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Private (Ret’d) James Keirstead

There are somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 of James Keirstead’s paintings out in the world. After nearly six decades as a successful artist of landscape and heritage scenes, this Korean War Veteran set his knives and brushes on an entirely new subject: military history.

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James Keirstead was always going to be an artist. According to his mother, this was clear by age 6, when James scribbled his drawings on everything he could find. Eighty-two years later, his single-minded focus has never wavered.

“I never wanted to paint the tougher side of life.”

Throughout a prolific career spanning nearly six decades, Keirstead has sold between 4,000 and 5,000 of his oil and watercolour paintings to collectors around the world. Many of them depict peaceful scenes and landscapes – a local mill, birch trees in autumn, children playing hockey – in his distinctive impressionist style, which he achieves with a mix of knives and brushes.

“I never wanted to paint the tougher side of life,” he says.

This year, at age 88, he’s ventured into new territory – military art. It all began with a photograph he received from Vincent Courtenay, a fellow Veteran of the Korean War and member of the Korea Veterans Association. The black-and-white photo showed Major George Flint of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI), leading his troops up a hill ahead of the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951.

It took another two years before James Keirstead finally started painting his new subject. But once he did, the reaction was immediate: an early, unfinished version circulated among military members and Veterans, generating a wave of positive responses.

“I sat on [the photo] for two years, but I had it worked out in my mind,” he says. “I took one look at it, and I knew exactly what I would do with it. Half the mornings I’m inspired by the light coming across our river, and I saw that golden colour and pictured the painting that way.”

“I was thinking about the troops…of the thoughts they were thinking, wondering what we’re getting into here.”
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This photo was the inspiration for James Keirstead's first military painting.

He needs three days of uninterrupted work to finish most paintings. During these sessions, his mind escapes into his painting – so much so that it’s a few hours before he’s able to return from this creative mental space and hold a conversation.

Yet this time, amid the countless decisions on composition and colour, he found himself contemplating the soldiers’ experiences.

“I was thinking about the troops…of the thoughts they were thinking, wondering what we’re getting into here.”

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Private James Keirstead sailed to Korea in 1952 aboard the USNS Marine Phoenix.

Keirstead has his own military experience to draw from. Though he deployed to Korea a year after the Battle of Kapyong, he served there 14 months as an ambulance driver in the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps.

An early experience on the frontlines remains especially vivid. One night in June 1952, a patrol was sent out, and he sat outside his ambulance to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. The intense shelling that followed cost the lives of 7 Canadian soldiers, and he was sent into the valley below to help collect the dead and wounded.

“That was my first jolt of the real war, being at the frontlines,” he says.

While overseas, he looked for opportunities to nurture his art. He didn’t let a lack of materials stop him, using a children’s watercolour kit and tiny brush to capture his surroundings. He sent the paintings and sketches home to his family with dreams of one day pursuing a career as a painter. “I always had that in the back of my head,” he says.

All these years later, painting is still his greatest happiness and the driving force in his life.

“I’ve worn out all my joints, I’m getting arthritis in my hands – I’ve got all the other stuff that everybody my age has. But I have a purpose, I have such a purpose.”

In honour of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Kapyong, James Keirstead is featured as one of our Faces of Freedom. Discover more stories.

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