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.