Born In South Africa 1942
Studied at St. Martins School of Art (1963- 1966)
Lived in Victoria, British Columbia since 1973
A Short Twist Pt.1
Born as Roland Byron Reichman I became Roland Baron Brener. Reichman gave way to Brener when my mother remarried and wanted Jasper and me, her two sons, to have the same name as her own. Byron became Baron the first time I applied for a passport and, concerned that trouble would occur if I pointed out the clerical error, I accepted Baron.
One evening, at the age of seven, I said goodbye to our home on the coast . My mother packed us into a car and drove inland. Our father to be, aged thirty nine, left his mother and set out to meet us halfway and escort us to our new home. Approaching this midnight rendezvous he crashed and was seriously injured. We moved into our new house without him and he joined us when he was released from the hospital some months later.
A Short Twist Pt.2
My mother’s new husband seemed a terrifying creature from another world. Occasionally Leo would read to me at bedtime and, if I closed my eyes, his voice became the empty roar of staved barrels careening towards me as I waited, trapped at the bottom. I invented escapes.
Once, at dusk, I knocked on the door of a friend and told his mother it was a matter of life or death, I must borrow his electric train set for the weekend. A man was threatening to kill pigeons in the park unless I followed his instructions and set up the train immediately. She laughed, then frowned, and I got the train set for one evening. Trained rats lived in the dark crawl-space under our house, I told a boy at school. We opened the cellar door and peering into the darkness he said he could hear them squealing when I called their names.
A Short Twist Pt.3
My desk was always centre front row. The teachers hoped to focus my attention though I could not see the blackboard. My older brother Jasper, who could understand me despite my early speech impediments, scoffed at the suggestion that I might have poor eyesight. I got my first pair of glasses at the age of thirteen and suddenly the world was full of sharp edges. My school performance did not improve.
Embarrassed by spectacles I hardly ever wore them until my twenties. I failed to recognise people, was terrified of catching balls and had several accidents on motorcycles, the last resulting in severe concussion and double vision. The family doctor said not to bother calling him next time I fell on my head.
The Latin teacher would lean over my desk while speaking to the class. She placed her text book next to mine and, seeing a paper inserted in her’s, I switched books. When I got home I found that I had stolen a copy of our final exam. It was passed around to other students and became soiled and grubby. During the next class I reinserted it into her book. She studied the book for some time in silence. In the frightening quiet I was told to stand and then stay after class. I was told to speak. I had taken her book by mistake and, when realising the significance of the paper it contained, had panicked and returned it without reading a word. She asked to see my hands and studied them at length. I had honest hands.
Thank you Ms… I doubt you’re still alive, but that was the best moment of my school experience. Despite her reproach that every word of the forthcoming exam would have to be rewritten, it remained unchanged. Many boys in the class scored perfect. I failed as I had neither copied the questions nor prepared the answers.
A Short Twist Pt.4
When school reports were due at home I waited anxiously for the postman to arrive. Tearing open the envelope I replaced the report with one of my own making, elevating my performance from last in class to the middle. The fabricated grades made me almost as proud as if I had earned them by honest work. My mother reluctantly accepted this shallow deceit.
The question was asked- why did I open an envelope addressed to her- and there was silence. Preparing for the future, I created an illusion, and then willed both my mother and myself to believe it. Neither of us knew then that this was a preparation for the role of artist.
I failed all my subjects for the last time and dropped out of school. In one of the last classes I was described by my most feared teacher as someone who belonged at the bottom. The student who scored 34th to my 35th was berated: With Brener here we understand, but with your intelligence you should be ashamed.
A Short Twist Pt.5
An aptitude test followed. Questions like: would you rather raise chickens or listen to long-playing records? The psychologist to my mother: He may be inclined towards language but doesn’t have high skills; try him at printing. Then an interview. Sitting in the outer office of the print works for several hours. By the time the boss calls me in I am catatonic from the din of printing machines. The boss to my mother: He’s just too slow for the trade.
My first job would be in a tiny office as a filing clerk in a mining company, marking off items on cards from a thick pile of requisitions that arrived each morning. Inventory was maintained on a Cardex filing system consisting of an entire wall of metal trays with cards that lay flat until pulled out. I soon discovered that by wedging a ruler horizontally into a Cardex file and dropping my Bic pen onto it’s partially recessed spring, it would jump the ruler.
If the Bic succeeded, the ruler was raised to the next level of trays. My two co-workers were introduced to this office sport and became obsessed. Bics were taken home and customised, their springs doubled, their weight trimmed. In daily competition Bics almost touched the ceiling. Though never quite champion I was proud to have initiated a diversion that enthralled my fellow workers.
A Short Twist Pt.6
A year later, to escape conscription at home into the loathsome S.A. army, I volunteered into a foreign army and served two years as a paratrooper. But I was not a good soldier. The company commander called me to attention before three hundred men, ” This pathetic scum is here to make an impression. Sure, the moment he’s out he’s going to say I was a paratrooper, yes, I volunteered, they needed me. Well, we know the truth don’t we? This worm is nothing but a burden, a liability. We tolerate him because we don’t want to cause an incident, you piece of shit. It’s beneath me to punish something like you. Get out of my sight.”
Despite the officer’s pronouncement, I was punished. There was never freedom from persecution and never enough sleep. I dug holes up to my neck or lit fires on nearby hills, woke the sergeant to look, and then went back to put them out. During my teens and early adulthood I was in trouble and punished for one thing or another. It was still not clear that, through the elimination of other possibilities, I had been designated the role of artist and was performing a function in society. My virtues needed clarification and my skills the refinement that came slowly with time.
Copyright 1997 Roland Brener/PICA