My Solo Exhibition Speech at the Huntsville Public Library, Nov.9, 2012

15 11 2012

Walks in Beauty

I  cannot remember the exact moment in my life when I responded to art.  Certainly, the beauty of stark simplicity and things made by hand were givens in my childhood: the bright, patchwork quilts, the thick, braided wool rugs, the jewel-coloured jars of home-canned fruits, jams, relishes and sausages, the vases of flamboyant flowers against a bare, white wall of my Mennonite home – these were some of the moments when I responded to art early on in life. Back then, I had all the time in the world to walk around and stare.

Just how I jumped from these early sensations to becoming a painter, I don’t really understand myself.  I had a little box of paints that my brother had given me.  Just seeing the clean, shiny colours,  smelling the turpentine, and feeling the spring of the brush hairs  thrilled me.  I started looking at the  world differently, dividing everything I saw into little blobs of paint.

While I always struggled with orderliness in my life, somehow the  organizing of shape, colour, texture and pattern on a two-dimensional, clearly defined plane was manageable and terribly exciting.  I felt like I was the conductor of an orchestra –bringing in separate parts to make a splendid, unified picture that sings beauty. Later on, one of my art teachers referred to colours as notes and told me to “Paint like a (wo)man climbing a hill, singing”

I am very honoured to be part of such a great painting tradition, one that stretches back 15 thousand years to the cave painters of France and Spain. It warms my heart to think that we humans still come together to celebrate the act of making marks, one by one, by hand, especially today when computers can make thousands of pictures for us instantly in any style and colour. Art exhibits remind us that we are not machines.  Each little brushstoke made by a human hand is crammed with information about what it is to be a particular human being.    No wonder ancient civilizations thought that art carried magical powers.

And just maybe it does.  After all, angels always seem to pop up whenever I go out painting.  I was shivering one cold autumn day while painting on the front stoop of an old house. I thought no one was home. The door behind me creaked open and someone dropped a warm shawl over my shoulders.

A few weeks ago, I drove past Tally Ho in Hillside on hwy #60.  I have always loved the view of the big garden and the small bight cabins under the big trees.  Since I had my easel with me,  I pulled over to the side of the road and set it up, squeezed out blobs of paint, and was all ready to go, when I realized that I didn’t have any turpentine.  Well, you can’t paint oils without some thinning agent. At that very instant, a car drove up behind me  – the owner of Tally Ho.  She put a call into housekeeping and within minutes, another car drove up and handed me a  jug of turpentine.

Last month, I set up my easel by some unused railway tracks in a rough end of Port Colborne, my hometown.  I was deep in concentration when I heard the flatulating engine of a passing Harley Davidson suddenly stop.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a leathery, tough-looking dude, heading right for me.

“What are you doing here?” He yelled at me.

I braced myself.

“This is no place for a painter.  Can’t you see there’s garbage all around?”

He was right.  I hadn’t noticed before.  I was even standing in it.  The beauty if the starkness of the houses had absorbed all my interest.   After a good long look at the painting, he burst out laughing.

“Hah!  That’s beautiful!  Imagine that!  You do find beauty in all the garbage and weeds. I live here and I never seen it before.   Hey, can I take your picture?  They won’t believe this.”

“Sure. Go ahead.” I answered, wondering who THEY were.

“Thanks,  he said, “You know, you’ve made my day.

“Thank you, Sir. You have made my day, too,“  I answered.  Away he went, muttering to himself something about finding beauty in the strangest places and I went back to my painting, smiling inside and out.

The challenge for the painter in Muskoka is not the sifting through garbage to find beauty, (at least not yet).  Rather, the challenge is to sort through a surplus of jaw-dropping beauty, ever changing landscapes, to find the little unexpected nugget that, on canvas, will say just enough of what I found to be important about the whole majestic scene.

It is very important to have local, original art hanging in a public library which is dedicated to another form of art – the written word.  Since a picture is worth  a thousand words,  books and visual art are a splendid team that speak truth in different languages.   In fact, it was from literature that I took the title for my show – a poem by Lord Byron entitled, “She Walks in Beauty”.  You walk in beauty, too. The many exhibits that will pass through this library will help you to develop the vision to recognize it  – the beauty of nature, the beauty of the commonplace, the beauty of the abstract, the beauty of the ugly, the beauty of the unexpected.  Painting is a lot about seeing.

One of my teachers was Bill Schultz.  His teacher, Brachman, was a student of the great American painter, Robert Henri, who wrote, “Art in the community has a subtle, unconscious, refining influence.” With art hanging on its walls, the library will become the life-centre of Huntsville from where powerful, stimulating ideas and discussions will radiate, just as Henri predicted of art schools.

I thank the show curator, Mary Rashleigh  and head librarian, Debbie Duce for having the vision to create this venue  for artists to communicate with the public. It’s a great privilege for me to be the first to have my say about my little slice of life and my impressions of it. Thank you to musicians, Josh, Graham and David and a heartfelt thank you to everyone for coming to look at my paintings and to share this celebration with me.

“Walks in Beauty” hangs in the Huntsville Public Library until December 21, 2012

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A Different Kind of Landscape Painting

6 06 2012

“All gardening is landscape painting.”

Alexander Pope

My mother grew a huge vegetable garden in which we four children had to put in a certain number of hours of planting, weeding and picking.  My favourite memories of the garden concerned peas.  I loved planting the peas.  They looked like soft green buttons  sewn on the umber-coloured shirt of a sleeping giant,  and I was the seamstress as I dropped each pea- button, one to two inches apart, into the trough.   When they grew into plump pods, I’d eat them raw, cramming whole fistfuls into my mouth.  No snack can compare to those freshly shelled garden peas.   Even the pods were delicious, once you peeled off the inner membrane.

It took me many years to have a vegetable garden of my own.  But now I have one and it is a miracle.   Two years ago, my husband and I purchased the  land on which my husband’s business sits (Portico Timber Frames).   The soil itself is mostly sand and rock – fill that had been dumped into a swamp.   But  the site has sunshine and it is flat, both rare features in Muskoka and the Haliburton Highlands and I began to dream of the possiblility of growing a garden there.    Since the soil grew scruffy weeds, I wondered if it might just grow vegetables, too.  I could just see that desert bloom.

After reading Patricia Lanza’s Lasagna Gardening,  I went to work trying out her no dig, no till, no weeding system of gardening.   After mowing down the weeds and grass, my husband and I built long rectangular boxes with wood from Portico’s scrap pile.  I lined the bottom with 4 sheets of wet, overlapping newspapers to kill the growth.  On top, I dumped layers of manure, coffee grounds from Tim Horton’s, peat moss, chopped leaves,  straw, top soil, compost, anything I could think off that might make a good soil.  Then, I sowed my seeds, flowers and veggies all mixed in together.

Today, it is a verdant, bountiful garden that feeds my family all summer long and provides a quiet and refreshing place where people can stroll and rest in.  Much more has grown up in this garden.  My daughter opened a wood-fired pizzeria in my garden (mypizzaonearth.com).  My new studio opens out onto the garden.  My husband and nephew built an English-style brick pathway and patio in the garden.  My little garden developed further to include a burgeoning Dorset community garden where members meet to garden, trade plants and gardening tips and to socialize.   Birds love to visit the garden, too.  Miracles do happen. Deserts really can bloom.

As I dropped the peas into the soil this afternoon and was transported back to my mother’s garden,  I looked up at my own beautiful garden with is tall spires of garlic, its deep blue irises, its bright yellow-green lettuce, and fragrant herbs. I realized that, while I paint for a living, I now live in a painting.  My surroundings are also my canvas.  Gardening is just another form of landscape painting.   No wonder I am totally absorbed by it.





A Cultural Event

25 04 2012

I was a starry-eyed bride when I first moved to the boonies with my groom. It was late fall and all the summer people had left long ago.  No one else lived within a radius of three kilometers and beyond that was a hermit.  The two big social events of the week were the long snowshoe into town to get mail and supplies and to warm up by the pot-bellied stove at Robinson’s General Store, and again, to go to church on Sunday .

Back then, a special cultural event was to have people over for dinner.  It was a big operation to get them in our roller-coaster road in winter.  Once they were there, the guests could never fully relax, either because they were so anxious about getting out again, especially if it was snowing, or because our cabin was uninsulated and the temperatures outside fluctuated between -30 and -40 C.   The poor souls rarely took their coats off throughout the meal or afterward.  In any case, besides entertaining, a cultural event was also a day-long snowshoe, a bonfire and  picnic in the snow, or stargazing on our backs in the middle of the frozen lake while the wolves howled around us.

Now, thirty years later, I am attending the 9’th annual wine and cheese cultural event of our hamlet.  My, how things have changed in Dorset since the 80’s. While we sip our fruit wine, and look at original art of local artists (Yes, I am here with my paintings.), local saxophone musicians, singers, poets, and writers entertain us.  It’s all so smooth and urbane.  I close my eyes to see if I can fool myself into thinking that I am really in downtown Toronto.  It actually works for a few seconds.  When I pop my eyes open again, I am happy to find myself sitting in the same old Dorset Rec Centre gym, beside Joanne again.  Only now she’s all dressed up. Quite a transformation from this morning when we were here in our sweats doing downward dog side by side in the same spot.

I like the overlap.  There’s something  real, and homey about bumping into each other over and over again in different contexts.   Joanne’s also in my book club, my tai chi class, and my church.  We can never become too proud or sophisticated or cultured because we have all seen each other in the undignified happy baby yoga pose and we know each others problems and have prayed together over them in church.

While I still love the old cultural events that connect me to the land and to a simpler way of life in the bush, I enjoy the new, too, especially in my own little hamlet.  I learn a lot.  I am reminded that Joe, who works with me in the community garden, is one fantastic saxophone musician.  Tina, whom I only ever see pushing the grocery cart around our general store, can write splendid poetry.   I never noticed before what a great speaking voice Mary has until I listen to her as the MC of the whole cultural evening.  She’s always quietly selling tickets for the Concert Association of Huntsville.

It’s an manageable drive to Toronto to see the Picasso art exhibit,   or to hear Yo Yo Ma play cello or Margaret Atwood speak whenever the need to see the greats presses. We’re not missing out on much.  Up on the Canadian shield we give the everyday artists the stage.  We cheer them on and watch them evolve.  They are real people.  Such a tiny hamlet has a lot of artistic talent and we get to have an evening of fun and discover a bit more about our community members at our annual Evening of Wine, Words, Music and Art. 





The Real Thing

7 03 2012

My home is filled with beautiful and strange works of art that I have collected over my fifty years of life.  Nothing very big.  Each one is precious to me and carries a story with it: the little hand-painted tiles I found in an ancient bazaar in Iran, the oil painting that I purchased on an island in the Dnieper River in Ukraine, the painted, basswood toucans that my husband and daughters made for me one Christmas when cash was low, my Schwartz-Buenemann paintings, one of which my husband obtained as payment for carpentry work.  ( I now paint with her oil paints.) These are just a few.

As the years go by, I like them more and more, not just because of the happy memories they evoke, but because they are beautiful and real. They are not perfect, thank goodness.  The burn marks and the firefighters’ water stains on my icons from Sidney, Nova Scotia, tell a tale of these paintings being snatched out of a burning church.  The flaws make them more beautiful.   The artists’ hands held the works of art (maybe even dropped them), carved, chiseled, sewed or painted them.  In most cases, I have visited with the artist, held those toiling hands in mine, and  become friends with them.  They’ve helped me to be real and genuine, accepting of my scars, and not just a copy of someone else.

So, when a friend suggested that most people would prefer to buy a reproduction at Walmart for $6.99, than pay hundreds or thousands to get an original work of art, something in me protested very strongly.  It’s like asking someone if they prefer receiving a form letter or a personal handwritten letter.  Better yet, it’s like asking if you would choose to watch a documentary on Tuscany ahead of going to Tuscany.   There are ways of getting to Tuscany on the cheap (I’ve done it.), and there are also ways to collect original art, without spending a lot of money.  In this blog, I wish to dispel the notion that original art is reserved  for the rich.

Original art can be affordable if you buy small items and if you buy from unknown or undiscovered artists.  Buy art that you like.  Don’t buy the name.

In many cases, artists are open to you paying for their art in installments.

Some artists are happy to barter their art for other goods and services.  In the past, I have traded my paintings for a holiday at a fancy B&B, dental work, bushels of fruit and vegetables, a private quintet concert in my home, and other works of art.

If you can’t afford the art you like, just start saving.  If you really want something, you can usually find a way.   I wanted to buy my husband a soapstone bear for his 50th birthday.  I had to save and wait for several years, but the sacrifice made it even more special the day I brought Frobisher home and gave it to him.

Hand-pulled prints, such as lino-block, or wood-block prints are generally cheaper than paintings or sculptures and are wonderful works of art to collect. All of my early art purchases were lino-block prints.  Some came from thrift stores.

Art collecting takes you on countless adventures as you track down treasures in little galleries and studios or second hand shops in out-of-the-way places. You get to know your area.  You meet inspiring people. You find out a lot about art.  You support your local economy and build community. You feel alive.

Go to local arts councils and studio tours and find out where the artists are and what they are creating.  You will find that there’s a great deal to explore right in your own back yard.  You might not need to go on that cruise after all and you can save yourself a ton of money.

The $6.99 will get you nothing more than a fading poster and a cheap frame from Walmart.  Original art will open doors for you and give you much pleasure and a lasting legacy.   Choose the real and the genuine.   You’ll catch the spirit.  Happy Collecting.