Ross King's love for writing, and documenting art history, have earned him another prestigious honour.
The Estevan-born, North Portal-raised King was named the winner of the Governor General's Award for non-fiction literature on November 13 for his latest book, "Leonardo and the Last Supper." It chronicles how Leonardo da Vinci created the famed painting "The Last Supper," and the ensuing scandal that forced da Vinci to flee the Italian city of Milan.
King will be presented with the award on November 28 in Ottawa.
It's the second time that King has won the award. He also won it in 2006 for "The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism."
He said it feels every bit as good to win the Governor General's Award a second time. But he was surprised when he was nominated.
"As I'm writing a book, and when it's released, I think much less about prizes, and just more about whether it's a book that people are going to enjoy, and people are going to buy, and people are going to read," King said in a phone interview with Lifestyles from Houston, Texas, where he was in the midst of a tour to promote "Leonardo and the Last Supper."
King said that he spent about two-and-a-half to three years researching and writing the story, as he needed a lot of time to sift through the information about da Vinci. It took another couple of years before the final contract was signed.
He said that he is fascinated by the story behind masterpiece paintings like "The Last Supper."
"I think what tends to happen with great works of art, and masterpieces by Leonardo or Michelangelo, is that there was a time when they were not a masterpiece, when the painters were just beginning them, and they weren't a done deal," said King. "They weren't necessarily going to be the great masterpieces that they became, and there were doubts they would be finished."
When da Vinci completed "The Last Supper," he was already into his 40s, but he had yet to complete an iconic work of art. If da Vinci had died by age 40, which was common for people in the 15th century, he wouldn't have been a famous painter. By comparison, the great artist Michelangelo had completed several masterpieces before his 40th birthday.
King's research unearthed other intriguing facts. When one person saw "The Last Supper" after it was finished, that individual noted that Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles resembled some of the most influential people in Milan society.
"One of the things I wanted to do in the book was figure out who some of these … imminent personages were," King said. "So I spent some time speculating and gathering evidence. And one of the things that intrigued me was that someone else wrote a poem in 1498 when Leonardo finished the work claiming that Leonardo had put himself into his painting."
Many people at the time didn't try to figure out which disciple was portraying da Vinci, but King believes it's Thomas, or better known as Doubting Thomas.
Art history has always fascinated King. He believes that every picture tells a story, and every work of art has a great story behind it.
"The work of art doesn't just tell the story that's within the frame, within the walls of the building where it's found," said King. "I think the story is behind that. I like telling the back story of these larger than life characters that worked against the odds to create works of art that have a kind of immortality to them."
He also enjoys being able to show the myths that exist with many familiar stories about art.
Art history has often been the focus of his non-fiction books. He has studied Filippo Brunelleschi's Dome in Florence, Michelangelo's painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and the famed Canadian artists the Group of Seven who played such a pivotal role in the development of the Canadian art.
King attributes much of his success to the time he spent in southeast Saskatchewan as a child and as a teenager. He said he grew up reading books, regardless of whether it was at the library of the now-closed Minto School in North Portal, the Bienfait Weldon School or the Estevan Comprehensive School.
Many teachers left a big impact on King, including Ward Mowry, his Grade 10 English instructor. Mowry, who recently retired, encouraged King to read and write.
King also took art classes at ECS.
"I took an art class from Jane Rohatyn at the Estevan Comp, and quickly discovered that I didn't have any artistic talent," said King.
But he became very aware of icons like da Vinci and Michelangelo. Da Vinci was particularly fascinating for King, since King is left-handed, like da Vinci, and King used to practice writing backwards.
"In many ways, my whole ambition to be a writer, and my interest in art, writing, literature and books developed very much while I was growing up at the Comp. and in Estevan," said King.
When he was 15 or 16, King realized that he wanted to be a writer. But there was also a time in which he wanted to be a university professor in literature.
"Unfortunately, or possibly fortunately, because things have worked out quite well for me, when I finished my university education and got my Ph. D, there really were no jobs for me to apply for," said King. "And so that was the point, where … I had to reinvent myself and go back to that earlier dream of being a writer."
He travelled to southeast Saskatchewan a few years ago while he was visiting family in Regina. King's wife wanted to see where he was raised, and where he went to school. It had been the first time in about 20 years that King had been back in the Estevan-North Portal area.
King currently resides in the U.K.
He said he isn't working on anything right now, but he hopes decide on a new project around Christmas time, or early in 2013.