Academy of Realist Art

In loving memory of Donald Coakley

Don served as a mentor and was an advisory board member at ARA since inception. He meant so much to so many people, befriending ARA students of all ages and supporting our community for many years. He lived a rich and full life, deeply immersed in the arts as a prolific composer, musician, and painter.

Over the years, he forged a deep bond with ARA Instructor Ryan Gauvin. We asked Ryan to write a reflection on Don’s life in memory of our dear friend, who will be sorely missed and forever remembered.

Portrait of Don Coakley by alumnus William Nathans

Perhaps the thing that made Don and I the closest of friends was our absolute passion for and complete dedication to the Arts. For us, there was always a complete and focused attention when listening to Brahms or Stravinsky, or standing in front of a Raphael or Rothko. And for more than 15 years we carried on a perennial discussion through every possible variation on the subject of artistic creativity. Nearly every Saturday over a good meal at Vesuvio’s, over the phone (sometimes for hours) on a weekly basis, and of course in the various countries where we traveled together after spending the day with original works.

A meaningful discussion over a great meal was certainly one of Don’s most cherished activities. When we arrived at a new destination, one of his first questions was always, “What restaurants are well liked in this neighbourhood?” Or he’d ask the concierge, “Where do you eat around here?” 

Don’s first passion obviously was music, and when still very young he began his studies in the United States. This had a profound and long lasting effect on him. For he had gone from a small Canadian country town to the rich cultural worlds of Philadelphia and New York City.

Immediately, he was being led through the great art at the Met or Moma and hearing first class Symphony Orchestras. Ormandy in Philadelphia, Szell in Cleveland. Hearing Gould perform Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto under Bernstein, and seeing Serkin enter through the door of a local shop in Philadelphia to enjoy an ice cream with his son.

It was during this time that Don sang in Faure’s Requiem under the direction of the great Nadia Boulanger. And he was in the choir again in Bach’s magnificent B Minor Mass under Robert Shaw. Such events etched deep, and were to prove profound in forming his sense of personal identity.

Still life painting by Don Coakley

After completing his studies he entered into music education. Though labour intensive as it undoubtedly was, he never looked upon it as work, or simply a job he was obligated to fulfill. He always strived to give his students everything he had.

This was America in the 1960’s. On occasion he’d tell me of one young student he’d seen off to Vietnam on a Sunday — having been drafted — and attended the same young man’s funeral the Sunday following. His one regret in life, he would tell me occasionally, was that he didn’t attend the March on Washington.

Don was more dedicated to his wife than anyone I have ever known. Don and Elizabeth married in 1969, and after a few years they moved to Canada. Here, he continued in music education until his retirement in the 90’s. Standing by her through everything, when she passed away he was left in the darkest point of his life. And from her death in 1999 to his in 2022 he remained fiercely loyal to her.

This loyalty is one of the things I cherish most when remembering my good friend. And all through those remaining years there were certain pieces of music he could never listen to alone. The second movement of Barber’s Violin Concerto, or the score for Cinema Paradiso — a film which Elizabeth loved.

In earlier days, all through his years teaching on the Scarborough Board of Education, he would draw during his free time. Art was always there but not yet the serious endeavour that it later became. He also sought art education in differing institutions here in the city until finally finding the ARA. He loved the studio and the community he found there.

He had a strong passion for plein air painting. I’d go so far in saying it was the most enjoyable form of artistic practice for him. And over the years many others would join him out there. His was a boundless energy, and was in almost all ways atypical of those his age.

Having a strong sense of social justice he always tried to help those around him — particularly the young, with most of their lives ahead of them. Having been a teacher all his working life, this instinct continued long after he retired. Sitting someone down and going over a five year plan, or writing a piece of music for an up-and-coming musician were very important moments to him. Most recently, he was able to do this one last time with ARA’s newest student-turned-instructor, Omeed Jasar, whose skill and commitment Don very much admired. He insisted on treating Omeed to a proper frame for a new still life painting, and they went to pick one out together. Don had picked up the framed work and still had it with his belongings when he passed, a symbol of his enduring dedication to mentorship until the very end.

Always, I will remember fondly the comical moments, such as his absolute gift for digression. “Ask Don what time it is,” his son would say, “and he’ll tell you how a watch works.”

I will remember also the serious moments like his struggle to work in a true Classical manner, and certainly the darker moments that inevitably arise in every human life.

There is much I could write, but I’ll end with a memory of personal significance. The most cherished memory I have of him is centred again with his wife. Elizabeth had always wanted to visit Greece, but illness finally prevented a trip from ever occurring. After she passed away, Don held onto her wish that he hoped one day to fulfill: to travel to Greece, find an opportune ruin, and place a photograph of her between the ancient stones.

As the years went by it became more and more a wish stored only in memory. But our friendship grew, and my passion for Greece became the subject and centre of many long conversations. Finally, the day arrived when we decided that Greece would be our next destination.

We spent the first week in Athens, and from there left for Olympia — a picture of Elizabeth safely stored in his luggage. As we walked among the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Hera, and the Philippeion, he tried yet was always thwarted by a guard to find a home for the photograph.

Now, the Temple of Zeus housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: a 40-foot-high statue of Zeus created by the great sculptor Phidias. Incredibly, the studio he used to create this masterpiece is still there. And because this studio still retains enough of its walls it was here, in an artist’s studio obscured from view, that Don was finally able to fulfill the wish of his wife.

That evening over a great meal and rich conversation, he thanked me more than once for helping bring this about. This moment and memory always I’ll treasure most.