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…

The Group of Seven painter, and his link to Queensborough

A.Y. Jackson, one of Canada’s foremost landscape painters and a leading member of the Group of Seven – the group that changed the face of Canadian art.

The message was a bolt out of the blue: “Stop the press! Get ready for fantastic news. A donor is letting us display their A.Y. JACKSON painting of Queensborough for Historic Queensborough Day.”

I was stunned.

“Good God!” I responded. “Did you even know this painting existed?”

“Nope!” was the response.

Sometimes, people, amazing things just fall out of the sky. This was one of those times.

The message exchange was between me and my friend Elaine Kapusta. We’re two of the large group of volunteers working to put together Queensborough’s second Historic Queensborough Day, following up on the huge success of our first such event in 2014. This year’s edition takes place on Sunday, Sept. 10, and you can read a lot more about it in my post from last week, which is here. But let’s get right back to the amazing surprise of a painting of Queensborough by A.Y. Jackson, and the fact that it will be on display on Sept. 10.

As many of you will know, A.Y. Jackson is one of the most famous and highly regarded painters in Canadian history. He was a member of the Group of Seven, painters who basically changed Canadian art – and the way we look at the Canadian landscape – forever. Think Lawren Harris‘s paintings from north of Lake Superior and his mountainscapes (one of which sold at auction last year for $11.2 million, a Canadian record). Think Tom Thomson‘s scenes of ragged and hardy pine trees, notably his seminal work The Jack Pine. (Thomson was not a member of the Group of Seven, but was closely associated with them.) And yes, think A.Y. Jackson’s scenes of rural Quebec…


Baie-Saint-Paul by A.Y. Jackson


House at Baie-Saint-Paul by A.Y. Jackson

…and of the Canadian wilderness, particularly in Ontario’s near north:


The Red Maple, A.Y. Jackson


Frozen Lake, Early Spring, Algonquin Park by A.Y. Jackson

“A.Y. Jackson was a leading member of the Group of Seven and helped to remake the visual image of Canada,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia in its entry about him here.

The painters in the Group of Seven “spoke with a new voice – the voice of Canada,” says a fascinating National Film Board of Canada documentary about Jackson from 1941, which you can watch here. “A foundation member of the group, and foremost among those who spoke in this new way, is Alexander Young Jackson. Born in Montreal in 1882, he is today the leading Canadian landscape painter. He has travelled from the whaleback rocks of Georgian Bay to Baffinland and up to the Arctic. He has sketched in Halifax, and in the fishing villages of the Gaspé along the Gulf of St. Lawrence where houses cling to the steep cliffs. In doing so, he has produced his own essence of Canada – vast, rhythmic, vigorous.”

A.Y. Jackson working in rural Quebec

This picture of A.Y. Jackson sketching in rural Quebec comes from a National Film Board of Canada documentary featuring him and his work, called Canadian Landscape. You can watch it, and see Jackson sketching in the Canadian wilderness, here.

And now think about this: on Historic Queensborough Day, you will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view a painting of Queensborough by A.Y. Jackson!

I can hardly find the words to express how excited I am about this. Nor can I find sufficient words of thanks to the person (who wishes to remain anonymous) who has offered to make this one-day loan of such an important work of art.

Queensborough has long been known as a favourite destination, and subject, for artists. I wrote here about the days when students at the Schneider School of Fine Arts in the nearby Elzeviir Township hamlet of Actinolite would regularly pile into our little village, plunk themselves and their easels down at various street corners, and work on sketches of homes, sheds, barns and landscapes. When I close my eyes and think back to those days of my childhood, I can still remember the interesting and rather exotic scent of their oil paints that would waft up when you timidly looked over their shoulders to see their works in progress.

But to think that a member of the world-famous Group of Seven visited, and painted, here in Queensborough!

Goldie Holmes's Queensborough quilt

Goldie Holmes’s Queensborough Quilt.

The painting will be on display at the Queensborough Community Centre, which is headquarters for Historic Queensborough Day. Also at the centre – itself an important historic building in our hamlet, since it was our one-room schoolhouse from the time it was built in 1900 until the mid-1960s – will be a raft of displays of photos, documents and artifacts on many aspects of Queensborough’s history. Another highlight will be the display of Queensborough Quilt Lady Goldie Holmes‘s famous quilt featuring homes and buildings in the village. It too will be on show at the community centre (1853 Queensborough Rd.), thanks to a one-day-only loan from the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre where it usually resides.

But a painting of Queensborough by A.Y. Jackson of the Group of Seven – holy smokes! Surely you need no further inducement to come join us on Sunday, Sept. 10. Though in case you do, let me remind you that the day will also include:

  • Horse-drawn wagon tours of the village
  • A visit from Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (a onetime Queensborough property-owner)
  • A presentation on the latest available research on Queensborough’s Indigenous history
  • A vintage and classic car show
  • A peek into some of the hamlet’s most interesting buildings
  • The opportunity to have your family’s portrait taken at the historic Kincaid house, and share for our records your connections to Queensborough
  • A visit to the amazing grounds and gardens at St. Mary of Egypt Refuge
  • Sunday worship in historic St. Andrew’s United Church
  • And food! There’ll be an all-day barbecue at the Queensborough Community Centre, and goodies and sweets also for sale there.

All this and a Group of Seven painting of our lovely little village: what more could you ask for?

Talented people in our neighbourhood

A nuthatch carved by Jennifer Couperus of Queensborough. Jen's carvings have amazing detail in them.

A nuthatch carved by Jennifer Couperus of Queensborough. Beautiful, isn’t it?

I’ve mentioned before that the Queensborough area seems to attract people with artistic talents – and/or seems to bring out people’s innate talents. And I’ve mentioned a few of them already, people like photographers Dave deLang and Pauline Weber, painters Norah Hiscock and Vera Burnside, and quilter Goldie Holmes. Recently Raymond and I met a talented musician who lives there, Mike Acerra of the band Northern Voodoo. I’ve written about the art school that used to exist in nearby Actinolite, and how its students often came to paint Queensborough scenes and buildings. Whether it’s the landscape that attracts artistically talented people, or the presence of other such talented people, or something in the air or water, or a combination of all of the above, I don’t know, but it is nice to be in a place like that. And without any doubt there are many others whom we haven’t yet met, though I sure look forward to doing so.

The local artistic talents come in many forms, and one that was kind of new to us was wood carving. I’ve made frequent mention of our friend Ed Couperus, an excellent carpenter who also keeps an eye on things at the Manse for us, and his wife, Jennifer. What I haven’t told you about is the wood-carving that they do.

I believe it was Jen who started carving first, and she’s been doing it for several years and has received awards and recognition for her work, which mostly features animals and wildlife. And I think she got Ed interested, and his carving has taken a different turn: he produces beautiful and unique wooden bowls. They are both serious about and dedicated to the work, and I know they spend long hours perfecting every piece. I asked Ed and Jen if they’d mind if I did a post about their work, and they were kind enough to give me some photos of pieces they’ve done recently and not so recently. Here are just a few:

Woodpecker, Jenifer Couperus

Woodpecker, Jenifer Couperus

Wolf, Jennifer Couperus

Wolf, Jennifer Couperus

Fox, Jennifer Couperus

Fox, Jennifer Couperus

Detail, polar bears wrestling, Jennifer Couperus

Detail, polar bears wrestling, Jennifer Couperus

Bear, Jennifer Couperus

Bear, Jennifer Couperus

Bowls, Ed Couperus

Bowls, Ed Couperus

Bowl, Ed Couperus

Bowl, Ed Couperus

Bowls, Ed Couperus

Bowls, Ed Couperus

Look at the attention to detail in this view of Jen's howling wolf. That is very fine, painstaking work, beyond the patience or ability of the vast maority of us.

Look at the attention to detail in this view of Jen’s howling wolf. That is very fine, painstaking work.

Amazing, aren’t they? I only wish that the photos Jen and Ed sent me had included two of Jen’s most recent works, which we saw at their house just before Christmas. One was a small and delicate and beautifully done deer; the other, stunningly lifelike, was a good old Canadian beaver. It’s the attention to detail that I am especially struck by, and I can only imagine how painstaking the work must be to bring out that detail.

The thing that’s really cool to think about is the process by which any sculptor – Jen and Ed in wood, or those who work in stone or marble – finds a piece of wood (or stone, or marble, or whatever), and sees something in it, sees what it could be. And then the long, slow, painstaking work of bringing that image out of the wood, or stone, or marble, and giving it all the detail needed to make it seem – well, like a living thing. I would be fascinated to watch that process from start to finish. I think I feel a video, or time-lapse-photo project, coming on. I must speak to Ed and Jen about this!

Finally, because this last photo was included in the ones Jen and Ed sent me, I just can’t resist using it. Because, you know, I love cats, and Jen and Ed’s cats (whom we have met a few times) are just A-1. Here is Cat and Nuthatch:

cat and bird

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.

A very special painting (II)

Yesterday I wrote about how very pleased I was to be able to buy a painting by Vera Burnside, a longtime and leading member of the congregations of Hazzard’s and St. Andrew’s United Churches, and hang it at the Manse. But that painting wasn’t the only one to go up on the Manse’s walls this past weekend.

The painting above has (as you can probably tell) the Manse itself as its subject. It was painted in the mid-1960s, not long after my family moved to Queensborough, by Norah Hiscock, a talented artist who lived nearby. My father had commissioned it from her, for kind of a funny reason. Near Queensborough – at Actinolite, in fact, another hamlet that is now part of the Greater Tweed Area – was an art school (and more on that in another post). The people who came to study at that school were very fond of taking working (that is, painting) excursions to Queensborough, because they found it pretty and full of interesting houses and buildings that made good subject material. But none of them ever painted a picture of the Manse! So Dad asked Norah Hiscock if she would, and this nice painting in warm colours was the result. She took a few artistic liberties with the details: the fence in the front yard ran in front of the big maple tree, not behind it; and the maple is not really in the right position, probably the better to show the house. But we always liked the painting, and it hung proudly at the Manse until we moved, and then in every subsequent house in which my family lived.

In very recent years, however, it has been languishing in a closet in the house at the family farm near Gelert, in Haliburton County, where my mum and dad lived until Dad’s death in 2004. This past weekend, when the whole family was at the farm for our annual Thanksgiving gathering, it was agreed to return the painting to the Manse. And here it is, now hanging in the living room, in exactly the same spot where it did all those years ago:

Back where it belongs.