The photographer and the bittern

Bittern by Lloyd Holmes 2

A stunning shot of an American Bittern, taken in the Queensborough area, by Lloyd Holmes. This is wildlife photography of the very first degree. (Photo courtesy of Lloyd Holmes)

The other day Raymond and I were in a newly opened local restaurant and, in casual discussion with the young woman who was our server, discovered that she had once lived in Queensborough. She had evidently loved her time in our little community, and had something to say about it that I thought was spot-on. I’m paraphrasing her, but the gist of it was: “There are so few people in Queensborough, and yet almost everybody does something cool and interesting.”

That’s something I’ve noticed too. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who live in or move to our area have remarkable gifts and talents: for painting, wood-carving, bookbinding, metalworking, gardening, music, photography, long-distance running, historical research, storytelling, cooking, graphic design, homebuilding, landscaping, chicken-raising, baking, kids’ programs, flower arranging, esthetics, pet grooming, maple-syrup-making, athletics, metal detecting, building restoration, and on and on and on.

Today I want to showcase the work of one of those people. And in doing so, I’m happy to say, I get to tell you a bit more about what seems to have become the unofficial bird of Meanwhile, at the Manse: the American Bittern.

https://atthemanse.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/i-identified-my-first-bird/

This was the best I could do to illustrate what I was talking about the first time I wrote about spotting a bittern in Queensborough – a photo of a page from our Audubon guide to birds. It makes you appreciate the quality of Lloyd Holmes’s photo that much more!

Longtime readers may recall that I first wrote about this bird five years ago, telling a story about spotting a very striking large, long-necked bird standing near a marsh area on the side of Queensborough Road. (That post, if you’re interested, is here.) At the time neither Raymond nor I had any idea what bird it was we’d seen, but we turned to our Audubon Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and soon learned that it was an American Bittern. “When an observer is nearby, it will often stretch its neck up, point its bill skyward,” the guide told us – and that was exactly the odd position we’d seen it in. Then about a year after that first sighting, we came across a baby bittern crossing a road as we were driving to Queensborough from Montreal, where we still owned a home. You can read that post, and see my terrible photos, here.

A final connection with the bittern is that until this year, one of them has inhabited a marshy area that’s more or less right in the centre of Queensborough. We’ve never seen that bird, but on many evenings we’ve heard it making its distinctive kitchen-sink-glug-type call. As I write this, however, I realize that we didn’t hear our bittern this past spring, and that makes me sad. I hope nothing has happened to him/her.

But on to the connection between the American Bittern and talented local people.

A little while ago, I received an email from Lloyd Holmes, who grew up in Cooper, the hamlet just north of Queensborough, and who now lives in the not-far-away community of Marmora. Lloyd’s been to quite a few Queensborough events recently – and believe me, there have been a lot of Queensborough events recently – and I featured some of his stunning photos of our annual kayaking event here.

“Have been enjoying some of the activities around Queensborough this past couple of months and check your blog occasionally to see what the latest has been,” Lloyd said in his email. He carried on with this delightful story: “I never check at any time without recalling memories of my childhood that included riding in the wagon behind the tractor while my father took a grist to John Thompson’s grist mill in Queensborough to have ground into a mix for hogs or dairy and then return home to Cooper.” Here, people, is the very mill (no longer in use, but nicely preserved) that Lloyd refers to; it is owned by John Thompson’s daughter, Elaine Kapusta, and her husband, Ludwick:

The Thompson mill

The historic Thompson mill in Queensborough that Lloyd Holmes refers to in his reminiscence. In the foreground you can see an old millwheel.

The email continued: “When we were young we almost snickered when our parents reminisced and said, ‘Those were the good old days,’ and now we say that same thing ourselves.”

Lloyd: I hear you, loud and clear.

But the best was yet to come: two amazing closeup photos of an American Bittern. The first is at the top of this post; here’s the second one:

Bittern by Lloyd Holmes 1

Now that, people, is what a bittern looks like. Light-years better than my photo of a photo from the Audubon guide, which itself was far inferior to Lloyd’s shot.

“(The) pictures were taken earlier this summer along the Cooper Road between Hazzard’s and Madoc,” Lloyd told me. “We don’t often see these birds and less often (are) close enough to get pictures of them. But even I get lucky once in a while.”

I happen to know that it was almost certainly patience, not luck, that allowed Lloyd to capture these amazing images. Here’s another story he told me after I’d replied to him, thanking him for the bittern photos and promising to share them here:

“I have a great time out there in nature trying to get these shots, and it is nice to have friends to share them with … One of the photos I will send you is of a female mink that I had found where she had a den of little ones and I spent a number of afternoons trying to get close enough to get some good pictures of her. I think it was the fourth or fifth day I was out there and had been there about 2½ hours and she was going out into Beaver Creek trying to catch some food for the den when, on her 11th or 12th attempt, she came back with a rock bass. I got pictures of her running through the rocks with the rock bass going back to the den. The most rewarding pictures are the ones you have to work the hardest to get.”

Let’s just say that I expect I am now not the only one eager to see those photos! As Lloyd says: “Some people like to see and read about our neighbours in the forest.” Count me in!

If you’d like to see more of Lloyd Holmes’s photos right away, please check out the website of the municipality of Marmora and Lake. Webmaster Jenn Bennett often posts his work there.  Click on the “Discover” link and then “Photos,” or just follow this shortcut here. There are some great ones of Marmora events; here, for example, is an excellent photo of the July 1 fireworks in Marmora:

Marmora fireworks by Lloyd Holmes

Fireworks marking Dominion Day (as I prefer to call it) 2017 in Marmora. (Photo by Lloyd Holmes)

And here’s a lovely one of the town’s Santa Claus parade last winter:

Marmora Santa Claus parade by Lloyd Holmes

(Photo by Lloyd Holmes via marmoraandlake.ca)

There are also more photos here of the kayakers in Queensborough.

But for me the highlight is what you see when you click on this link, which takes you to a gallery of Lloyd’s photos, primarily nature and wildlife scenes. I’m only going to show you one, and leave the thrill of discovering the others to you. But people, just look at this:

Red Fox and 5 pups Cordova by Lloyd Holmes

A stunning photo by Lloyd Holmes: a red fox and her five babies in the Cordova area north of Marmora. (Photo by Lloyd Holmes via marmoraandlake.ca)

Wow!

I think you will agree with me that Lloyd Holmes has a prime spot on the long list of Queensborough-area people who are cool, interesting – and extraordinarily talented.

The artist’s return

Artist Nicole Amyot at work

Ottawa artist Nicole Amyot at work at the junction of King Street and Queensborough Road this past Saturday – a perfect fall day for plein air painting.

So there I was this past Saturday, starting out on a walk to various parts of Queensborough to fulfill a couple of errands. It was a pleasantly warm fall day, perfect for a stroll to take some photos of the Halloween decorations that have been installed at homes throughout the village; that was one of my errands, as it happens. (As I have mentioned before, Queensborough is kind of a magical place for Halloween, and I think this year is going to be one of the best yet. Details on that soon. But I digress.)

Anyway, as I made my way south from the Manse on Bosley Road, an unusual sound caught my attention: a piece of classical music being played in the open air. It was coming from the east, from the far end of wee King Street, and as I swivelled my head in that direction I saw a vehicle parked there, back hatch open and some orange cones around it. The music seemed to be coming from it:

Artist at work from afar

“What can be going on at the end of King Street?” I wondered as I saw the vehicle parked near the former Anglican Church, classical music coming from it.

“Well that’s something a little different,” said I to myself, curiosity aroused. But I need to complete my brief Bosley Road mission before checking it out.

Happily, the vehicle was still there as I returned to the intersection and headed east on King Street. As I approached, it slowly dawned on me what I was seeing:

Artist at work closer up

Beside the parked van an easel had been set up, and an artist was at work. It was something I hadn’t seen since my long-ago childhood in Queensborough.

It was an artist at work, painting a Queensborough scene!

People, this is something that was a lovely part of my long-ago childhood here in Queensborough, but that I hadn’t seen in all the years since. My heart leapt with joy.

For those who don’t know the story of Queensborough’s close connection with (mostly) amateur artists back in the middle of the last century (when all the world was young), I refer you to a post I did on that topic here. The brief version is that in the 1960s and ’70s, artists Mary and Roman Schneider – both refugees from war-torn Eastern Europe – ran the Schneider School of Fine Arts in the hamlet of Actinolite, which along with Queensborough constitutes the sum total of clusters of settlement (and, once upon a time, commerce and industry) in Elzevir Township. Art students from all over Ontario and beyond would come to the Scheider school for a few days at a time, sleeping in rustic cabins and visiting scenic spots to set up their easels and sketch and paint. Pretty, historic little Queensborough was, needless to say, a favourite destination, and when I close my eyes I can still picture my eight-year-old self peering over the shoulder of one of the artists as he or she worked, and catch the distinctive scent of the oil paint. To me it is a magical memory.

And this past Saturday, that magical memory came to life!

Artist at work close up

Nicole Amyot at work on her painting of the dam on the Black River and the historic mill that is the heart of Queensborough.

Of course I stopped and spoke to the artist, who was Nicole Amyot of Ottawa. (The driver of the van, her good-humoured and patient chauffeur who waited and listened to the music as she worked, was her husband, Ron.) Nicole was working as quickly as she could, and didn’t stop working as she chatted, but was patient and friendly as she answered my questions. It turned out that she was revisiting her own past, just as her presence allowed me to revisit mine.

She had first come to Queensborough, she told me, about 40 years ago as a student at – you guessed it – the Schneider School of Fine Arts. Throughout the years since she has continued as a painter, though she modestly but firmly told me that she does not consider herself a professional artist. Remembering the scenes she had painted all those years ago, she and her husband had made a weekend excursion back here, lodging overnight in nearby Tweed and stopping at two or three places for her to paint those scenes once again.

Nicole Amyot's Queensborough work in progress

Work in progress: Nicole Amyot’s not-yet-complete picture (in acrylics) of the mill and dam in “downtown” Queensborough.

The painting that Nicole was working on was a scene that is pretty much the heart of Queensborough: the Black River running over the dam that once upon a time provided the water power needed for the sawmill and grist mill that still stand alongside it. (The mill too is in her painting.) It was a joy to once again watch a talented artist skillfully and quickly reproduce a pretty Queensborough scene on canvas, to see her artistic judgement at work as she considered what and what not to include, and how best to represent what her eyes were seeing.

I didn’t want to bother Nicole or slow down her work, so I made my stop brief. As a trained journalist, however, I of course collected her phone number so I could make contact again if need be.

Because hey: there might just be a wall space in the Manse where her pretty painting – which on that pleasant fall day magically brought together my present and my past – needs to be hung…

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.