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Wednesday January 6, 2010

An illness took him from paint to pixels

When arthritis forced the Newfoundland artist to lay down his brush, he picked up a mouse and became a pioneer in the field of digital fine art When rheumatoid arthritis forced the Newfoundland artist to lay down his brush, he picked up a mouse and became a pioneer in the field of digital fine art

Special to The Globe and Mail

Visual artist Ron Pelley used software as deftly as he once wielded a pencil or paintbrush, with great accuracy and an attuned sense of light. He was a pioneer and problem-solver in a new field of digital fine art, and his work was collected across North America even as other visual artists chatting in on-line forums sought his advice. But he also battled the perception that these works were not as valuable as his paintings had been.

"People think if you're doing something on a computer, you just press a button, and viola!" said his son, Andrew. But Mr. Pelley painstakingly built his images from hundreds and hundreds of parts, details and choices, assembling intricate 3-D infrastructures that he then manipulated into pieces of incredible delicacy, depth and bounce. "Everything he did on the computer he did from scratch," said his daughter, Rhonda. "And he mastered it."

Ron Pelley was the third youngest of six boys and two girls born to Harry, who worked as a machinist on the railway, and Florence (Fancey). He grew up in Bishop's Falls, a town in central Newfoundland that was an important railway junction, but that industry never attracted him. He was always interested in art, making graphite drawings and oil paintings from childhood. Before he finished Grade 11, he was teaching art to fellow students at the local school, stepping up to fill a void in the curriculum.

At 18 he went to St. John's and worked at the old General Hospital as an OR technician. Even here his artistic skills were obvious and he did medical drawings for the doctors, who encouraged him to pursue medical illustration as a career. He did want to go to art school and scouted out the possibilities. In 1967 he married Sandra LeGrow (they'd met when he roomed at her family's boarding house on Gower Street), and soon after they left for the Kootenay School, where he studied for three years, graduating with honours, following that with a year studying philosophy and English at Notre Dame University in Nelson, B.C.

Back in St. John's, he was represented by Ernie Mauskopf, who had a gallery on Duckworth Street. Mr. Pelley's style was realism and he did portraits, landscapes and still lifes in acrylic and tempera, with some watercolour. His work sold well and he was also tapped for such projects as an installation on Signal Hill commissioned by the Johnson Foundation in the early 1990s.

Then came some bad luck. In 1993 he developed rheumatoid arthritis, which came on "very quickly, very severely, very devastatingly," said his wife Sandra. It twisted his hands so badly he could not hold a brush. In fact, he was so incapacitated he was bedridden for about two years, and this brought on depression.

"I decided he needed something, and brought him home a computer," Sandra said. She set up the Pentium 1-200, with 64 megabyte RAM, and the first copy of Windows 95, in the hallway. At first her husband refused to touch it, but soon became intrigued, and then thoroughly engaged. At the same time his doctors had also calibrated a successful series of medications that allowed him to feel better. He was soon working 15 hours a day.

But this was before digital photography was widespread, and galleries were not interested. Mr. Pelley, who rarely concentrated on marketing his work, vastly preferring the creative side, was stymied. Then M. F. Kelly, a St. John's art supply store with a small exhibition space, accepted and hung his work. It sold.

In the following years, he was the subject of a seven-minute film, Ron's Gift, by Anne Stirling (2002); was featured in Fifty Golden Years: The illustrated story of Newfoundland and Labrador's Union with Canada (Stirling Press, 1999), and was also commissioned by Stirling Press to make a stamp commemorating Confederation. He had an exhibition at the Resource Centre for the Arts in 1998 and another with daughter Rhonda in 1999. At his computer, he worked constantly. "In the end he thought it was a better creative outlet for him," said Sandra. "It would take him a month to do a painting. On the computer, he was still meticulous, but he could save one image, and start another, and save that and start another. It was fantastic for him."

Ronald Pelley Ronald Harrison Pelley was born April 4, 1945, in Bishop's Falls, Nfld. He died in St. John's on Dec. 28, 2009, of pulmonary fibrosis, a side effect of medication for rheumatoid arthritis. He leaves his wife Sandra, daughter Rhonda, and son Andrew.

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