In 1915, with the First World War well underway, anxiety grew among Canadians that enemies were not only overseas but also within our borders. Government posters encouraged everyone to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviour. On Nov. 25, the St. Marys Journal reprinted an article from the London Free Press: “A St. Marys Artist had an Unenviable Experience with London Policemen while Sketching down the River near Springbank.”
The artist was William Greason, born in 1882 on a farm in West Nissouri and raised there as one of William and Ellen Greason’s eight children. From an early age young William seemed compelled to paint and he convinced his practical, hard-working farm family to let him follow this vocation. His first formal instruction was at Miss R. A. Morphy’s studio on Station Street in St. Marys. Dr. Thomas Sparks had his consulting office just next door and saw real talent in the boy’s painting. He encouraged him to continue his lessons in nearby London with another West Nissouri-born artist, J. P. Hunt. In 1903, William went to study at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and subsequently spent several years in Europe.
In 1910, Greason opened a studio on Broadway Avenue in Detroit, a city that remained his base for most of his working life. The location allowed him to be part of developments in American art but also gave him easy access to his home and family in Southern Ontario. The photograph of him posing in his studio belongs to his niece, Sheila Greason, who still lives on the farm where her famous uncle was born.
In 1915, when the incident with the policemen took place, he had motored with a friend from Detroit to London for a short visit and was staying with relatives. He always travelled with sketching gear and as he was strolling around London, a view down the Thames near Springbank Park caught his eye. A building close to the water and the reflection of its brick walls appealed to him and he began to sketch the scene.
However, his activities alarmed the occupants of several nearby homes who contacted the police. The building Greason was sketching was the city waterworks and these citizens suspected he was planning an act of sabotage. The police officers wanted Greason to accompany them to the station but he refused, stating that he was Canadian-born, had family members nearby and was a well-established Detroit artist. He said he had no idea that he was sketching the waterworks — he thought it might be some sort of dance pavilion. The police were convinced and allowed Greason to resume his work.
William Greason won many honours and awards before he died in 1945. He will be one of the people featured in the St. Marys Museum’s next seminar, Picture Perfect, Thursday, March 19, presenting artists — both historic and contemporary — with connections to this community. For information, call 519-284-3556.