Camping In January in Algonquin Park

21 01 2014

This weekend, I felt like I had fallen into a Group of Seven painting, not unlike the way C.S. Lewis’ and Madeleine L’Engle’s characters get to jump around into past and future eras. When I placed the heavy leather tumpline of a loaded toboggan across my chest, and leaned into the blowing snow, I got sucked into another era, one long before the combustion engine, tourists and Mountain Equipment Coop.

Leaning into the past

Leaning into the past

I’m just warning you, in case you decide to go winter camping with Craig and Doris MacDonald in Algonquin Park in the middle of January. No slick synthetics, and no  lightweight titanium snowshoes or tents on this trip. Nope. Lash on the old-fashioned babiche and wooden snowshoes with a few feet of lamp wick and follow the ancient trail that the first white man recorded in 1827 near the park’s East Gate, beyond the gargantuan virgin pines. It leads to Sunday Lake where you’ll find Craig, master winter camper and expert on Algonquin Park and on the old ways of the Natives and the traders. He comes from generations of northern postal carriers that were more comfortable in snowshoes battling a blizzard than you and I are in our slippers sitting by a fireplace sipping a latte.

We are eight people camping together in the snow. No slackers allowed. It’s a race against a setting sun. A rough, six foot chisel and two metal pails are handed to my son who heads for the lake. “Don’t forget to pile snow on the top of the filled pails so the water won’t slosh all over your legs. And don’t lose the chisel in the lake!” Doris yells out. Someone searches for firewood and bark. My husband and other son stagger out of the forest and into the campsite after retrieving caber-size poles that Craig lashes together to make a structure to which we tie the locally made Egyptian cotton tent. Before my dazzled eyes, the exact shape of the tent in Tom Thomson’s painting The Tent begins to take shape. It’s cream coloured, spacious and gracefully proportioned.

Setting up the tent Doris is showing us how to weave a soft fragrant carpet of balsam boughs, the way the Native people do. Craig and Wayne, who still wears the traditional voyageur garb, hook up the stove whose skinny chimney pipe angles up through a metal square in the gable end of the tent. Wayne, the "voyageur"A fire is crackling and, in no time, the tent is heating up. A toboggan, placed in the centre of the tent, becomes our table. Wooden stakes that hold candles are driven into the ground. Soon, we are sitting in our T-shirts, eating home baked bread and chili and swapping stories of adventure and travel, especially tales of Craig’s interactions with the Natives in years gone by. Before I climb into my sleeping bag, I slip outside. The tent is glowing like an old-fashioned Aladdin lantern turned down low. The snow is hard and crisp and the temperature is dropping as the night darkens. It is dead silent and perfectly still.

So, this is how those Canadian painters did it a hundred years ago. Well, Tom Thomson, there’s still one painter who is thrilled to be camping,  your style, in 2014.





A Good Cure for Restlessness

13 01 2014

It always happens every year, that irksome restlessness that comes after a period of too much stimulation. It seems to take me forever to calm down after all the excitement of Christmas when the house bulged with guests and rocked with music and merriment, and our bellies protruded with too much gourmet food.

The inner turmoil goes something like this.  “I really need to thoroughly clean the house now that everyone has left.  I’ve got to get working on my spring show of 101 small watercolours.  Maybe I should participate in the summer Muskoka Arts and Crafts show with my cards, after all.  That means painting at least six cards a days.  I’d like to start blogging again.  And, oh, Sarah left her cello here.  Should I take cello lessons?”

So, I end up doing nothing.  I am suspended like a hummingbird before a feeder, wildly whirling my wings but going nowhere, then, erratically sipping at this feeder and dashing off to that flower.  No matter how many firm talks I give myself about focus and self-discipline, and no matter how many noble quotes I read about success, I just can’t seem to get very far on any project.

Matters came to a climax this afternoon when I found myself rarely alone for a few hours on a Sunday. It was the perfect time to start blogging again.  A full pot of hot rooibos tea before me, and a blank Microsoft page open, I waited eagerly for the gates to creativity to swing open.   But, they didn’t.   I hadn’t a clue what to write about, just like I haven’t had a clue, since Christmas, what to paint on the enormous stack of blank canvasses in the corner of my studio.  With each passing minute, the anxiety increased.   It was time to take a walk.

My quiet country road weaves through the forest and traces the rugged contours of the Algonquin Highlands.   I couldn’t help noticing that a raccoon, a grouse, a mouse and a fox had, each, gone for a walk not long before me. Why, even a car had made a new tread pattern in the snow part way up the road before the driver lost his nerve and turned around. The top, wispy branches of the naked maples were gently sweeping the clouds to the side so I could enjoy glimpses of the startling blue sky.   A playful breeze pinched my cheeks and rattled the dry beech leaves clustered tenuously on saplings.  Nervous nuthatches fluttered noiselessly in the branches while a hairy woodpecker hammered relentlessly at a tree trunk until it offered up a bug.

I noticed, when I sat down again to my cold tea and computer, that the gates to creativity had mysteriously opened in my absence.  Ideas and words flowed easily and I was able to write.

For me, a brisk walk in nature is the best cure for just about anything.





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.





Just Get Painting

15 02 2012

 I’ve always loved traveling.  I did a lot of it in my teens, but not so much in my adulthood.  The four kids, homeschooling, music lessons, a house and a business, a big garden and chickens forced my husband and me to run a pretty lean ship and nothing was left for exotic trips.

But there was always a way in which I could travel – in front of my easel.    Art is the only way to run away without leaving home, American dancer, Twyla Tharp, wrote. While I never seriously wanted to run away from home, I certainly enjoyed being transported out of my daily routines by the simple beauty of colour, shape, and line whenever I slipped out to the boathouse to paint in the early morning before the babies started wailing.  I always returned renewed, as if I been somewhere special and far away.

"Childhood"

I guess that’s how I became a painter.  Sure, I had always managed to squeeze in a few studio art courses at university while studying language and literature, and the odd week-long art course when the kids were tiny.  A relative had to be cajoled to move in and run my household in my absence. That wasn’t very easy or very often.  So, I’d just paint.  I’d pore over art books and art magazines, then paint some more.

I came to learn a very valuable lesson.  And that is, if you want to be an artist, you just start being one.  Just get painting every day, even if you don’t have all the credentials.  You find out that you had the best teacher right with you all along. That’s you, yourself!  The artist within just needs a lot of practice at seeing and doing to be coaxed out.

Art books and magazines are a pretty good second best.  If you live far away from night courses and art galleries, as I do, it’s big colourful reproductions that substitute very effectively.  I tore out my favourites and placed them in a box.  I pored over those scraps, asking myself just what it was that drew me to this or that painting. Then I’d try out the technique myself.   To this day, when I need inspiration or have a painting problem, I rustle through my box of cutouts. Among the many excellent painters who preceded me, one always holds the solution in his or her paintings and tells me what I need to change in my painting.

I am so grateful to my dear friend, Janette Malloy from Ohio, who, every once in awhile, boxed up old American Art magazines and sent them to me.  Pure gold could not have excited me more.  Years ago, I sat beside her at a Charles Reid workshop in Hilton Head, SC.  Already an accomplished painter and a member of the Pastel Society of American, and thirty years my senior, this talented artist became a mentor who introduced me to pastels, impressionism and wild colour.  Teachers like Janette Malloy cannot be planned.  They drop unexpectedly like angels into your life, and ignite a creative spark that you never knew you had.  All you can do is pray and wait expectantly for a Janette to drop into your life, just at the right time, and guide you along your artistic path.  There is no greater gift.  Sadly, Janette Malloy died only a few months ago.  I am very grateful for the time and the conversations I had with her.

Painting itself is a conversation, with the living and the dead, about a journey that we illustrate through colour and shape.  It might not take you to Spain or Esfahan, but it does, strangely enough, get you into infinity.