Christmas Past

25 12 2019

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This Christmas will be my 60th. I don’t remember the first 4. The fifth Christmas brought me my first doll, Susan, and the year after that, Peewee, a 2-inch doll teetering at the top of my stocking.   Christmas 14 launched my painting career with my first set of oil paints. My magical 22nd Christmas found Brad and me in Dorset, idealistic newlyweds on snowshoes, dragging home the perfect tree by the light of the full moon.

But the one I remember the most vividly was my 12th Christmas.   My family and I were on a year long camping trip in a VW minivan through Europe and the Middle East. There was no room for Christmas gifts, we all agreed.   Besides, we were leaving the island of Crete in the morning to catch the Phaistos ferry to the mainland of Greece. The van was packed up. I crawled into my sleeping bag Christmas Eve, hoping that I would be brave the following morning.

A sturdy knock woke us up. It was the long haired hippie, Patrick, the American Jewish New Yorker whom we had picked up hitchhiking a few times around the western end of the island and had probably fed, too. The son of a successful textiles merchant, Patrick had fled the wealth of New York and found whatever it was that he was seeking in the wild hills of Crete where he took a humble job as a shepherd. That Christmas, he came to say goodbye and to bring Christmas gifts for all: for me, a used leather pouch that he’d picked up in his travels in Morocco. (I wore it on my belt for years.). His gestures touched us to the core. When he finished handing out his gifts, my mother slipped a parcel onto my lap.   She had bought me a Cretan doll for my doll collection. My sisters and I then pulled out the lace doily we had secretly purchased for our mother.

A second knock interrupted us. It was our toothless neighbour,Maria who lived with her goats in a small, dark room with a dirt floor and only a pan of embers to warm her octogenarian body that was always cold. Years ago, she had lost her husband and all her sons in the war. She was bringing us a live rabbit for our Christmas dinner. My parents stammered around, struggling to figure out how to return the rabbit without insulting her.

I was expecting nothing that Christmas, but instead, I learned lessons that I have never forgotten: Maria was extravagantly generous, even in her poverty: Patrick tried hard to make our religious celebration special for us, even when it wasn’t his own. These are gifts that will never lose their lustre.

 





Motorcycles and Mama

26 03 2019

I don’t know how all you mothers out there would react if your 21 yr. old son came home from university and announced that he has purchased a KTM motorcycle. Mine did. Something inside me flipped out. All kinds of alarm bells went off in my head.

Now, I’m old hat at these things. My daughter did the same thing to me 5 years ago when she drove home in a bright red Ninja 250. My neighbour sold his old KTM racing dirt bike (with a wickedly shrill engine) to my other son. But, I shut up about that, as I did with the others. I congratulated my son and said,  ”How exciting!” and that I would love to come with him and his dad to pick it up. We can all go out for lunch.

Talk about a motorcycle Mecca! There were rows and rows of sleek Ducatis, crouched Ninjas, hard-core Harleys, and KTM’s in road-crew orange. My head was bobbing all around taking in the winking sea of smarty-coloured motorcyles.

I didn’t see the concrete step at the front door. And just like that, I was sprawled out like a starfish right at the front door. My husband came running. My son had that “Why did I bring her?” look on his face. I jumped up, brushing my stinging palms against my jeans and, gathering up any scrap of dignity that remained, walked in the store.

“You okay, Ma’am?” the men at the front desk inquired. “You really flipped out there.”   “Yeah, I replied, “ And I wasn’t even on a motorcycle!” They didn’t laugh.

After the bike, there was the jacket, then the gloves, and, what about a helmet? It took such a long time. The store was filling up. I watched a beautiful Indian woman slip on a flashy white helmet and bat her eyes flirtatiously at her boyfriend through the upturned visor. They laughed. My son pointed out a neon green helmet designed to look like the head of a monster. The wearer’s face appears to be inside its jaws. “Shall I buy this one, Mom?” A short, stocky, tattooed man was waiting his turn with the sales clerk. He chose a helmet that looked like it was used in World War 1. It didn’t look very safe and I volunteered my opinion. He explained that the helmet had to go with his Harley. Beside him was a tiny feminine woman who also was also trying on dangerous-looking helmets. “Do you ride on the back of his Harley?” “No, she replied with disdain…. “I have my own motorcyle.”  I went up to the desk and asked the clerks just what percentage of women buy motorcyles. I bet it’s under 10%. No, Ma’am. It’s 30%!

In all that motorcycle candy, my two men just vanished. I couldn’t even find them in the Ducati section. In my search, I guess I went a step too close to something sacred, for the alarms and sirens started shrieking.   I darted back like a singed cat. The men at the desk looked up from their computers with as much emotion as a herd of cows along a fence line. “Oh, just you again?“ “Yes, I replied, “I seem to be making quite a sensation in your shop. So sorry.”

The bike’s in the shed now, waiting for the snow to melt. I know it was tough for him to leave it behind and return to school without even a test drive. So, I have a few worry-free weeks yet, so I thought.

As we were getting ready for bed, my husband confessed that he’d really like to buy a bike, too. “Let me guess, I said,  “A Ducati? In that case, I’ll take a Tesla.”

 

 





The Wolf at the Door

7 02 2019

 

Next fall, it will be 30 years that Brad and I and our two infant and toddler daughters moved to a rough, un-insulated cabin in the Muskoka woods, outside Dorset. We had quit our professions in Guelph and were starting all over, cold turkey. Those first decades were really tough. We barely managed to keep the wolf from the door.

We have tried our hand at several business endeavours. Some failed, like the water-treatment business, but others have thrived.   Today, life is a lot easier.   Our years of very hard work paid off this week when we put down the final payment of our bank mortgage. We invited friends over for dinner to help us celebrate and we burned the mortgage in the fireplace with great joy and ceremony. Now the wolf (bank) cannot seize our assets.

For a special treat, I made nutty chocolate clusters and set the pan outside on the screened in porch to cool quickly. (They are absolutely delicious and usually we wolf them down within minutes of the chocolate being hardened.) I went about washing dishes.

Then Brad and I heard it – a cat-like yip and yap at first. Then, when I opened the door to the porch, it howled a wild sound that unzipped me from head to toe. The wolf was right there in the darkness, outside the porch door!   I snatched up my clusters and ran into the house and shut the door.

It’s kind of funny that the day we pay down the mortgage the wolf comes to our door.

 

 

 

 

 





Musings at Breakfast

15 01 2019

This morning at breakfast, my husband put on a Santana CD that we discovered in a box. With a whoosh, the music from the 60’s carried me back to my primary grade school and to the sleep-overs at my best friend’s house. Her name was Cotton.

Now there was an artsy family! Mrs. S and Cotton and her 2 sisters were all artists. They were always making stuff: drawings, paintings, jewelry, paper mache, macramé. They wore fashionable mini skirts, and big earrings, bikinis and low-slung blue jeans.  Mrs. S always had a book and a sketchbook by her side.   She would sit for hours at the table, smoking, sipping wine, talking about colour and travel and dreaming out the window. Rock and roll music throbbed out of the stereo. (Was it Santana?) More than once, I caught Mrs. S dancing with her boyfriend J in the smoky haze that hung in the air. The house was shabby chic, and so were their friends who dropped in. On weekends, they’d go to the drive-in movies. I admired them and their worldly life deeply. When I was 10, Cotton moved away and I lost contact with her and her family.

Nobody in my family smoked and my parents didn’t dance. My two sisters and I wore long, handmade dresses that partially covered the knee, and no jewelry. Sure, we made stuff, too. We learned to sew, garden, and cook. Our meager record collection consisted of hymns by George Beverly Shay and Schumann’s piano concerto in A-major (a favourite to this day.) My mother rarely sat down to rest. We didn’t own a TV and on weekends, we went to church. My family hung out with hard-working, practical, (still very fun and loving) Mennonites. There just was no hope for me as a visual artist.

At first, I missed Cotton. Drawing helped me to feel a connection with her and her family, but I thought less and less about them as time passed.

Forty years later, I visited a relative in Florida. One small painting on her wall was signed Carol S. That was Cotton’s oldest sister!   My hostess had taken a painting course from her in a neighbouring town in Florida. She taught on Thursday mornings.

That Thursday, I was there early and watched Carol set up her class (Was that middle-aged woman really Carol?) before I had the nerve to interrupt her and introduce myself. There was a pause as I watched her reach far back into her memory. “Yes! You were Cotton’s friend. Of course, I remember you!”   We arranged to meet at a café the next day to talk. Cotton and her family had moved to Florida in the early 70’s. Cotton married young, but, soon after her marriage, she was coming home from working late at a restaurant and was hit by a truck and was instantly killed.  Mrs S. was also dead.

We forgot to talk about art.

It’s ironic that I end up being the artist and Cotton of the talented, stereotypically artsy family never got the chance. The injustice and mystery of it hit me anew as I listened to Santana. (What the heck does Santana have to do with reopening these memories?) To what degree did Cotton and her family nudge me into an art career? I will never know. I can just bow my head in reverence to those who cross our paths in life and silently and mysteriously change the direction of our lives or maybe they don’t.

Despite our UNartsy upbringing, three of us four siblings ended up in a career in the fine arts. Who’s to say what the artistic temperament is?

I really must get back to work in the studio.

 

 

 

 





Paintings or Pizza?

10 01 2019

Earlier this week, I popped into Partner’s Hall in Huntsville just to check on my solo art show Windows on the World and, fingers crossed, to see if, just maybe, there was another sale.

When I slipped into the exhibition hall, there was an elderly couple on the far side of room, carefully examining my large oil painting of Rooftops in St. John’s, NFLD.   As all the lighting is turned on the paintings, it’s hard to see anything or anyone else clearly. The two silhouettes were deep in a low-voiced discussion that I longed to overhear, but couldn’t.   I banged around self-consciously at the display table that holds my business cards and bio,  trying to look important.

It worked. The couple stopped talking, and said hello, then remarked that I looked like someone who was in charge of the show. Perfect! “Well, actually, (I hesitated modestly for a second to increase the drama), I am the artist. “


 

The effect it produced was very heady stuff: much praise, many compliments, lots of superlatives.  “Where are you from?” they enquired.   “Dorset,” I replied. “Do you know Dorset?” Yes, they had visited Dorset several years ago.   “There was a wonderful wood-fired pizzeria on highway #35 that we went to. Is it still there?” “Yes!”, I answered,  “In fact (dramatic pause again), I own that pizzeria.”

 

The leap from professional painter to owner of a pizza joint was too big a stretch to believe. I could see it in their eyes.   Had I lied to them about being the artist or about owning a pizzeria, or maybe both?  While they were sizing me up, I launched in to defend my outrageous claims. “No, really, I do own Pizza on Earth and run it with my children in the summer. It’s just a seasonal business. I paint the rest of the year. ”    Of course, I added many more details to authenticate myself as both.

That, too, worked and they promised to come to Dorset in the summer to visit the pizzeria. Or, was it a gallery?  It’s both   – your one-stop shopping!  Food for your soul and food for your body.  Is it really that strange a connection?

https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruchikatulshyan/2016/03/31/how-to-have-two-successful-careers-at-the-same-time/#b6d9225382d6

 

 





Why I Sell Only Original Paintings

31 12 2018
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Roses in My Studio, oil, 8″ x 11″, unframed, $160 + taxes

Some clients who come through my studio or the small gallery at Pizza on Earth ask if I sell reproductions of my paintings.  The answer is a resounding “NO!”

Why do I do this when I could make so much more money, reach so many more people with my art and save time by selling cheaper reproductions of my paintings?   The new capabilities of advanced scanners can even reproduce accurately the texture of smears, globs and splats of paint so it looks exactly like the original.  But I, or any serious collector, know it is not the real thing.  However amazing the technology, in the end, a reproduction is still made by a machine and not by me.

What worries me is what making reproductions can undo; what it takes away.  I can just imagine what it would be like to have a stack of prints of a painting that I loved in previous years, but, this year, I have moved on to something new and they are still hanging around. For we painters are constantly reevaluating our world and our culture, reinventing ourselves, manipulating old symbols in a new way, every day.    We don’t want to be constrained or demotivated by an old style or a subject that we have mass-produced  through popular demand.  What we sell must be fresh, meaningful and true to where we are intellectually and creatively at the time.

In my previous blog called Wall Art vs.Walmart I have already written about the delightful relationship that develops between the artist and the client when the latter visits a studio to buy an original..  For, when you buy an original painting, you are buying a little piece of the artist’s soul, too.  You are influenced by her personality, by her lifestyle, by her vision which comes through in all those little notes of colour that were placed on the canvas by her very own hands.  And that costs you about as much as a cart of groceries from Fresh Co.  Owning an original piece or art is not the exclusive privilege of the rich that most people assume it is.

Let’s face it.  Original painters like me are fighting for their lives because of cheap reproductions.  I am not about to join the very practice that is destroying my own ancient craft.   Neither am I willing to substitute that which is true and genuine with a machine-made copy in order to make a buck.

I remain resolute.  I still write hand-written Christmas cards.  I cook my meals from scratch. Every Elizabeth Johnson painting that you buy is an original, carefully and lovingly painted by these small, nervous, paint-encrusted, vein-embossed hands, especially for you.

 





Windows on the World

22 12 2018

IMG_E1182A solo exhibition of my work, called “Windows on the World”, now hangs in Partners Hall in Algonquin Theatre in Huntsville, Ontario.  The grand opening was Saturda, Dec. 15, 2018,  and this is the speech that I gave at that  The oil painting called “Windows” is  St. John’s NFLD and is in the show.

Welcome to the opening of Windows on the World. Thank you for coming to celebrate original art.  While painting is generally a solitary occupation, the presentation of art is indeed a very exciting, social function. It is wonderful to be with you this afternoon to celebrate creativity and our beautiful country.

I am grateful to Mary Rashleigh, former curator of the Grimsby Art Gallery, who curated Windows on the World. She selected the 22 paintings, arranged them, and did the lighting. Right now, Mary is singing her heart out in the Huntsville community choir so she cannot be here.

As Mary and I were hanging the show together on Monday, I was musing about what I would talk about at the Saturday opening. Our conversation went something like this:

“Mary, what do you think of me talking about what a painting is? Paintings have a subject, but there is so much more: value, shape, colour, line, texture.” There was a pause. Then Mary walked right up to me and under her very steady gaze said. “Elizabeth, I think people would like to hear about you, about your paintings,   After all, this show is about you, Elizabeth Johnson.

It was Picasso who said, “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary”. Well, then, here it is, a chunk of my diary displayed on these walls.

I live in a house that Brad, my beloved husband of 38 years, and I built on the shores of Shoe Lake in one of the furthest eastern reaches of Muskoka, just outside of Dorset. There we raised our four children. Most of the landscape paintings come from the backyard of my home or of my cabin on Livingstone Lake in Algonquin Highlands.

My second daughter Sarah Jane often lives in St. John’s, NFLD. She has made bagels and croissants at the Georgetown Bakery in the old residential section of the city. That is why there are paintings of the wonderful jellybean houses of St’ John’s. My children love to travel and, of course, I must visit them wherever they are. David my youngest son, lived in Austria for a year as a Rotary Exchange student, so Innsbruck has found its way into a Canadian painter’s art show.

I could never stay very long in a room without a window. I suffer from claustrophobia if I cannot have a glimpse of the wide world out there. A window is oxygen for me. I paint them whenever I see a curious arrangement of them.   They are more often a symbol of open-mindedness, of freedom, of escape into new worlds.

During our university days, Brad and I lived in basements and attics with tiny windows that offered views of pedestrians’ feet or smoke-puffing chimneys.   I liked to imagine who belonged to those boots and where they were going in such a hurry.

One apartment really worried us. We had rented the attic of an old, musty-smelling, stone house in the Ward in Guelph. There were two tiny windows in that one-room, at the top of a sheer drop of stone wall for three stories. There was no escape if the stairs were blocked – until Brad came home with very long rope that he knotted at intervals. He made me practice at my parents’ barn, shinnying down that rope from the highest window in the haymow. “Now,” he said, you can literally escape out this window if necessary, and we can both breathe easy at night.”

Where there are no windows, I make them. I have filled this windowless room with 22 framed worlds out there. May they pull you in, fill your lungs with the fragrance of the places. Maybe they will evoke memories from your life. That’s the magic of art.

All it takes is a handful of earth or pigment crushed into a bit of oil and smeared onto a piece of cloth to recreate such beautiful compositions and places that move the viewer. But isn’t that what it is to be a human: to be capable of creating things of great beauty out of the most ordinary and unexpected ingredients and tools? Who would have known that horse hair drawn across catgut could produce Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata? (Can’t remember who said that.)

It was a grey summer Thursday years ago. I had driven all the way down to the Gull River in Minden to paint the rapids. I had splurged and got babysitting for the day. My easel I set up in a remote crevice in the rock beside the roaring rapids far from the parking lot and picnic tables and any on-lookers.   I joyously squeezed out the blobs of oil paint on my palette and reached for my brushes to rough in the powerful scene before me.

No brushes! I spread everything out on the ground. I emptied every pocket. I ransacked the car. Not a single brush or palette knife. I even asked another artist in the parking lot if she might happen to have an extra brush. She looked at me as if I had asked to borrow her toothbrush. I went back to sit in the car and have a good cry. Then I saw the kitchen spatula on the floor of the car. (Not sure why it was there.) And that is how I discovered one of my favourite painting tools. It has helped me to loosen up more than anything.   It created wonderful textures that day, mimicking the rough surface of rocks and churning water. The tool unexpectedly matched the subject perfectly.

Each morning as I pick my way down the icy path to my boathouse studio, an old rectangular relic of the 40’s, I am thinking of all the decisions that have to be made: the subject, the palette, the composition, the application of paint. At other times, I am just wondering what I will make for supper that night.   I set down my pot of chai tea, crank up the little electric heater and turn on CBC radio. On the north facing side of the studio where there is a bank of three windows. I inhale the mood of the day. The scene before me is a large, quiet expanse of snow, sometimes striped with golden ribbons of sunlight, at other times dancing in little eddies. Last week, my clomping footsteps on the studio floor flushed out a mink that scurried along the shore. Last month the whole boat house rocked and cracked as the lake boomed and snapped during freeze-up. In the deep of winter, snowmobiles buzz by 100 yards away, and otters crawl out of a hole to sun on the ice, completely unaware of being watched. One late winter morning, four cross-country skiers were peering right back at me.

I usually have something in mind to paint for the day. Often, I warm up by doing small abstracts. It’s like doing my piano scales before I settle into something larger. It loosens me up and cures me of a reoccurring tendency to tighten up and get too detailed – deadly for painters. The brush strokes then lose personality and verve.

My second studio is a little wooden box, not unlike the kind Tom Thomson hauled around Algonquin Park, only mine has legs that snap out so I can stand to paint. It goes everywhere in the good weather. Last fall, I was painting down a dirt road. I was jolted out of my concentration when a train of hunters with ATVs whipped by me. I froze until they passed. They stopped and then roared backwards. Out came their phones. “May we take pictures, they asked?” I half expect to show up in one of those mud-sloshing, back country ATV tour magazines as an example of some the strange wildlife you see in the Canadian wilderness.

Increasingly, as I get older and I am conscious about reducing my stuff, I am also getting rid of excess brush strokes and colours, and complexity in my artwork, too. By simplifying composition my work is becoming more and more abstract. This is where the abstract paintings in the show come from.

I dedicate Windows on the World to a lively, young woman who has had a huge influence on my life and whom I deeply admire.

Katherine Martinko was raised in a little cabin in the back woods of Muskoka. Today, she is a prolific writer and assistant editor of Tree Hugger.com. An amazing cook, athlete, violinist, activist, wife, and mother of 3 little boys, Katherine lives with passion, creativity and great respect for the environment.

More than anyone in my life, Katherine has challenged me to assess and, if necessary, change and expand my viewpoints and to listen more than talk. She has dragged me around the world from the favelas of Brazil, to the wild interior of Sardinia, and has opened worlds through the many books, articles and discussions she has shared.   While she can be brutally frank about my shortcomings, she is intensely supportive, loyal and loving, Thank you, dear Katherine, my eldest daughter, for opening so many windows on the world for me.

Thank you, Huntsville Arts Society, for inviting me to exhibit here and thanks to the kind and helpful people that I have met from HAS and the theatre who helped me to put this show together.

I’d like to end with a Zen view, a short description from Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language .

“A Buddhist monk lived high in the mountains, in a small stone house. Far, far in the distance was the ocean, visible and beautiful from the mountains. But it was not visible from the monks house itself, nor from the approach road to the house. However, in front of the house there stood a courtyard surrounded by a thick stone wall. On the far side of the courtyard there was a slit in the wall, narrow and diagonal, cut though the thickness of the wall. As a person walked across the court, at one spot, for an instant, he could see the ocean. And then he was past it once again and went into the house. What is it that happens in this courtyard? The view of the distant sea is so restrained that it stays alive forever.”

I like that last sentence. In the same way I have tried to capture and condense in small frames, the wonderful scenes of my life and of my country for you to see   May they stay alive for you.

Elizabeth Johnson

 





The Ruth Upjohn Memorial Award

26 03 2017

Thank you, Muskoka Arts and Crafts for giving me the generous $300 Ruth Upjohn Memorial Award on Friday night.  It is a great honour to receive a gift from Ruth’s estate.  Ruth may be dead, but she is still part of my life.

I first met Ruth Upjohn and Dot Seixus in their simple, old-world cottage in Muskoka.  Their good friend, Anne Schwartz-Buenneman, had hired my young daughters to play classical and fiddling music for Ruth’s birthday.  I was the chauffeur for the event.  What a warm and gracious reception Ruth and Dot gave us!

Then, at the birth of my first son, Anne age me  a book of songs for young children that Ruth’s mother had collected.  Ruth and Dot had compiled these delightful and humorous songs into a book called Sneezepickle’s Songbook.   The hours and hours spent at the piano with Sneezepickle, singing with my young sons, could never be tallied.  We sang and sang –Big Black Cats, the Bus, The Train, The Three LIttle Pigs, the Poly Poly Polar Bears-until our throats were hoarse.

Now I have grandsons.  When they visit, we slide onto the piano bench and sing from Sneezepickle and I am sure to tuck the now tattered songbook into my bag when I visit them in their home.

This winter, my 20 yr. old son came home from university for a visit.  As I was preparing supper, I heard him slowly picking out the simple, catchy Sneezepickle tunes on the piano keys.  Thanks to Ruth for the gift of song and music that three generations of my family are still enjoying, at all ages.

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Me with my painting entitled, A ride on the Segwun

Receiving the Ruth Upjohn Memorial Award is a great delight to me and a wonderful honour.  I can’t wait to tell my children what I just received from Sneezepickle!

 

 

 





Sparks and Spirit

20 03 2017
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My daughter, Katherine Martinko with her baby, me and my mother, Mildred Nigh at the opening to Sparks and Spirit.

Here is the speech I gave on Saturday, March 18, 2017 at the opening to Sparks and Spirit, my watercolour exhibition at the Chapel Gallery, Bracebridge, Ontario.  Please also check out my Facebook page: Elizabeth Johnson studio/gallery and my website, http://www.elizabethjohnson.ca, to see more about my work and exhibitions.                                           C

 

Thank you to Muskoka Arts and Crafts for hosting my exhibition of watercolours . Thank you for coming this afternoon to celebrate with me. I love it when art brings people together.

 

You see on the wall an awful lot of small watercolours with funny titles, and an old book of poetry in a display case, along with some pictures. What’s this show all about? I have painted my way through an old book of outdated poetry, poem by poem. And why would I do that?

 

  • Poetry is rarely read or memorized today and I love poetry. It surely has enriched my life.

 

  • I wanted to find a special way to honour my mother, Mildred Nigh who is 90 this year. I dedicate this exhibition to her. Mom gave 101 Famous Poems to my father in 1950 when she became engaged to him. My sisters and brother and I grew up with these poems. Later, when I became engaged to Brad, my mother gave me my own copy, the revised, 1958 edition. My kids also grew up with these poems. To truly understand them, I need to paint them.

 

  • I had admired the fresh, and elegant watercolours of Pat Fairhead, another nonagenarian, so I signed up for a private painting session with her, hoping that some of her freedom would rub off on me. When she told me to – just play with the paint , see what you come up with– I froze. I was terrified. I never forgot her words that challenged me and launched me on a new course. I decided to set myself a project to explore watercolour.

 

  • I had a drawer full of 90 year old Shri Ashram watercolour paper that I had inherited from an old artist from Siberia 25 years ago. The man who gave me that special paper would approve of my project.

 

  • This is the first winter in 29 years that I haven’t had children at home full time. I needed an absorbing project to carry me though the change.

 

So, I reread each poem. Made me realize how much they had become part of my thinking, formed my philosophy of life. So many of them sounded like me:

 

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‘Tain’t no use to sit and whine

When the fish ain’t on yer line.

Bait your hook, and keep on tryin’,

Keep a goin.”

Or

“ You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?

Come up with a smiling face.

It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,

But to lie there – that’s disgrace.”

 

Well, over my childhood, that poetry book always seemed to by lying around, begging to be read, whenever there was nothing else to do. We must have had a fair amount of leisure time, because my sister and I got a lot of them memorized.

 

We memorized Oh Captain, My Captain, driving through Bulgaria and Romania- a difficult journey. They were communist and very unfriendly to tourists in the 70’s.   As we crossed successfully into Austria, we chimed out to our father, Oh Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done. The VWvan has weathered every wrack, the prize we sought is won! After Oh Captain, we raced each other to be the first to recite the entire Highwayman. And on and on.

 

I remember getting in trouble with my grade five teacher for using Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees” in my public speech on the Redwood trees. I ended the speech with a few small changes to the poem. “Speeches are made by fools like me, but only God can make a Redwood tree.” “You can’t say that!” Mrs. Weppler was indignant. “You are going off to the legion tomorrow to represent our school and you are going to tell them that speeches are made by fools?”

 

Those poems have come in handy over the years, especially raising a family. I recall more than once shouting out to a child going out the door “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…then you’ll be a man, my son”, or “ a woman, my daughter.” Or reminding them, when it was cleaning day, that “Nothing useless is or low. Each thing in its place is Best.

 

Many years ago, the Huntsville Suzuki school of music, which my children attended, was performing in schools and churches. As the children were filing on stage, the director suddenly asked if I would dance a minuet while the children played Mozart’s Minuet. No, she wasn’t joking. I had never seen or danced a minuet. I had no idea what to do and no time to think. Then, I remembered Mary Mapes Dodge’s, the Minuet..How her dainty head she held, how her pretty skirt she spread, how she slowly leaned and rose,- long ago”: There were my instructions, tucked away in my memory. Somehow I pulled it off.

 

While the review of the poems brought back a flood of memories, it raised new issues reading them from the perspective of an adult. The Song of the Shirt was written by Thomas Hood in the early 1800’s, It’s quite a feminist poem, that describes how a seamstress’ endless drudgery is slowly killing her. “Stitch, stitch, stitch! In poverty, hunger and dirt – sewing at once, with a double thread, A shroud as well as a shirt. Why was that the only poem omitted from the second edition? They kept The Man with the Hoe a few pages over, that describes the brutish work of men’s labour? There were many nauseating poems about the glory of battle and hewing down the enemy that we could have done without, instead.

 

The poems got me thinking about life, death, war, about the timeless beauty of nature, and about the values and priorities that have remained and those that have changed since 1920s and the 1950’s. In Apostrophe to the Ocean, Lord Byron describes the ocean as “unchangeable save to thy wild waves’ play. Time writes no wrinkle on they brow.”” Alas, Lord Byron, not so today. We have managed to stuff more plastic and pollutants in the ocean than there are fish.

 

The next challenge was how to respond to the poems through watercolour paint, a medium that I hadn’t used in years.  The only rules were to be playful, and to keep it fresh. Often I sprayed, dropped, or squirted the pigment onto the paper and let the water and gravity do the mixing. While I did revert back to the tight-fisted painting from time to time, as I got further into the project, I got bolder and freer and more excited. I would read a poem or two or three and just start painting, not necessarily illustrating the poem, but just getting the feeling of the poems out on paper. Sometimes it was only the title that spoke to me, like My Kate by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I painted my Kate, my eldest daughter, instead.

 

Having a limited time for the project kept me focused, thinking less and responding emotionally. It was months of intense work, but very rewarding. I never expected these passé poems to inject sparks and spirit into my watercolours. The title Sparks comes from Paul Revere’s Ride and Spirit comes from To a Skylark. My friend Elspeth came up with that title. Thank you, Elspeth.

 

Thanks to my husband Brad who gave up his Sunday to varnish my paintings for me and to make me a custom size board at the last minute. As we work in the same building, he’d often slip into the studio with a fresh cup of coffee for me and a word of encouragement , like, “Oh, that’s beautiful! These are really lovely, Elizabeth.”

 

Thank you to my plein air painting buddy, Roxanne Driedger, who photographed me and my paintings for social media and helped varnish.

 

Thank you, Pat, for the best painting class I have ever had in my life.

 

Lastly, thank you, Mother, for giving me 101 Famous Poems and for instilling in me a love of poetry and of the enduring values that they promoted. They have carried me along through the highs and lows of life.

 

 





OUT OF THE WOODS: Speech at Hotel Ocho, Toronto, Feb. 5, 2017

6 02 2017

img_8874Susan Wei Lee came into my boathouse studio this summer and asked me if I would like to display my art on the walls of her son and daughter-in-law’s delightful boutique hotel on Spadina.   Would I? Give me a date! And voila, here I am. Thank you, Susan, and Louise and Hamish for your hospitality and for this charming venue.

 

Thanks to all of you for coming out to see my show this afternoon. You are brave souls to face the Toronto traffic that makes me weak in the knees. We live down a 1.5 km gravel road, outside of Dorset. If we have to wait for two cars to pass at the end of the road, we turn to each other with alarm and say, “My, there is a lot of traffic today.”

 

Thank you, too for your interest in painting. A skill that has survived 40.000 years is indeed something to celebrate.

 

I am a painter. Can’t remember a day when I didn’t divide the world into patches of colour and texture, like the quilts that my Mennonite mother sewed together and tucked me under ever since the day I was born. “Every child is an artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” Picasso penned those words.

 

But I have been very fortunate. Not only do I still sleep under these inspiring, quilted masterpieces, I live in a sculpture garden, of a sorts. Not a permanent one made of marble or bronze. Mine changes every day ‘cause it’s made of snow. And, Boy, do we have snow!

 

The trees are bent down in graceful arches under massive mantles of white. Everything vertical wears a comical, tall hat – chimney, fence post, or shovel stuck in the snow. Gigantic waves of snow swoop over the face of buildings, not unlike an avant-guard hairdo.

 

This afternoon, I welcome you to a glimpse into rural Canada, a taste for which I trust today’s exhibition will give you. When we remember that 95% of our Canadian land mass is rural and yet 80% of Canadians are urban dwellers in the southern regions of our country, you begin to realize just how much space, how much wilderness we have north of our cities, all just a few hours north of Toronto. And it’s free! Canada may well be a progressive, urban, modern, industrial society, but the call of the wild always tugs deep within. In fact, I think Canadians are born with an interior compass that keeps steering them north.

 

You already know it. Why else would so many of you brave the traffic jams on Hwy 400 on summer weekends just to be able to skinny dip in a northern lake, to watch a sunset from a canoe or build a campfire in the woods.

 

My husband and I felt that pull so strongly that we quit our professions in teaching and chemistry in the 1989, packed our kids and our belongings in our car and headed for Dorset to live in our 480 sq. ft. cabin with no plumbing, no insulation. Clearly, we survived and have thrived, for we are still there. Eventually, we built a house – with plumbing.

 

It’s the beauty of nature that has held us captive. To wake up to Phoebe bird screaming out her name (your natural alarm clock), to lie flat on your back on a frozen lake to watch millions of stars shooting pell-mell across the sky above, to hear the deep groans and rumbles of the lake as it metamorphoses from liquid to solid, this is what keeps us up north. . It’s the playfulness, the challenge, the mystery of Nature that has helped me to stay an artist all my life.

 

To get around my back yard, you really need snowshoes. Not the modern aluminum brand from MEC, but the giant wooden bear paws or fish shapes that keep you afloat on the snow. They are the only way to break into the isolated, silent swamps with their eerie spikey tree trunks, crowned with cranes’ nests and tattooed with the imprints of the claws of hungry bears.

 

You kind of live on the edge as an artist. You’re an explorer. At least, that’s how Matisse defined artists.   Last summer, I wanted to paint an island on Kawagama Lk, where my husband’s construction crew was renovating an old log cabin. In the early morning mist, I waited for my ride at the end of the long public dock at Kawagama. I felt like Emily Carr, clutching my easel, paint box and canvas, peering out into the silence, alert for any sounds of a motor.

 

Out of the mist glided the old tin workboat, carrying three carpenters, caps on backwards, hunched over, hugging their hoodies. Once all aboard, the tin boat reared its bow and galloped across the water. We charged past inlets, islands, coves, and cabins, flew over the reflections of clouds and sky in the lake. That was a wonderful, carefree day, to roam and explore the island at my will, to pretend that I was Robinson Crusoe, stranded there with my paint box. The illusion never lasted long, ‘cause Charlie’s loon-like laughter would drift through the forest. The painting of birch logs that is hanging downstairs was done that day.

 

A couple of winters ago, a long-time employee of Algonquin Park, suggested we come camping with him -in January. It would get me into some pretty spectacular scenery in Algonquin, accessible only in winter. When we arrived at the head of a trail near the park’s East Gate, a fleet of old wooden boxes on skis, and leather tumplines awaited us. Harnessed up like a pack of huskies, we travelled over historic trails that the first white man recorded in 1827. At night, Craig lashed caber-size poles together, and tied on a Egyptian cotton tent while Doris wove a springy floor out of balsam branches. It was like I had jumped into a wardrobe and come out the back into a Tom Thomson painting.

 

It’s not always that idyllic when you go out plein air painting. That’s French for out of doors. Plein air painters take a portable easel out of the studio and into nature and paint directly from the scene before them, in order to capture the light and the colours. You paint fast, wet on wet. The paintings are very fresh and alive. It can be tricky ‘cause the light changes and so does the weather.

 

Like the time I had arranged for John Anderson to teach a weekend plein air painting workshop in Dorset in March and the temperature plummeted to the -20’s That’s when you haul out your fattest down coat and your wool long johns. No such thing as fashion. It always helps to paint in the winter with a group. You are less inclined to give up. So, I arranged the next workshop in balmy September. It poured rain!

 

People love to see artists painting outside, especially where they least expect to see a painter. They suddenly realize that maybe this place is beautiful. Like the motorcyclist who blasted past me on his Harley, jerked to a stop, and called “Hey, you shouldn’t be here! What are you doing in a dirty old place like this?” He ducked to get in right under my sun umbrella to have a closer look at the painting . And there we were, cheek to cheek , staring at the scene, and my painting of it. until he burst out laughing. “Hey, that’s beautiful! I’ve lived here all my life, but I never seen it beautiful like that. You’ve made my day.” He pumped my hand and thanked me over and over. As he mounted his Harley I heard him call out, “ Can’t wait to tell the others.” I wondered how long it would be before the whole Harley gang showed up to find beauty.

 

Apparently, it’s scientific, this thing about natural beauty generating feelings of awe that boost mental capabilities. Business Insider quotes a study that claims that people’s mental energy bounced back, even when they just looked at pictures of nature. (Pictures of city scenes had no such effect.)

 

Please take your time to look at the paintings on the two floors and along the staircase. There is usually a story behind each one. Most of the small paintings in this exhibition are done on location. The larger ones are painted in my little boathouse that overhangs the waterlilies on Shoe Lake. It’s pretty idyllic. As you can see from the tags, they are all for sale.   To purchase a painting, Brad will be happy to transact the sale and package it up for you, so you can take it home with you. You can always contact me, later, through my website as well. For anything too big to take away, we will arrange delivery.

 

I am so glad to be Canadian and to be able to live in a country where we are open to challenge, diversity and adventure, where we still have wilderness and the freedom to explore it. Despite the fact that Canadian life is getting faster, more high-tech, I think there will always be painters sneaking around the northern lakes and woods, in antique wooden snowshoes and canoes, and sleeping on balsam boughs – explorers who come out of the woods to bring our wilderness back to the cities to ground Canadians, to sustain them and to remind them of their natural inheritance, the envy of the world. It definitely is in our hearts. Go north, folks, go into the woods – by whatever means -physically or through art. I’ll see you there.

 

But first, I will enjoy visiting with you right here, around the table and the coffee station. I am open to any questions about the art.

 

Thank you so much again for coming.