When the artists invaded Queensborough

The famous painting by the New England artist Winslow Homer, called Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. (It is in the collection of the excellent Portland [Maine] Museum of Art, where Raymond and I have seen it in person. The museum is a must-visit if you are in the terrific city of Portland.) It’s meant to be an amusing picture, I think – the row of painters sketching each other painting – but I’ve also always liked it because it reminds me of when the students at the Actinolite art school used to come to Queensborough all at once to paint and sketch.

In yesterday’s post I wrote about how the Queensborough area seems to hold an attraction for people of an artistic bent. Photographers, filmmakers, craftspeople and painters are to be found throughout the area. But this is not a new phenomenon.

When I was a kid growing up at the Queensborough Manse in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a common thing on pleasant spring and summer days to see the town invaded by “the artists.” “The artists” were students at the Schneider School of Fine Arts in nearby Actinolite – Actinolite being the only other hamlet, besides Queensborough, in all of vast and rocky Elzevir Township, Hastings County.

I expect this is one of the then-150-year-old log buildings moved to the art school when it was established in 1963. Now it’s almost 200 years old!

The school, no longer extant – more on that a little bit later – was founded by Mary and Roman Schneider in July 1963, so was very new when my family moved to Queensborough exactly a year later. The Schneiders, according to Jean Holmes’s history book Times to Remember in Elzevir Township, “came to Canada in 1950. Having become active in Toronto’s art world, they would come to this area (i.e. Elzevir) to paint. They loved the land and thought that it would be an artist’s dream,” and went on to purchase some land on the banks of the Skootamatta River just off Highway 37 at Actinolite. They moved two 150-year-old log houses from nearby Tweed to use for a studio and office, and the school was on its way.

(An online search tells one more about the Schneiders. According to the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative at Montreal’s Concordia University, Mary Schneider was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and became a recognized painter in Eastern Europe; she married her husband, a professor of applied art, in Warsaw, Poland, in 1935. They were interned in work camps in Siberia during the Second World War. Once they established their school at Actinolite, “a number of Canadian artists, many hailing from Toronto, Montreal, and other urban centres, spent their art holidays” there.)

A favourite subject for the Schneider School artists: the old clapboard home, always very badly in need of paint, of our neighbour, Wallace Kincaid.

The shed/garage (and former blacksmith’s shop) that was attached to the property of Billy “Nub” Wilson. Just the kind of thing the artists loved to paint, much to our bemusement.

When I was little I didn’t know much more about the Schneider school than that it existed and that its students would regularly pile into our little village of a morning (whether they came in separate cars or were bused in I don’t know) and commence to setting themselves up in front of their easels at many different corners. They always favoured the buildings that we thought were ugly because they were old and maybe to a greater or lesser extent decrepit. (Of course I know now that such historic and perhaps faded buildings are much more interesting to look at, from an artistic point of view, than most modern and neat and tidy ones.) The often-vacant and very old (and unpainted) home of our neighbour, a bachelor named Wallace Kincaid who spent much of the year working somewhere far away, was a particular favourite.

The Manse as painted by Queensborough artist Norah Hiscock – a piece my father commissioned partly because none of the art-school artists ever chose it for a subject.

(We Sedgwicks always felt a tad slighted that never once did any of the artists plant themselves down in front of the Manse and tackle it as a subject; broken-down old garages that had once been blacksmith’s shops seemed, puzzlingly, to be of far more interest to them. That was why my dad commissioned Norah Hiscock, a fine artist who lived just outside Queensborough, to paint the Manse; her picture hung in the Manse living room all the time we lived there, stayed in the family afterward, and now that we’re back there Raymond and I have recently returned it to its same place at the Manse.)

For the kids (and not just the kids either) of Queensborough, it was an entertaining exercise to mosey quietly up behind an artist and look over his or her shoulder as he or she worked. As I recall they didn’t generally mind this, though you wanted to be quiet and unobtrusive. The two things I remember vividly are the smell of their paints, which I think were generally, or at least often, oils; and how their version of the building or scene they were painting would differ in intriguing ways from the actual scene one could see with one’s eyes. The eye of an artist was a mysterious thing.

The cabins on the art-school property. If you’re an artistic type, perhaps you can imagine yourself staying there and venturing out to picturesque spots like Queensborough to sketch and paint.

I was interested in this plaque, affixed to a small log building over the well that once served, and maybe still does, the little conglomeration. It commemorates the well having been donated in 1967 by a patron of the school, Mrs. Franc R. Joubin. Her husband, I have just discovered thanks to the wonders of the internet, was a very famous Canadian mining-industry leader who founded the Blind River (Ont.) uranium mines.

Not long ago Raymond and I drove into the laneway off Highway 37 that leads to what used to be the Schneider School and is now a place called Bridgewater Retreat. It was the first time I’d ever been there. We saw what I imagine was one of the 150-year-old log buildings (now considerably older than that!) that the Schneiders had first moved there; there are also several little cabin-type buildings, like in an old-fashioned motel complex, that I suppose were built for the artist students to stay in. It’s quite a pleasant setting and there seemed to be some kind of gathering of “wellness practitioners” going on there at the time of our visit.

Perhaps one reason I was thinking of the Schneider school and “the artists” today is that Raymond and I are in New England, where artists’ colonies – at places like Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, Maine, and Cape Ann, Massachusetts – are well-established and time-honoured things. It would be incredibly cool if the Queensborough-Actinolite area still had an actual arts colony/school. But then again, what it does have are a considerable number of artists in many media, still drawing inspiration from the landscape that Mary and Roman Schneider “thought…would be an artist’s dream.”

So the tradition, and the Schneiders’ dream, live on.

17 thoughts on “When the artists invaded Queensborough

  1. I LOVE this story! I had heard bits of it over the years, but you have put it all together. I can just imagine the villagers’ bemusement at the odd subjects chosen by those arty types. Or at the arty types themselves! I can just imagine my sensible father’s comments had we been the subject of a similar invasion 🙂

  2. I find this interesting as well as fun to read. My mom’s very best friend who lived in Toronto would take a week & come stay at this very retreat just so she could paint. And many times had visited Queensborough. Then when knowledge got out that I lived in Queensbourgh my mom’s friend was even more excited. She loved to come & escape the big city for a piece of tranquillity. I have 3 of her paintings to this day..

  3. I find this interesting as well as fun to read. My mom’s very best friend who lived in Toronto would take a week & come stay at this very retreat just so she could paint. And many times had visited Queensborough. Then when knowledge got out that I lived in Queensbourgh my mom’s friend was even more excited. She loved to come & escape the big city for a piece of tranquillity. I have 3 of her paintings to this day.. maybe on day I can offer that tranquillity.

    • Oh wow, Mary Kay – what a cool connection, and how lovely that you have those paintings by you mum’s best friend! (I hope I can see them sometime.) And I especially hope that one day soon you will be able to offer visitors a place to experience that beauty and tranquillity – and I have great confidence that you will!

  4. Frank (Franz) Johnston, a member of the Group of Seven, lived for nine years in the Georgian Bay hamlet (Wyebridge) where I grew up. My brush with greatness, so to speak. I don’t remember Johnston because he died five days before my first birthday, but he left a lasting legacy. A commemorative plaque stands on the sprawling, well-manicured lawn that surrounds The Grange, his massive home. Oldtimers recall when, briefly after Johnston’s death, The Grange served as a movie theatre. They also speak fondly of Johnston, who not only painted rocky, windswept scenes of Algonquin Park, Algoma country, Lake Superior and Georgian Bay, but the pastoral countryside around Wyebridge. A nonagenarian resident named Hazel recently told me that when she was a young girl she had a job washing dishes for the artist, and that he featured her father working in the fields in some of his postcards and paintings.

    • That is very cool, Jim. I wonder if the woman of a certain age with whom you spoke is lucky enough to have any of the work by Johnston featuring her father. I just looked him up online and his paintings are very beautiful. Apparently he was able to churn them out at a great rate, too, which could have accounted for him being able to afford The Grange! Also, if the Wikipedia entry is to be believed, in the years before the First World War he used to take sketching excursions to, among other places, Bon Echo, a beautiful provincial park in Lennox and Addington County not all that far from Queensborough.

      • He did get around, so I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Franz Johnston painted a few Queensborough scenes. Next time I see her, I’ll have to ask Hazel if she owns one of his paintings.

    • Hi Sonya! I have terrible internet access tonight, but when I have better connectivity I’ll email you – I’d love to hear more about your memories of the art school, and I am sure other readers would too. How nice to know that some of the artists are still coming back – and how wonderful it would be to meet one (or more) of them who’d painted in Queensborough back in the day! I’m so pleased you found this post!

  5. Hi, Katherine. Here is another Mary Schneider piece, which I’ve found just by browsing for something else. After reading your latest post about Vera Burnside, I was hoping to get some information about an oil painting that my family has had for 50 years. It was given to my father by the Burnsides of Madoc Dairy. Actually, the painting was about to make its way to the Madoc dump, and my father was with them at the time. So, it was given to us. The signature looks like it could be Burnside, but after taking a macro photo of it, I think I can make out “V. Burgess”. I have no idea if that is correct, or of anybody with that name. Perhaps it was painted by an art student, or maybe by somebody who taken up a new hobby. When I had read about Vera Burnside, it gave me a new hope that I could finally be learning something about the painting, but I guess it’s not to be.

    Anyway, here is the watercolour by Mary Schneider.


    • Thank you for this, Sash! I did not know that Mary Schneider’s work was held by the Art Gallery of Northumberland, which I am fairly familiar with as a longtime (though former) resident of Port Hope. That’s a great painting, and I would dearly like to know what the painting’s subject (“Oldest Ontario Blacksmith’s Shop, Madoc”) really was. What would be cool was if it was Billy Wilson’s shop in Queensborough, which for the wider world’s purposes at the time she painted it could have been considered almost Madoc. As a Madoc native yourself, do you have any ideas?

      • You’re welcome, Katherine. I’m afraid I don’t have a clue about the location of the blacksmith’s shop. I wish I had seen this 30 years ago; my grandfather would have known.

      • Hi, Katherine. I’ve just found something, but not much, I’m afraid. If you load this page, and scroll down, you will see references to Madoc blacksmiths. There are two names associated with Elgin and St. Lawrence Streets, and another (Caverley, George) with a Queen Victoria Street address, with “shop” being shown as on Russell Street. Queen Victoria Street & Russell Street intersect (very close to Madoc Dairy), so I’m wondering if the blacksmith shop and residence were near the corner?

        Click to access BelPL002436616pf_0081.pdf

        Also, there is a blacksmith shop at O’Hara’s Mill, correct? Was that re-located from another location? If so, I’m wondering if anybody at O’Hara’s Mill would have information.

        • Great research, as always, Sash. I will confess I still like to think that the blacksmith’s shop that Mary Schneider painted was in Queensborough (near Madoc) – but that is probably wishful thinking on my part.

    • Hi Cindy, and – wow! One of Mary Schneider’s pieces? If you’re able to send me a photo (sedgwick.katherine@gmail.com), I would love to see it. A find like that is something I dream of…

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