My friend, Eileen Hennemann, and I arranged to meet at the Mill of Kintail, home to the Dr. James Naismith Museum, near Almonte one August Friday morning. Eileen is a wonderful artist, photographer and professional graphic designer who with her husband Allen, operate Hennemann/Stanley Design.
We set up our easels down among the pines where the Indian River flows past the historic grist mill that served as Dr. R. Tait Mackenzie’s studio, just in time to experience the light effects as the stone walls changed, dramatically, from deep shadow to full direct light.
When we finished up, Eileen snapped a picture of me with my work. I knew my painting needed some studio time, but I was excited about the progress I had made even in a couple of hours.
Artists harbour a need to get things right – truthful even. And yet we are constantly on the lookout for fresh approaches: influenced by what we observe, hear, read in books and on-line. I see it all the time. It’s why plein air convention events are so popular these days – until Covid-19 came along any way. I once knew an art teacher that requested that her students put down their paint brushes and walk all the way around a barn building, so that they could better understand the structure, experience the effects of years of wear and tear and imagined history. I read about another instructor who asked his students to study a model and then leave the room to create a drawing based on their recollections.
Before I can put paint to a blank canvas, I need to have a sense of place, a memory perhaps from somewhere deep that compels me to paint. The appeal of painting plein air is especially strong to me because the countryside is where I spent much of my youth. It’s part of the process and memories run deep. I get the impression that the process of abstraction has similarities without a mold to follow.
So when I visited Ayles Boat Yard at Merrickville, recently, on a search for subject matter, I held no preconceived ideas. After checking and getting permission, I strolled through the boatyard and came across Pocahontas standing on blocks alone, looking proud and forlorn. One of the workers looked up from across the yard and pointed out that the boat had been built in Germany after the Second World War. Because there was a shortage of brass at the time, he explained, the builder substituted iron nails which can rust. She made her way to America and after many years of service ended up here. As the workman spoke, I began to appreciate the beautiful lines of the hull and upper deck. I tried to imagine where she had been over the years. And I shuddered to imagine what it would have been like to stand at those windows in a North Atlantic gale.
I waved a thank you and grabbed my paints and canvas. I had a story to tell.