ROCKPORT — Oliver Balf lived an interesting life.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he served in the Navy at the end of World War II; played cornet and hung out in jazz clubs; illustrated fashion and other ads for The Boston Globe; helped found and taught at what is now Montserrat College of Art in Beverly; illustrated children’s books; and worked with Parker Brothers in toy and game design.
But painting was all he really wanted to do, said Nancy Balf, his wife from 1952 until his death at age 83 in 2010.
“I think painting was such a major part of his life that it, not overshadowed, but colored a lot of different things. Because in the back of his mind he would have always liked to paint, period,” she said.
And paint he did. On a recent afternoon, she led a tour of their home since 1963, tucked away on a narrow hilltop lane just south of Rockport Harbor. Oliver’s paintings decorated almost every wall on the ground floor. Upstairs, more paintings were everywhere: hung on the walls, leaning in stacks against furniture, flat in storage boxes, and rolled in a closet. At last count, 972 paintings that have been photographed, catalogued, and archived, with many more in waiting.
“Mom’s doing a great job representing my dad’s work,” said the couple’s son, Thomas Balf. “It’s a healing process — and a challenging process.”
At “challenging,” Nancy nodded in vigorous agreement. “Ollie” Balf was not one for titling his pictures, nor dating them, nor keeping meticulous records. She’s had help from family and friends, and also a crew of interns from Montserrat, who photographed and catalogued the paintings in 2012.
Like many painters, Balf changed his style over the years, more radically than many. His early, rather academic oils of Cape Ann scenes from Gloucester harbor to Pigeon Cove quarries gave way to looser, more expressionist watercolors of the same scenes. Paintings of trees in Ravenswood Park focused on form and color. He painted still lifes of fruit and lobsters, but also portraits of the jazz artists he loved.
“My perspective is — as we all get older and understand how challenging raising kids and pursuing your passion and making money are, or just how difficult change is — to look at his body of work and admire his change over time,” said Thomas Balf.
“He had certain bodies of work that he explored for decades,” said Leonie Bradbury, director and curator of the Montserrat galleries. “But they could be very diverse, between those bodies of work.”
Her favorites, she said, are watercolor kitchen scenes with fruits or tomatoes and blue plates: “You can really see his mastery of the medium.”
Balf’s late work focused on what the family calls “word paintings,” in which bright, seemingly abstract shapes conceal distorted letters spelling JAZZ and other words. “The kids can figure them out faster than we can,” said Thomas Balf, referring to the artist’s seven grandchildren.
Brothers Thomas, Todd, and Michael took their father’s time at the easel in stride. He was a fast painter, anyway.
“It would be like, ‘OK, I’m going to go out and do a watercolor,’ ” Thomas Balf said, starting to laugh. “Todd and I would be playing basketball or something, and he’d be back in half an hour, which is the blink of an eye for a kid. And it was like, ‘I thought you were going painting!’ ‘I did, I went to Old Garden Beach, and here it is, and now I’m settling in for the Sox game for the afternoon.’ ”
A native of Rye, N.Y., Oliver Balf first came to Rockport in 1947, according to the family. He and his roommate at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Frank Shade, spent that summer in a tent off South Street and painting all over town. Returning each summer, he later worked in a frame shop on Tuna Wharf and, his family said, spent most of his meager wages at the Hawthorne Inn jazz club in East Gloucester.
At some point, he briefly met Nancy Dean Miller, but he didn’t ask for her number until they ran into each other again in 1952 at Lou Terrasi’s jazz club in New York City. A couple of months later, they were married. By 1955, they were living in Rockport and starting a family. And he was still painting. In 1961, he received the best young artist prize from the Rockport Art Association.
But he had a family to support. He and some of his artist pals commuted together to the Globe in Boston, where they worked nights for a few years illustrating ads. “In those days, nobody had any money and everybody was scuffling,” Nancy Balf said with a nostalgic smile.
He and his friends also taught at the New England School of Art, and in the late 1960s, Balf was one of about 10 who banded together to start Montserrat. They had specific notions about art education “and I think they thought the commute would be easier,” Nancy Balf said with a laugh.
Balf paintings sold through galleries in Boston and Rockport over the years, and a few may be borrowed back for the show. But there’s a sense that maybe he hasn’t quite gotten his due.
“Around here people know him,” said Bradbury. “But it would be nice if his reputation could go beyond the North Shore and Boston.”
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.