Russians, he convinced a doctor to discharge him a week early.

Suicide Mission

Bill’s last military assignment was a suicide mission. Patton’s Third Army was approaching. Officers ordered Bill and his eight man bazooka platoon to hold a forward position in front of the advancing army. Bill waivered. The officers assured him there were soldiers in front and behind for support. Bill and his men advanced to meet the tanks. He soon realized he and his men were all alone. As Bill advanced, he looked behind to embolden his men. They were gone. He realized he was alone in front of the American army. Desperate to save his life, Bill found a  nearby French village where he had befriended one of the villagers. He convinced the man to let him hide in his home until morning when he could return to his unit. When he awoke the next day, Bill saw a group of German soldiers sitting on the ground with their hands behind their heads. For Bill Alexander, the fighting was over.

Prisoner of War

In Marseilles there was a giant holding pen for tens of thousands of German prisoners. Every few days a jeep would arrive. A sergeant would ask if anyone had a specific skill: baker, cook, tailor or even someone who spoke English. The sergeant never asked for an artist; and impatient with doing nothing, Bill decided to say he was a barber. The next day the sergeant returned, and asked for a barber. Bill raised his hand, sprang to his feet and yelled, “I’m the best barber in the world.” Now all Bill needed to learn was how to cut hair. In exchange for rations, a barber taught Bill some basic skills. Bill’s first haircuts were terrible. Over time, with patience, he learned to cut hair, and became the best barber in the camp. Bill decided to set his barbershop apart from the rest. He decorated the walls with his paintings and provided drinks to the officers. One day an officer noticed his paintings and asked Bill to paint his portrait. Bill painted one portrait after another. One day a Captain asked him to paint a portrait of his parents from a photograph. The officer was so pleased with the painting that he set Bill up with a real artist’s studio. Bill’s open and friendly nature helped him develop a respectful relationship with his captors. They gave him free run of Marseilles and encouraged him to emigrate to America.

Legacy of War

Photo of Bill's wife, Margarete and daughter, Heidi at their home in Giessen Germany during Christmas.

Heidi, Margaret and Bill celebrate Christmas in Giessen in 1951

Bill was the last prisoner of war released from Camp 401. He had nowhere to go. His village was gone, swallowed up into the Russian federation. His family was in a displaced persons camp somewhere inside Russia. With the help of officers who had encouraged him, Bill moved to Giessen. He got a job at an American soldier’s club drawing print posters and handbills. Germany was in turmoil after the war. Most of the young men were either dead or captured. Inflation was rampant and the black market flourished. Bill survived by finding jobs here and there and painting, always painting. He never stopped trying to find his family. One day, Bill received a letter. His wife and daughter, safe, would soon return. The family spent the next two years in Giessen. By this time, Bill knew that his future was no longer in his homeland, so he decided to emigrate to America. Leaving his wife and daughter behind until he could build them a home, he left to begin a new life in a new country.

Next Week: A New Life

The Bill Alexander Story – Part 1

It Begins

Photo of Bill, his mother and brother Paul taken in Berlin in 1917

Bill’s mother holds him steady as she and brother Paul pose for a family portrait in Berlin in 1917.

As the guns of the first World War pounded the countryside, the Russian army advanced on a small village in East Prussia. An old man packed a wagon with hay and straw and gathered up his pregnant daughter and grandson and a few family belongings. They were about to begin a trek hundreds of miles from what would become the site of one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of that century. In the early Spring of 1915, the daughter gave birth to another son in the German capital of Berlin. It would be two more years before that family returned to their village. William “Bill” Alexander would grow up in the aftermath of the war’s desolation.

Aftermath

Bill was raised in abject poverty. His family had nothing. After the first World War there was nothing. As Bill would write in his autobiography, “Nothing but dead cows and machine guns bared and lying around and skeletons of soldiers half-buried with the boots sticking out of the ground.” Children played among the remnants of war, often injuring themselves as a grenade exploded and sent metal slivers into their bodies. Because of his parents, Bill would grow up with a much different view of life than what he saw around him.

Father

Photo of a group of workmen building a canal in East Prussian in 1925

Bill’s father leading a work crew building a canal in East Prussia, about 1925

Bill’s father fought in the Great War and was wounded three times. He was the foreman of a team of workers who maintained the land in the village which was used for farming. East Prussia was still a feudal society with the poor villagers supporting wealthy landowners while trying to eke out a living for themselves and their families. His father denounced war and swore neither he nor his children would have any part in it ever again. That attitude would cost Bill’s father his life at the hands of the Nazis for “unpatriotic sentiments.” Bill’s father, however, taught his sons to honor life and appreciate the beauty that still existed in the world around them.

Mother

Bill’s mother was a frail woman who developed tuberculosis when Bill was very young. In spite of her sickness she worked hard to give her family a good life in the midst of such poverty and despair. She was the center of their family life and while Bill dearly loved his mother he was not above being an impish youth. Events of his childhood are full of stories of pranks and adventures with his two brothers.

The love of family was evident. Many evenings the family gathered in the warmth of their flickering fireplace and, with Bill accompanying on the fiddle, they sang the songs of his parents’ youth.

Mother Nature

Bill’s mother died when he was fourteen years old. Bill took his mother’s death very hard and while it was a difficult time for him, he was adopted by another mother — Mother Nature. His “new mother” helped Bill find a way to see the positive side of life. He enjoyed what few pleasures he had – the raw honey from bees that Bill kept in wooden cigar boxes or the sweet taste of the yolk of a raw egg from a hen he raised. In spite of the war torn countryside around him, Bill found beauty in the fields, the black forests and the song of the skylarks. Bill and his childhood friends would lie in the fields, look up at the sky and dream of a better tomorrow. Bill learned that no matter how bad things are today, there is always tomorrow and tomorrow could be better.

I Learn To Paint

Photo of a winter painting by Bill Alexander recalling his youth in East Prussia

Childhood Memories, recalled and painted in December, 1965.

As a young boy, Bill was always interested in art. He was particularly fascinated by an itinerant painter who would visit his village from time to time and paint the farmers’ homes. He remarks in his autobiography that the artist wasn’t very good but “…he sure was quick.”   After his mother died, Bill was apprenticed to a saddle maker and carriage upholsterer. One of Bill’s jobs was to paint the finishing touch on the carriages. These were usually images of flowers, landscapes or even images of the hunts which were popular among the wealthy. Later, he would paint large murals in the homes of the wealthy landowners who lived near the village.   As a young man, Bill became an itinerant painter himself. He wandered the East Prussian countryside painting portraits, landscapes and farm scenes on everything — canvas, the walls of buildings, and wooden panels. At night, he slept under the stars or he painted in exchange for lodging and food. It was a wonderful opportunity for a young man to ply his trade and learn about the world around him as he moved from one Prussian village to another.   Bill wanted to learn more, though, and for a brief time he was tutored by an artist in a small university town. His thirst for knowledge could not be satisfied. He knew he needed – wanted – to learn even more. That art training, however, would have to wait until yet another world war ended.

Next week:  War Years

More Than A Painter

William "Bill" Alexander

William “Bill” Alexander

Bill Alexander was more than a painter. He was more than an artist.

When you watch Bill’s videos you will not only see someone who paints beautiful images; but, if you listen to what he says while he is painting, you will learn what makes Bill’s contribution to art so very important.

As a kid I loved watching cartoons. In fact, I still do. I grew up with the cartoons of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Woody Woodpecker. But my favorite cartoon character was Popeye the Sailor. I loved Popeye because of what he said “between the lines”. Some folks might call it “muttering”; but Popeye’s “mutterings” contained true pearls of wisdom and were an expression of his views of life. If you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t hear them and they would be lost forever.

When I watch Bill paint it’s as much for his philosophy and words of wisdom as it is to learn how he creates his images. This is what makes Bill’s work so very important for all of us who care about him and are interested in furthering his work.

Bill’s greatest contribution to art was not his paintings, although they are wonderful images conjured up in the mind of a truly imaginative genius.

Bill’s greatest contribution was not his television shows although they were important in getting him known and exposing his work to a broader audience than the hundreds of folks who would flock to the shopping malls to watch him paint early in his career.

Bill’s greatest contribution was not even the model he gave us of his own life and career as interesting and astounding as that was.

Bill’s greatest gift to all of us was to show us that we could create art; that we could become the artist. That we had, within us, an ability to express ourselves in a creative and imaginative way that would empower us to become greater than we dare believed we were.

I have watched many, many artists on YouTube. What I find interesting about most of them is that they really show you little more than how well they paint. I wonder how many folks, after watching some of these painting demonstrations actually pick up a paint brush and start their own art journey. I’m sure there are a few; but it was Bill’s dream that every single person he met would pick up that brush and begin to paint.

In the most recent video we posted on YouTube with the late artist Diane Andre, Bill states, very clearly, his concern about being “only one Bill Alexander”. It was during this period he began to build a training program which would include a cadre of artists who would sweep across America and the world training more and more people to paint.

I truly believe, in Bill’s heart, he felt that painting and art would free people from the chains of fear, inadequacy, and self doubt that he, himself, experienced in his life. Painting would help them become confident, creative individuals who would not only create art for themselves, but would become so excited about their new skills that they would want to continue their journey by teaching others what they learned and experienced.

We know that in order to become better at anything, you need to teach. Only by teaching will the lessons learned become an integral part of your very being. Only by teaching will you reach your fullest potential. Only by teaching can you truly empower another human being to become all they can be.

I have no doubt that if Bill could have taught every single human being on the planet, one on one, to paint, he would have done it. But he couldn’t. However, in the video he also introduced us to the beginnings of the Alexander Certification program.

Near the end of his career, Bill extracted a promise from Laurie to continue his work after he was gone. This is a promise we take very seriously at Alexander Art. It is our driving mission and in the coming months you will see how very serious we are about this!

Bill’s entire life was about giving to others. You can see that in every video he made. The words of encouragement to his viewers to “fire in” with that paint brush, the lightheartedness while he worked to show how enjoyable painting was, and the glee he exuded as he poked fun at the blank canvas were as important as the paintings themselves.

Join us in our campaign to empower old and new students alike with the Bill Alexander method of painting. Help us wake up the creativity that lives in all of us. And help us spread Bill’s mission to everyone on the planet.

You Can Paint, We Promise!

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photo of bill in front of Old MacDonald's Farm painting

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bill looking at self portrait

William (Bill) Alexander

April 2, 1915 – January 24, 1997

a child painting seascape

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