Just shortly after I returned to Vancouver (B.C.) from Manhattan back in 1974, I was all creatively fired up over a "Subway Art" series I intended to whip up, based on the graffiti of street artists I encountered in NYC.
One day, I caught up with a fellow artist who was part of a Group Exhibition I was involved in at the Galerie Allen in Gastown a couple of years earlier (the European-style gallery later moved uptown to trendy South Granville Street a hop-and-a-skip away from the tony enclave known as Shaughnessy).
Les and I chatted about the state of the local art scene.
"Say, there's a new gallery in town. Do you want to check it out?"
So, we trundled up to the burgeoning art scene just below Broadway @ Granville, until we located the Galerie Royale just across street from the Vancouver Sun.
The old bank building had been renovated and in its new incarnation consisted of a staid gallery featuring the old Masters (the Group of Seven, too) downstairs and a contemporary space on the second level that focused on modern Art.
After a quick study of the inventory on the first level, we headed up the back staircase to take in the abstract pieces artfully placed about the straightforward gallery setting.
An elegantly-dressed woman was adjusting a painting on the wall as Les and I strode up and said hello.
When my friend wandered off, I was inclined to be bold.
"Do you exhibit young emerging artists," I asked with a bit of hesitation in my voice.
"Why, are you a painter, dear?"
"Yes, I had a one-man show at Galerie Allen in town and another exhibition in Victoria."
Her eyes twinkled a little and then her face broke into a sweet pleasant smile.
"Why don't you call Mary Anne this afternoon and tell her Audrey recommended you discuss an idea for a show with her," she instructed me.
When I located Les downstairs chatting up the curator, he was ready to take off for a java and snack, too.
"Gosh, did you see the diamond on that woman's finger," he quizzed me as he strolled along the busy sidewalk at a fairly fast clip.
Frankly, I hadn't.
Apparently, Audrey's dazzling gem was worth a sizable fortune, if I was to believe the assessment that Les's keen eye rustled up in about two seconds flat.
That afternoon, I followed through, and arranged to discuss my idea for the graffiti paintings in person with Mary Anne with a few samples of the work in tow.
"I'll talk to the owners and get back to you," the pretty gallery director assured me.
The next day, as promised, Mary Anne dialed me up and excitedly informed me that Audrey and her husband, Nelson, were enthusiastic about the exhibition of my original artworks at the Contemporary Royale Gallery.
The owners were going to underwrite a one-man exhibition for me!
One day, a couple of weeks later as Mary Anne and I were making arrangements for framing and the opening night celebration for art critics, collectors - and plain old lookie-loos - a wiry man with a short beard and mischievous eyes sauntered in out-of-the-blue.
"Oh, this is Nelson Skalbania, the owner of the gallery. Audrey - the woman you met the other day - is his wife."
If I recall correctly, we shook hands and gave each other a polite nod.
Then, Nelson disappeared into the woodwork, so-to-speak.
Later, I learned that Nelson Skalbania was quite the character.
A high-flying wheeler-dealer (an engineer by trade, who - some hissed - was prone to erect the ugliest buildings around the fast-growing lower mainland).
Skalbania was a bit of the philanthropist, too.
Especially if there was something in it for him.
For example, on occasion when he trekked up to the "Y" to play a game of squash with his wealthy pals, he had difficulty locating a parking space for his pristine grey Rolls Royce.
So, he made a contribution of $80,000.00 to the YMCA, with the provisio that they mark a space with his name on it, so he would have the luxury of his own parking stall near the entrance of the health and fitness outlet on Burrard Street.
An art lover, with a flamboyant taste for the unique (and unusual), he sported hand-crafted silk shirts with original Vasarely designs etched on the fabric at $10,000.00 a pop!
That must have been quite a dry-cleaning bill!
For an anniversary present, he gifted Audrey with the Yellow Rolls Royce that was featured prominently in the classic film - The Great Gatsby (adapted from the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald) - which starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
On the evening of the unveiling of my art exhibition, I learned first-hand, what an intriguing character Nelson Skalbania truly was!
When I stepped into the exhibition room, I noticed right away that a small painting - a collage featuring a blond woman who appeared to be signalling the viewer "not to tell" by virtue of a finger at her lips - had a red dot on the name plate.
Red dots indicated a sale.
Excited at the prospect of a purchase by an avid collector so early in the show, I dashed up to Mary Anne and questioned her as to who bought it.
"Oh, that Nelson," she giggled wickedly.
"I told him to give the public a chance to buy it first."
Apparently, when he stuck a red dot on the painting when her back was turned, she removed it - at which point - he got a scolding.
But, when she wasn't looking, he tacked that red dot right back from whence it came!
At the time, I was flattered that Nelson Skalbania appeared to be recognizing my potential as an artist. And, I was proud of the fact the savvy businessman obviously thought my delightful painting was a worthwhile addition to his asset portfolio.
Later, however, I uncovered the truth!
As it turns out, Nelson snapped up the painting for personal reasons.
Later, it was revealed in the press (and to his wife) that he was having an affair with his secretary (who he later married after divorcing his first wife, Audrey).
Yup, the blond woman in the painting saying - "shhhhh" - looked just like his new squeeze!
That sly bast**d!
He craved that painting because the rendering reminded him of Eleni!
I learned later that, once married to his newly betrothed, the painting was hung in a prominent spot in their bedroom.
Well, that was quite the compliment, after all!
Now that I look back, I suddenly realize, I was probably one of the few individuals who crossed his path who actually profited from a brief business association with the mercurial West Coast entrepreneur.
For the most part, Nelson was a man-about-town, everyman's friend.
But, on occasion, he ticked folks off with his vulgar displays of wealth, his inclination to flip real estate -and hence - skyrocket property values into the stratosphere, and his audacity to convey the notion that anyone or thing could be bought (they usually could).
When he flew into Indianapolis - and engaged in a lot of ugly wrangling over a potential purchase of the Indianapolis Racers - the press were miffed.
One headline screamed:
"Nelson, go back to Skalbania."
Then, the financial crisis hit Canada, as it did the U.S.
Suddenly, Nelson couldn't flip his properties, mortgages ran overdue -and yes - his empire collapsed out from under him just like that.
Skalbania filed for bankruptcy!
But, you know what?
He promised to pay back every shiny penny to all his creditors standing in line.
More astounding, his calm creditors were - kind, considerate, and compassionate - during the whole humiliating process.
You see, Nelson was always very generous with people, and genuine folks remembered that.
Shortly after his fall from grace, I packed up and headed to sunny California, and the beautiiful West Coast of Canada (and Nelson and his painting) faded to black.
I guess I should google Skalbania to catch up.
In the final analysis, the wheeler-dealer with nerves of steel, was probably one of the most fascinating people I've ever met.
I mean, would you sell Wayne Gretzky's lucrative hockey contract to a pal for a lousy buck?