The unforgettable experience of seeing Waterloo's King Street, with the five-bulb light posts for the first time on that cold snowy December day in 1924, still gives me a deep satisfaction. This was to be my “home-town” in the new land.
After a long adventurous journey across the vast expanse of Russia in box cars and then across the stormy Atlantic on a small ship, the sight of Waterloo's gently rolling hills with the fenced-off orchards, fields and forests, the clusters of the farm buildings was a revelation. I was only fourteen and had very little art training but I knew then, my mission was to paint what I saw.
That was fifty years ago—and now in 1974 when I stand among the tall buildings and bridges of New York City, which I have also chosen to record, I often think of my first Canadian home-town. I thank God for having had the opportunity, then and now, of painting that extraordinary spot on this earth called Waterloo County.
The success story of Woldemar Neufeld begins in southern Russia where he was born of prosperous Mennonite parents in 1909. When he was ten years old he informed his father of his desire to become an artist. Neufeld recalls, “My father, an engineer, had no trouble convincing me that I wanted to be a bridge-builder instead.” Woldemar painted bridges and his engineering heritage permeated the subject matter of much of his painting, graphics, and sculpture.
In 1921 the shifting fortunes of opposing armies in the Civil War brought starvation and terror to the Ukraine. So the Neufeld family, prominent in their home town of Waldheim, sought anonymity by moving south to the city. Instead of finding peace they met disaster as Father Neufeld was seized, shot, and killed.
Two years later, with the revolution over, the surviving Neufelds faded into the relatively safe obscurity of a farming district in the Crimea and his mother married Jacob H. Janzen, Mennonite clergyman and schoolmaster.
In 1924 Janzen, being forewarned by a friend of further imminent adversity, led his family to emigrate to the prosperous and bustling community of Waterloo, Ontario. There Woldemar went to school and to work learning new customs and a new language.
In Waterloo and nearby Kitchener, the young Neufeld earned his keep on farms and studied art as best he could: in the schools he attended, through correspondence courses, by looking at the works of other artists when he could, and by experimenting on his own. Once out of school, he worked as a sign painter and commercial artist in print shops. In his spare time he helped to found the Art Society of Kitchener, at whose exhibitions his oils and drawings found their first public success.
Well, I can tell you that my stepfather was a German and he felt that the German language should be preserved among us, even though we lived in Canada. So he subscribed to German magazines. They were crude magazines, crude paper, and crudely printed. This was about 1927. But they had very powerful black-and-white illustrations that I began to copy these Expressionists who made these crude illustrations for the stories. And that got me going.
Neufeld's first black-and-white linocuts were made of such typical Waterloo subjects as the Central School entrance, the Collegiate steps, the United Church, the Waterloo Park boat house, and even the store-front entrance to the artist's own studio on King Street. For them, he took technique from the Expressionists, but not aesthetics, for these are charming images, not harsh forms simplified, the subjects intriguingly cropped, the compositions basic and strong—the sort of prints he was later to make in Cleveland. Alas, “In Waterloo these did not sell so well.” It was time to move on. But before doing so he began to make ambitious sketching trips to northern Ontario, and was able to complete a number of oils. But even in the north he found himself turning more to buildings, to man-made things, than as he has put it, to the “pines of Tom Thomson.”
His formal art training began in Toronto, but in 1935 he entered the Cleveland Art School, where, upon graduation in 1939, he was awarded the Agnes Gund Scholarship. That year he returned to paint his dearly loved Waterloo and to marry his high school sweetheart, Peggy Conrad. In 1941 he received his B.S. in Art Education degree from Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. In 1945, with the wider horizons of the New York city art world beckoning, Neufeld moved there and set up a studio. After the birth of his fourth child in 1949 he decided the big city was no place to raise a family, and he moved to New Milford, CT, where he maintained a studio until the time of his death in 2002.
A realistic painter, interested in recording all he has seen, he draws inspiration from Albrecht Dürer about whom he says, “Dürer's detailed studies of nature and architecture no doubt has influenced me in my style of combining watercolor with pen and ink."
The joy, optimism, and enthusiasm for life which so typifies the man and his art must have developed during his boyhood days in Waterloo where he shed any bitterness or hostility arising from his boyhood experiences of revolution, famine, and the life of a refugee.
While his painting is historical, its vital force is emotional. He paints his love of places and his hope for the future into each landscape. There is concern for man's use of nature and for his triumph over natural forces as seen in his bridges, buildings, and roads.
Speaking of Pieter Bruegel, he says, “I don't know whom I admire more, Bruegel the artist or Bruegel the historian. The ability to record a certain time and environment with such magnificent painting has attracted me to the Dutch masters since I was very young.” He adds, “If I were told that the inhabitants of the 21st century will get an approximate description of the 20th century industrial picture through my work, I would be a very happy fellow.”
His works are owned by many industrial corporations and private collectors. Some of his art has been acquired by such institutions as:
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Museum of the City of New York
- Brooklyn Museum, NY
- Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
- New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut
- Springfield Museum of Fine Art, Massachusetts
- Holyoke Museum of Natural History and Art, Massachusetts
- Library of Congress, Washington, DC
- Boston Public Library, Boston, MA
- New York Public Library, New York, NY
- Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, ON
- Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, ON
- Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
- Vancouver Art Gallery
- City of Kitchener
- Kresge Art Museum, Michigan State University, East Lansing MI