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Remembering Matthew Shawn Fleming, local talent with passion for music

June 30, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

Several people spoke to the Citizen this week about Matthew Shawn Fleming, who lived and made music in Orangeville for 25 years, touching their lives and winning their respect, admiration and even love for his considerable talent and generosity of spirit. 

His former wife Cathy Coonley told us they met in 1987 and their daughter Katie was born in 1989. They moved from Toronto to Beeton for three years, to enjoy living in the country but built their own home in Hockley Valley in 1995.

“I was working in Newmarket,” she told the Citizen. “And Matthew was rejuvenated but after we divorced, he moved into Orangeville. He was a lot better off in town because the art scene was there and he had so many people to interact with.” 

Matthew Fleming’s involvement with Theatre Orangeville Young Singers (T.O.Y.S) led us to speak with David Nairn who recalled Mr. Fleming’s musicianship, “especially his percussion stuff – that was what impressed me,” said Mr. Nairn. “Anything creative and Matthew was pretty much right there, very creative and very active until the diabetes started getting to him. He loved people.”

Doing workshops with T.O.Y.S., he also played for their shows, performing the drum features included in the shows.

Wherever there was music, Matthew Fleming was involved. The Dufferin Festival for the Arts; work for the schools teaching them about percussions raised the profile of those events.

He was a regular part of Orangeville Musical Theatre (OMT).

Mr. Nairn commented, “Matthew could never say no to anyone – the Morris dancers – wherever he could contribute.”

Leisa Way called Mr. Fleming “A gifted composer. I sang two of his songs in The Concert,” which was the musical production organized by Candice Bist and Bruce Ley as a fundraiser for Matthew Fleming.

In its early days, Theatre Orangeville rented the space at 199 Broadway as an office and Mr. Fleming rented spaces there too for his Stone Soup Productions.

Gary Vipond and Mr. Fleming became friends while the percussionist was living in a tiny apartment on Dairy Lane, saying, “Candice [Bist] came to me and said there’s a gentleman who is disorganized about his finances. I’m not an accountant but she introduced us and we chatted. He was waiting for dialysis and so, I started visiting him at the clinic in the hospital. It became a bit of a habit. [From there our] friendship grew; I went to visit him about three days a week.”

Matthew took part in the music program in Westminster United Church.

The diabetes, giving Matthew such grief, led to an amputation of part of one leg, with his surgery taking place in Toronto.

“The doctors were very positive about the surgery,” Mr. Vipond related. “Many friends visited him and I continued to visit him here because he was one of the most intelligent people I ever met. He wanted to go back to Nova Scotia. His parents were from there and he was an Easterner.”

His mother was an artist, Gary Vipond explained and his step father was a wonderful artist with a gallery in Montreal. Kelly his sister was an artist. A terrible accident finally brought Matthew some insurance money with which he bought a house in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. 

Mr. Vipond told the story of the transportation: “If you had seen the moving van with the cats and all the stuff. His mother was trying to help the best she could, helping with meals and Kelly and he settled in his house with the cat and George. After two weeks, Matthew was alone.” 

However, the subdivision just outside Yarmouth was scantily inhabited as the town had lost its railway and many other businesses. A neighbour cleared his snow and he lived there for 12 years, when he died last September.

Said Mr. Vipond, “We had a memorial in our backyard with few musicians. He loved the coffee hour to talk to people – he played in the Spirit Band. He played for the Winnipeg Ballet. He was multi-talented in guitar and drums.”

Bruce Ley and Candice Bist became very close to Matthew when his health began a steep decline.

It was to Mr. Ley that we spoke about Matthew Fleming as a talent.

“He wasn’t a musician,” that gentleman declared. “He was an artist. I haven’t met very many artists. He was difficult. Whenever we did things together, he was so into whatever the heck he was doing; his ideas were so outside, he put a smile on my face – I just loved him. Maybe I was able to put up with his eccentricities because I wanted what he wanted. He didn’t really fit into what most people wanted. They just wanted to copy whatever they heard on the radio and that wasn’t what Matthew wanted at all. It was his individual look and I thought that was great; that was wonderful.”

Mr. Ley said, “I’ve played with so many people – so many big names; Matthew is the only artist I’ve ever met. He got treated the way that artists great treated – nobody appreciated him – nobody. Our connection was artistic. Of course, I miss him.”

Mr. Fleming spent hundreds of hours working on “great washes of sound” that were created with amazing homemade instruments, drums, found objects; he played barim-bau (a single string instrument looking like a bow, with a gourd as a sound box), historically from Africa via South America. He got people to make them for him.

For The Concert fundraiser staged to benefit Matthew Fleming, Mr. Ley told us, “I called top musicians in Canada who simply came to Orangeville, mostly people in the folk sort of things.

“Everybody felt the same way about him as I did. They were all at the level where they could recognize an artist.”

With Mr. Ley, Mr. Fleming produced Shining Turtle, a percussion album, which you can easily listen to on YouTube. He also toured with an “Aboriginal singer.”

His daughter, Kate Fleming added to the picture of her dad. After her parents divorced, she came to Orangeville to live with her father and go to high school in town.

“It wasn’t easy but he made it work,” she remarked by telephone from her home in Toronto. “I remember dad worked very hard to make a music life in Orangeville. He got sick really quickly but he never really gave up on his dreams, even though he faced a lot of troubles. He really wanted to make something and make himself known in the Orangeville music scene. He made the drum circle. He was just trying to make a life there; sometimes that worked out and sometimes not as well. But he was a great song writer.” 

Ray Young is counted as one of Matthew Fleming’s closest friends. As a volunteer program on Erin radio 91.7 FM, a community radio: , he ran a feature about Mr. Fleming.

With only amateur theatre for artistic background, he said, “I’m a business man. I met Matthew because he had a role in the ensemble in the King and I, as well percussion. We got to be fast friends; he was an open individual. You had the advantage of being able to learn from him and ask stupid questions and even make suggestions and he would give thought to what you were saying. Then you felt like you were part of it.

“I found out in my years of being his friend and visiting, that to say he was talented was so severely understated. Some of the songs he has written were number 1 chart songs.”

Mr. Fleming had his strong opinions about free and unfettered conversation over convention … “very much a free thinker. That overlaid over everything to the treatment of the Indigenous population and Blacks; politics in the States.”

Mr. Young was happy to escort Matthew to dialysis, medical appointments, to visit his daughter – lots of time to “hang out.”

As a final note, “I would have to say he was an immensely talented musician, composer and lyricist, an individual who was genuinely concerned for people’s humanity – a very giving soul – immensely generous with what he did have.” 

Mr. Young echoed others, saying, “I loved him.”


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