Remembering renaissance man Bill Lishman
By George Farrell
Published Jan. 18, 2018
Multi-talented Bill Lishman passed away on Dec. 30, 10 days after being diagnosed with leukemia. He’s best known for raising Canada geese, and teaching them how to fly alongside his ultralight aircraft.
Flying with the geese in their traditional V formation, Lishman eventually flew with them to North Carolina, becoming the first person to lead birds in the air, and to lead birds on their migration with an ultralight aircraft. His historic flight was documented in the 1996 movie Fly Away Home, which was based on Lishman’s autobiography Father Goose. He was 78.
But to remember him solely in connection with the geese and the movie would be doing Lishman a huge disservice, because he was also an accomplished artist, sculptor, filmmaker, pilot, author, public speaker, activist and environmentalist. His sculptures included large pieces created for the Canadian Museum of Nature, Canada’s Wonderland, and for Expo 86 in Vancouver.
Lishman died in the house that he built himself, overlooking the Purple Valley near Port Perry, Ont. Built mainly underground, natural light illuminates the rooms through igloo-like glass domes located above-ground. Lishman’s inventions include a refrigerator that rose from under the floor. His thinking was that storing the fridge below the floor would use less power in keeping food cool.
Lishman was a member of the Scugog Lake Stewards organization, and he helped found the Oshawa Competition Motorcycle Club. He was also a board member and creative director of the People or Planes citizens group in Pickering, which in the 1970s successfully prevented the construction of an international airport in the area. Pickering was where Lishman was raised, but he never finished high school. In reference to that he liked to say that he was “unencumbered by formal education.”
“He had a real sense of the big picture. As much as technology would allow, he experienced it all. He had the ability and the nerve to make it happen. He had the vision and tenacity to see it through and to bring it to reality,” Lishman’s son Aaron said, in a story written by Fatima Syed, for the Toronto Star, on Jan. 2. In the same article family friend Kerry King said, “He was a renaissance man, probably the only one I’ll ever meet, a true multi-talented intellect.”
Lishman has ties to Haliburton; through his sculpture, his wife Paula, and more tenuously through me. As part of the Haliburton Sculpture Forest Lishman’s Kennisis: Horse and Rider is the name of the electric blue sculpture that can be found close to the main entrance of Fleming College. It depicts a North American Indigenous rider at one with the horse, in body and spirit.
Lishman married Paula in 1968, and in addition to Aaron, the Lishmans raised Geordie and daughter Carmen. Paula Lishman is the well-known inventor of knit fur, an innovative process of manufacturing a fur yarn.
Janet Sheehey, proprietor of JanKnit’s Studio and Sewing Centre in Haliburton village, once worked for Paula Lishman in her Port Perry store. Sheehey taught Paula’s knitters how to make the fur coats designed by Lishman. When she opened her own store in Haliburton, in 2007, Sheehey brought some of Lishman’s fur coats with her. Paula Lishman was there at the grand opening, and her fur yarn is still available at the store, where Sheehey turns some of it into hats and headbands.
As for my own connection to Bill Lishman it occurred in 1986, when I was working as a prop man on a car commercial. The location of the commercial was in a field, adjacent to the Lishman’s property. Bill had been commissioned by the commercial production company to assemble a “carhenge,” which was to replicate Stonehenge in every way. But instead of stone, the structure was made from junkyard cars, upended in the ground. The commercial was filmed as the early morning mist drifted among the rusty autos, and the effect was spooky and amazing.
Amazing is also a good word to describe Bill Lishman, who was forever thinking outside the box, and having fun doing so. He was a true renaissance man, and we won’t see anyone like him anytime soon. There will be a celebration of Lishman’s life at 1 p.m. Jan. 20, at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa.