Until 2001, up a narrow flight of stairs, in a historic downtown building at 119½ King Street West, were the remains of a business closed for over 40 years - Wolfe Studios. Still, scattered on the floor neatly in little boxes were thousands of photographs in small brown envelopes. Most labeled with names and addresses written in pencil. A few stacks of larger portraits lay on the counter, very striking, one in particular of Artis (Shreve) Lane. In a corner of a tiny dark room was a stack of paintings left by the Studio Ten painters who had rented the space in the early 60s, after Wolfe retired. The front of the store, overlooking King Street, was used to sell art supplies and frames, and as a space where Wolfe exhibited his paintings. At the back of the building, in the photography room, all that remained was a small bench and the diamond shaped leaded glass windows that looked out over the river. It was not difficult, to imagine the days when people in Chatham would climb the stairs to enter George Wolfe's world.
George Wolfe moved to Chatham in the early 1900s and for the next 50 years worked in the photography business. He photographed weddings, birthdays, young men in uniform going off to war - he documented thousands of people from Chatham-Kent.
Photography played a significant role in the development of Wolfe’s painting style. It dictated formal aspects of composition and the importance of realistic portrayal. While photography was his job, painting was his true love.
A friendship with Alexander Fleming must have influenced Wolfe towards painting, but Wolfe did not begin to paint until after Fleming's death in 1929. A number of Wolfe’s early paintings, especially of seascapes and thatched roof cottages remind us of Fleming’s work. Wolfe, in later years, revisited and painted scenes from Belfountain and the Credit River. These areas he had accompanied Fleming in the 1920s. A few of Wolfe’s early canvases are signed “Geo. Wolfe after AM Fleming,” showing that Wolfe was studying and possibly copying Fleming paintings as he learned his craft.
Wolfe was a central figure in the Chatham visual arts community. He was a member and president of the Chatham-Kent Artists Association, a group that organized and presented art exhibitions in Kent County in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. In the spring, summer, and fall, Wolfe arranged painting excursions on Thursday afternoons. Picture George Wolfe, with fellow artists and friends Mary Abraham, Gordon Lang, Eleanor Smith, and Adele Read, packing their paints and sketchpads into a '43 Plymouth. Driven by Floss Wolfe the group travelled out and documented the far corners of the county. In the winter months, the back room of Wolfe's business was used as a studio for their Thursday get-togethers. The group would have live models to draw and would exchange ideas and techniques.
Visit an established home in Chatham today and the odds are good that you will find a George Wolfe painting on the wall. Many with stories that date back to the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; paintings of landmarks like McGeachy Pond, Wilson's Bush, or McGregor's Creek; paintings that hold special memories of days past, handed down from one generation to the next.
George Wolfe made major contributions to the advancement of the arts in Chatham-Kent. His "Kent County" landscapes present a shared geographical place and establish an identity that is unique to this area of rural Southwestern Ontario.