Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lessons from Artist Doris McCarthy

Doris McCarthy turns 100 years old today! This accomplished artist has created a vast legacy of work that celebrates the beauty and majesty of Canada's landscape. But she is more than just a painter. An art teacher for 40 years, a writer of four published books, and a friend to many, she has lived a full and glorious life. 

Since my recent experience at the painting workshop inspired by the work of Doris McCarthy, I've been rereading the books of her life, searching for tidbits of wisdom. It wasn't an easy task to distill her books into life lessons as her writing tended towards more of an account of her life than an attempt to impart her knowledge. And for that reason, I must note that this list of life lessons is strictly my own interpretation. I've included quotes in some cases, but in many, I've had to read between the lines.

Accept what comes your way! 
Doris did not have an easy life.  She faced setbacks, disappointment and heartache many times. In each of her trials, she tried to accept what life had to offer and look upon each day (and each painting) as a new beginning.

Forgive others.
In several of her books, Doris mentions the rejection of two banners she created for the chancel of St. Aidan's church. Not long after they were installed, they were removed without notice or explanation. As a member of the church, Doris forgave this professional insult and continued to be a full participant in the congregation, although she did admit "it took a lot of prayer and charity". Doris says "why waste my precious life spending energy on righteous indignation....every time my thoughts turn in that direction I pull them away to something else. Eventually I can laugh about it." (Ninety Years Wise, page 61)

Express gratitude.
"I am daily aware of and grateful for being alive and having the energy to work and enjoy people. I am sure that both the awareness and the gratitude are part of the reasons for my being so." (Ninety Years Wise, page 54)

Live simply.
In Doris' words, "As long as I have food and shelter, happiness doesn't depend on my standard of living. All of us who lived through the Great Depression, before the social safety net, learned that. Life wasn't easy, but it was good. Money was so scarce that it offered few options or temptations." This quest for simplicity stayed with Doris throughout her life, and in her books she often mentions how she likes to "know where I have put everything. The simplicity I value so much depends on having few things but keeping them in order." (Ninety Years Wise, page 33).

Exercise and eat well.
For as long as she was able, Doris stayed active with daily exercise including swimming, walking, and skating. And while there are several photos of Doris with a glass of wine in her hand, she learned the lesson of moderate drinking on her first painting trip to the Gaspe. In a comedic account of that incident, she states that it was the first and last time she overindulged. "Moderate drinking is an expression of my respect for my body, and of course moderation applies to food as well. Vanity was the root of my habit of eating temperately, to get rid of excess weight, but it is a habit I recommend." (Ninety Years Wise, page 76).
Be open to learning new things.
When Doris was in her seventies, she decided that she wanted a BA and she began her studies at the Scarborough College campus of the University of Toronto. After enrolling in a creative writing course, Doris learned how to use a computer. Doris got her degree and went on to write four books. "Writing gave me a second chance - not to change things, but to savor them. That is a great gift." (My Life, page 3)

Cultivate friendships.
In all of Doris's books, she mentions the many friends who have crossed her path. The reverence with which she describes her friends is proof of the great pleasure that she found from friends, making her life full while respecting her own need for solitude and quiet. Although her longest and dearest friends like Marjorie and Roy Wood passed on years ago, Doris still revels in their spirit citing that "death does not end a friendship.

Be true to yourself.
Given Doris' prolific career as a landscape painter, I was surprised to learn that she had extensive training in figure drawing and sculpture while at OCA. And in her early years as an artist, she even painted flowers when she needed to sell some work to raise cash. But over time, she must have realized that her heart was in the land. She stayed true to herself, not succumbing to the latest trends in the art world and painting what caught her eye and gave her pleasure.

The Doris McCarthy Trail 
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2010

How I wish Doris had written down some of her lessons as an art teacher of 40 years. Her books contain only a few fragments about how she worked as a painter. It is clear that she was disciplined in her work habits and often told others to "just paint". But I have not yet unraveled the mystery behind her powerful work. If I was able to ask her, she might reply:

"You don't need to prove what you know. (Who can prove the power of a great work of art?). You know it because you experience the power." (Ninety Years Wise, page 63)

Books Cited:
Doris McCarthy: Ninety Years Wise.
by Doris McCarthy.
Published by Second Story Press, 2002

Doris McCarthy: My Life
by Doris McCarthy and Chris Wahl
Published by Second Story Press, 2006.