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"Doris McCarthy painting the Irish countryside"
Doris McCarthy painting the Irish countryside during a 2004 excursion to Ireland's west coast.
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Doris McCarthy, "Medicine Lake," 2000, oil on canvas, 36" x 48".
May 7 - 21, 2005
Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont, Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, AB.
By Brian Brennan
When Doris McCarthy was a 16-year-old high school graduate in Toronto, Arthur Lismer — a member of the famed Group of Seven — encouraged her to become a “great painter of Canada.” Seventy-five years later, at age 91, she told a Globe and Mail reporter that she was still working toward that goal. “I have painted in every province in Canada, on purpose,” she said, “and there’s no part of this country that I have not been inspired by.”
Today, as she approaches her 95th birthday on July 7, she shows no sign of slowing down. Not only is McCarthy still criss-crossing the country, finding inspiration in the outdoors for her landscapes, but she is also taking her brushes and paints to places like Ireland and Russia, leaving behind her busy home life in Toronto which involves — among other things — preparing for gallery talks, jurying awards, taking on all comers at Scrabble, and mixing up batches of homemade rhubarb wine. “At home, it is very difficult for me to find the time and detachment to paint,” she says. Her constantly updated website, www.dorismccarthy.com, depicts an adventurous soul who will spend one week driving down the coast of British Columbia to translate ocean views into paint, and the next week flying by helicopter into the back country of the Canadian Rockies to do some sketching in the mountains.
McCarthy finds that getting out of the city is the best way for her to connect with her muse. “All I need is to be away from people,” she says. Many of her trips have been to Western Canada, where the prairies, lakes, forests, mountains and seascapes serve to fill up her canvases with landscape images born of passion, wonder, affection and recognition. “I am increasingly familiar with the forms of particular mountains — whether it’s Mount Assiniboine, or Three Sisters or whatever — because they have an individuality with which I have become familiar, which I love.”
She became a painter by accident. Her first ambition was to become a high school teacher and a writer. However, because she finished high school at age 16 — too young to enter university — she put in a year at what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design, and got hooked. Lismer, who was vice-principal of the college, took her on as a teaching assistant for his Saturday painting classes at what is now the Art Gallery of Ontario, and when she graduated from college she became a full-time art teacher at Toronto’s Central Technical School.
Forty years of teaching at Central Tech gave her the freedom to paint whenever she wanted, and the money to buy on the Scarborough Bluffs, within sight of Lake Ontario, a five-hectare property that she whimsically named Fool’s Paradise because she paid $1,250 — more than a year’s salary — for it. She built on it a small cottage that has since grown into a comfortable two-bedroom home with a studio, reflecting pond and large garden. “This place is my root,” she says. “On the other hand, I have always tried to hold it lightly.” She has bequeathed the property to the Ontario Heritage Foundation, which will take possession of it after she dies and operate the site as a retreat for Canadian artists, musicians and writers.
Before that happens, however, McCarthy has much to do. This summer, her itinerary takes her to Alberta for the grand opening of the Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont’s new gallery on the lobby level of the Banff Springs Hotel. The featured exhibition, opening May 7 and on public display for two weeks, features 40 of McCarthy’s landscapes and embraces more than 40 years of her career. The paintings focus primarily on Western Canada and on the Arctic. “She was the first woman painter who really opened up the Arctic,” says gallery proprietor Wendy Wacko, a Jasper artist and filmmaker.
Some of the paintings in the Banff show are from trips Wacko has taken with McCarthy over the past 28 years. A student of McCarthy during the 1960s, Wacko was reunited with her former teacher on a plane trip from Toronto to Edmonton during the mid-1970s, and since then they have spent a month every year painting in different parts of the world. Last year’s trip took them to the rugged west coast of Ireland, where they had the use of a studio that began life in the 15th century as a barn. The trip, as is the case with all of her painting safaris, reinvigorated McCarthy. “By the end of the first week she had thrown away her cane and was using her wheelchair just as a prop,” says Wacko.
When her health is robust, McCarthy paints every day, and is currently producing between 80 and 100 pieces annually that are of exhibition quality. Her most recent show of new work was in February and March at Toronto’s Wynick/Tuck Gallery, which regularly represents her. In Western Canada, her principal dealer is Wacko’s Mountain Galleries, which leases space at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, as well as at the Banff Springs.
Her recent visit to Alberta has rekindled for McCarthy a love affair with the West that began with her first trip here in 1937, when she travelled by train to Jasper and spent two weeks at Maligne Lake. Since retiring from Central Tech in 1972, she has come west almost every year to paint in such places as Lake Louise, Fort McMurray and the Badlands near Drumheller. “The Prairies have their own magic, it’s really a land of sky,” she says. “And the ranch country south of Calgary, I’m a real sucker for it. I just love it.”
She says she has always had a great affection for Calgary, where she spent the first two years of her life before her engineer father moved the family to Toronto. “Every time I’m there I wonder why would someone want to live anywhere else? It’s a really beautiful city, so close to the mountains.”
Represented by Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont, Jasper, Whistler, Banff; Wynick/Tuck Gallery, Toronto.