For artists, ideas often emerge from casual moments – a cup of coffee, a glass of wine. Such a moment arose for painter Tom Forrestall in the fall of 2013 on the porch of his grand Victorian merchant’s house in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, during a conversation with his friend Mary O’Regan, about the future of his 35-year-old car. The vehicle in the garage was an icon, a 1980 Mercedes-Benz 300 SD. Forrestall had put it up for sale, but the first tire-kicker at his door made him realize that the vehicle needed to be retired with more grace than a Kijiji ad could muster.
O’Regan suggested he honour the car the way he knew best: by painting it. “Not many cars could survive our climate for over three decades and look this good,” says Forrestall, “the seasons would be the perfect theme.” And so the art project that O’Regan immediately dubbed A Car for All Seasons was born.
Ideas began to flow and the Mercedes-Benz dealership in Halifax offered its round, glass showroom as a studio. Forrestall worked meticulously while customers and passersby checked on his progress. “I often invited them to contribute a brushstroke or two,” says Forrestall. “Art should be accessible and involve the community.” Six months, thousands of painted leaves and 16 layers of clear coat later, a unique 300 SD began a second life as a work of art.
Born in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Forrestall has enjoyed a 50-year career that has been rewarded by induction into the Order of Canada and the Order of Nova Scotia as well as by receiving the Queen’s 50th Jubilee Medal, Canada’s 125th Anniversary Medal and two honorary doctorates. His reputation as a landscape painter has been built on watercolours and ancient egg-tempera techniques that he learned from artists like Alex Colville – not on using a car as a canvas.
But for Forrestall, his 300 SD was more than a mere object, it was a piece of his personal history, one that allowed him to drive to and discover the landscapes he painted. “This project was never for me just an automotive paint job. It is about me, my painting, the car and living in Canada,” he says. “It was a car that I could feel affection for – the car and me, separate but a partnership – I wanted the seasons to be draped over the car like a tapestry.”
I wanted the seasons to be draped over the car like a tapestry.” Tom Forrestall
Tracing the progression from spring at the front of the vehicle to winter at the rear, the intricate design rewards a closer look. Among the painted foliage, viewers will discover portraits of legendary automotive engineers Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler, as well as a portrait of Mercedes, daughter of Emil Jellinek, the Austro-German businessman who, in the early 1900s, commissioned custom Daimler cars which he raced under her name. Benz and Daimler eventually consolidated their expertise and drew on Jellinek’s racing pseudonym to found the Mercedes-Benz brand. Forrestall acknowledges this partnership on the trunk lid with reproductions of their early company logos. In the profusion of plants painted onto the hood, Forrestall also included a special note of thanks to Mary O’Regan for her inspiration and support throughout the project.
Mercedes-Benz Canada is now the new owner of A Car for All Seasons and intends to send it on tour to showrooms and galleries across the country. Its first stop in March and April was the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick – look for it as it moves west throughout the year. (With A Car for All Seasons in new hands, you may wonder what marque the artist is driving now – need you even ask?)
Asked whether the car was the way he had pictured it on the porch all those months ago, Forrestall replies, “You get glimpses at the beginning. Painting just makes things clearer.”