A Painter on the Threshold

Catalogue Essay for: Doris McCarthy - Everything Which is Yes.

Published by the University of Toronto at Scarborough, 2004.
Edited by Ann McDonald. ISBN:0-7727-5400-4

Doris McCarthy

Snags on the Lake, Doris McCarthy, oil on canvas, 1950.

To me, as with many of her admirers, at first it is Doris McCarthy’s life that is intriguing. Read her two-volume autobiography for a lesson in pragmatism; her persistence, commitment, efficiency, staying power, and sheer longevity are an inspiration. A direct link to the Group of Seven, McCarthy was a student of Arthur Lismer at the Ontario College of Art in the late 1920s. She is a living signifier for Canadian art history. But I’m a painter, so I will talk about a painting.

What Doris McCarthy does is observe and report back; she sits and looks and makes corresponding marks, bearing witness to creation in the natural world. She makes evidence, reminders of the place and the moment. I visited the Wynick/Tuck Gallery and looked at numerous watercolours, oil sketches, and larger works from her many travels, all solid and often poetic, descriptive representations of landscapes ranging from as far afield as Ireland, Portugal, New Zealand, and back to Canada’s Arctic.

One work that has stayed with me is from closer to home. Snags on the Lake, Haliburton (1950) is a small oil painting on panel that was undoubtedly considered a sketch, but is authentic painting in the raw. Edgy and not very pretty, it is contradictory, in that it feels claustrophobic yet exudes defiance. This is a very specific spot in cottage country and not particularly inviting in early spring. I try to understand what has attracted her to this view. I can imagine her, sitting out in the damp cold, seeing, seizing this rather threatening array of stumps jutting up out of partly frozen water. It is grey and cold; the dampness practically flows into her lap. The top band, with faint, violet hills in the distance, and the cool foreground, with dirty, turquoise ice floes, are represented by loosely described organic forms. But the centre band is another thing entirely.

Treacherous. Dark, rotting stumps reach out and block passage. Rough, pointed strands of dried and broken grass sit in jagged piles that look as though they would cut you up if you walked on them. It is the contrast of these rounded forms above and below with the sharp contours of the snags and razor-like grasses that gives the painting a visceral tension.

So here’s where I speculate, because I can’t help but do it. I want to get inside her head. Snags are obstructions. What was obstructing the artist at that time? It is 1950 and she is working full-time as a teacher at Central Tech, with all the distractions of everyday life. She is forty years old, a time of consolidation and decision making. She makes one of her regular visits to Haliburton at Easter, just months before leaving on her first one-year sabbatical to Europe. The plans are coming together quickly, but she has not left yet; maybe she can’t believe that it is really going to happen. She calmly, methodically depicts the dead material blocking her way. There is literally a continuous dark line from side to side about two-thirds up from the bottom, but closer inspection shows that part of that line is the reflection of a stump on the water, an illusion that she will soon cross over and leave behind. In the distance, beyond the rolling, frozen hills, a faint glimmer of cool light: Europe, for the first time on the horizon. Suspended in oil.

Nicole Collins

*A Fool In Paradise: An Artist’s Early Life, 1990, and The Good Wine: An Artist Comes of Age, 1991, both Macfarlane, Walter and Ross.

< Return to Writing Menu