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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 27 November 2010
Title: Doris McCarthy (Obituary)
Web Link: link

Revered landscape painter inspired generations of Canadian artists

Beloved Toronto icon captured all the light and colour of the glorious national landscapes she loved


Special to The Globe and Mail

November 27, 2010

Doris McCarthy, who died on Nov. 25, four months after celebrating her 100th birthday, took perverse pride in the fact that her art was never "fashionable." As a woman who painted landscapes, she was branded a dilettante "lady painter" in her early career, and later, in the abstract expressionist era, she was obscured by the reputations of more famous male colleagues. Nevertheless, the public loved her, and the longer she lived, the more revered she became. She produced more than 5,000 landscapes during a long, vigorous and adventure-filled life, and had more than 90 solo shows, which, in her later years, attracted legions of adoring fans.

"I have painted in every province in Canada, on purpose, because when I was 16, Arthur Lismer inspired me with the ambition to be a great painter of Canada, and I have been working at that goal ever since," she told The Globe in 2002. "There's no part of this country that I have been in that I have not been inspired by ... in the old days I used to go up to the Arctic, even by myself and stay in a hostel or with somebody I had met up there, and paint all day, every day."

While it was inevitable that McCarthy would be compared to the Group of Seven, she had her own style. Deeply spiritual, she saw God everywhere, and her joyous expression of the forms that inspired her is what invites viewers into her world. Her Iceberg Fantasies series, which she began in 1972, includes more than 60 paintings, and defines her artistic vision with its blend of representational abstraction and a self-defined "poetic" realism. Her long-time dealer, Lynne Wynick, said: "Doris's work moves people. Her paintings captured the grandeur, the energy, and the emptiness of Canada which she filled with light and colour."

A visual artist first and foremost, McCarthy was also a teacher, author, lecturer, wilderness advocate, handywoman, storyteller, hostess, world traveller, philanthropist, cat lover and virtuoso figure skater who was able to toss off showy spins well into her eighties. She was a whiz at cryptic crosswords, and enjoyed taxing her linguistic skills at solo Scrabble. Her friends talked rapturously about her formidable peanut butter cookies, luscious breads, super-deluxe marmalade, and rhubarb and dandelion wine.

Art critic Sarah Milroy observed in a 2004 profile that one "of the fascinating things about a few hours with McCarthy is the chance to witness a woman utterly at ease with who she is, and with the life she has led. As well, one can gaze directly into the pool of ideas that sustained the Group and underpinned Canadian art at a crucial moment in its becoming: their love of their country, their essentially un-intellectual relationship to their art, their loyalty to nature and their relative indifference to the history of art as a source to draw from. Making a painting was something to be worked out between you and the trees and rocks in front of you. The work of other artists had no place in the equation."

Early life

Doris Jean McCarthy was born in Calgary on July 7, 1910, the youngest and only daughter in a family of three children. Her father George Arnold McCarthy was an engineer and her mother, Mary Jane (Jenny) Moffatt McCarthy, an aspiring operatic soprano before her marriage.

When Doris was three, the family relocated to Toronto so that her father could help build the Bloor St. viaduct, later made famous by Michael Ondaatje in his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion. From a very young age, Doris loved the outdoors. She began canoeing on Lake Ontario with her adored father when she was seven and made her first sojourn to a Canadian Girls in Training summer camp at age five. Until her dying day, every time she struck a match McCarthy recited the CGIT's "Sacrament of Fire."

The adolescent McCarthy aspired to be a writer and began keeping a journal when she was 12, with the deliberate aim of improving her style. Writing down her innermost thoughts became a daily and lifelong ritual. She also showed talent as a visual artist, and, when she was 15, enrolled in a recreational course at the Ontario College of Art.

Vice-principal Arthur Lismer was so impressed that he awarded her a full-time scholarship. She graduated with honours from OCA in 1930, and in 1932, joined the art department of Central Technical School where she inspired countless students over the next forty years, including Joyce Wieland, who "drew like an angel," according to McCarthy.

"In order to earn a living, I taught art," she said in an interview with The Globe when she was in her early 90s. "It meant I was always painting, and it allowed you holidays to paint. Every once in a while I sold a painting. It was enough to buy my frames - almost. But because I was teaching and getting a salary, I wasn't dependent on my painting, which gave me the freedom to paint what I wanted to paint, instead of what I thought the market would like. I think there's a terrible temptation to keep track of the market, but I also think a real artist doesn't think about it. They paint with conviction, passion and interest."

In the days before commercial galleries in Toronto, artists could exhibit only if they were chosen for juried shows run by various societies. Membership in the society was awarded after three successive shows. McCarthy was selected by the Ontario Society of Artists in 1931, 32 and 33, yet she wasn't elected a member of the association until 1945. She did, however, become its first woman president in 1964. As McCarthy herself pointed out: "No man in Canada has equalled my output in either quality or quantity."

Her already strained relationship with her mother - McCarthy considered her an insufferable snob - ruptured after Mrs. McCarthy read her daughter's private journal and discovered her daughter had had an affair while on a study leave in London, England in 1936 for post-graduate training. After her mother accused her of being damaged goods, McCarthy left home.

In later years, she met the true love of her life, who was a married man not "tough" enough to leave his wife, a friend of hers. McCarthy never revealed his name - "we were very discreet then, and I intend to remain so," she said many decades later, although she did admit that after her lover's death, she and his widow became better friends.

Fool's Paradise

In 1939, McCarthy bought a five-hectare property on the Scarborough Bluffs with a spectacular view of Lake Ontario, reportedly for $1,250, saved from her teacher's salary. Her mother disparagingly referred to the land as "that fool's paradise," and that is exactly what her defiant daughter called her home - Fool's Paradise, or F.P. for short.

Initially, she and friends camped out at F.P. on weekends while she slowly built the house with the help of what she called her one-seventh of a carpenter (he could only come on weekends) and her half man (he was recovering from a hernia operation). In 1998, she donated her beloved F.P., with an endowment of $500,000, to the Ontario Heritage Foundation to become an artist's retreat after her death.

In 1959, McCarthy purchased two Georgian Bay rustic cottages, Keyhole and Knothole, with four other women artists. During school vacations she took painting trips, expeditions to 25 countries, including two trips around the world. Then she would retreat for part of every summer to the cottage studio, where she would create her watercolour, acrylic and oil canvases based on sketches and photographs.

Wendy Wacko, an artist, filmmaker and gallery owner and former student, was her painting companion for 28 years. Wacko describes how McCarthy rose with the sun and forbade talking until the painting day was over. Conversation was reserved for "tot time," when McCarthy indulged herself in her love of rye whisky. (When F.P. was finally hooked up to the Toronto water system, McCarthy complained bitterly that she could taste the chlorine through a good Canadian rye.) It was only after McCarthy retired from teaching in 1972 that she became well known as a personality, especially after her annual shows began to attract a strong following. Wacko's 1983 documentary, Doris McCarthy, Heart of a Painter, which was shown several times on the CBC, won her more fans. Never short of an opinion, the charismatic McCarthy become one of the late Peter Gzowski's favourite guests on CBC radio's Morningside. Brimming with personal magnetism, McCarthy was also a big draw on the lecture circuit.

Because she wanted to write her memoirs, McCarthy felt she should get a degree in English. In 1989, after 15 years of courses, she became one of the oldest graduates of the University of Toronto's Scarborough Campus when she received her honours degree at age 79. The voluminous journals she had kept since adolescence were invaluable in writing A Fool in Paradise: An Artist's Early Life (1990), The Good Wine (1991) and Ninety Years Wise (2004), all of which sold well.

McCarthy was also known for her liturgical art which includes the magnificent nativity crèche she carved for St. Aiden's in the Beach, the Anglican church in which she was a lifelong member. For many years she also wrote, produced, directed, and designed St. Aiden's Christmas pageant. When she said grace before each meal, she was known to thank God for whales and icebergs.

McCarthy's politics were left of centre and she was proud to be called green in her advocacy for the environment. She was also a lover of the arts, attending the first performance of the Stratford Festival in 1953, rarely missing a year thereafter, and was a long-time ballet and opera subscriber.

Multiple awards

As she aged, McCarthy needed several cataract operations, which she timed before painting trips because she claimed the swelling from the surgery enhanced her vision by improving her squint. In 2000, she flipped her car when she hit a culvert and had to be hospitalized. The accident happened because she was admiring the full moon. She finally gave up driving in 2003, at 93.

Among a multitude of awards, McCarthy received the Order of Ontario and Order of Canada and five honorary doctorates. In 2004 she donated 10 of her most significant paintings to a new gallery named in her honour on the Scarborough Campus of the University of Toronto. A nature trail running through a ravine bordering her house has also been named after her.

For McCarthy the glass was always full. Early every morning on a painting trip, she would declare: "We have a whole new chance." Her mantra was the word "yes" and her Holy Grail was the infinite glory of the Canadian landscape. As she herself wrote: "I love the world. I love nature. I love creation. I love life."

Doris McCarthy is survived by two generations of nieces and nephews.

Her funeral will be held at The Church of St. Aidan's in Toronto at 10:30 a.m. on Thurs., Dec., 2010.

With reports from staff