Unique solo shows at Gore Bay Museum muse on meaning and nature this summer

Artists Nancy McDermid, left, and erin-blythe reddie pose before their exhibit posters outside the Gore Bay museum where their works are currently on display. photo by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

GORE BAY— The Gore Bay Museum opened its doors for the season on Friday, June 5 and that evening, the spacious, airy gallery was alive with appreciative murmurs as an animated crowd wandered through the art exhibits to the soft accompaniment of Mary Anderson’s harp. The Museum is known for its lively events and lectures, Horizons workshops at its sister arts hub, the Harbour Centre, and for intriguing art exhibitions, all planned and curated by museum director Nicole Weppler.

What drew the public out that late-spring evening was the promise of two unique solo shows by locally-based artists, erin-blythe reddie (who prefers to use lower case letters in her name), whose show of three-dimensional ‘naturescapes’ filled the smaller gallery to the right of the main gallery where Nancy McDermid’s paintings hung intermingled with her photographs.

Entitled ‘Ensō’, the exhibition presented by erin-blythe reddie is described by the artist as “a contemplative journey with natural elements.” Ensō means circle in Japanese, and is the classic symbol of Zen. It has been also described as the circle of enlightenment, of vast space, lacking nothing, and nothing in excess. How apt for this artist, whose works reflect, as she says, “the interconnectedness of existence,” to choose this word to symbolize the profoundly unpretentious meanings inherent in her art.

It was after taking a workshop with Linda Finn, a multi-media artist in Elliott Lake, that erin-blythe began to make purpose-built frames containing little concave depressions or boxes in the centre to hold the ‘natural elements’ that she collects on the Providence Bay beach near her home: tiny shells, branches washed ashore and stripped of their bark, seed pods and dried fronds and fungi found by the wayside. The frame and the inset box are covered in ‘natural daphne fibre paper’, also known as Nepalese lokta paper, a highly-textured creamy covering made from the daphne plant, similar to laurel, which grows at high altitudes on the west coast of Canada and in the Himalayas.

erin-blythe completes each piece by hand-writing words in the Japanese ‘haiku’ poetic style, her own compositions made up of 17 syllables “that arrive almost complete” to her in a sudden burst of inspiration, often an insight gleaned while picking up a tiny feather or remarkably-shaped stone and “all that washes up on the shore as the ice melts” on the beach. In the beginning, erin-blythe produced her poems using computer fonts, but fellow artist Lynne Gerard, a calligrapher, suggested that she hand-write them. “It was almost painful,” says erin-blythe, “I had to teach myself handwriting all over again!”

The effect of these Zen-like creations is suggestive of the universal themes of intersecting relationship, of calm and tranquility, “of being without pretense”, qualities evocative of the artist herself, who is also a Reiki Master practitioner.  Another meaning of Ensō is that the circle ‘expresses a moment when the mind is free to let the body create’–“a symbol that art creators use,” says the soft-spoken artist, “to get in a creative frame of mind.”

In the title piece of the show, the central box contains what at first looks like a small bird’s nest but is in fact “water-woven grass” which erin-blythe found at the shoreline. It perfectly illustrates the Zen concept of Ensō, the circular shape symbolising never-ending interconnection. Look closely, and the tiniest feather can be found in the ‘nest.’ To complete the piece, the artist composed a meditative haiku that leads outward, only to end, like the concept of Ensō itself, at the beginning:

deep simplicities

mutually expansive

infinite Ensō.

‘Luna’ is the title of Nancy McDermid’s exhibition, and her large, vividly green and pink oil painting entitled “Luna Moth: Transient Glow” is the first work you see on the far wall as you enter the gallery. The artist, who was born in Brantford and who has made Sandfield her home since 2002, has “always spent lots of time outside in nature” where she developed a keen sense of how humans interact with the environment. “The moth, a uniquely large and colourful creature, evokes the whole of nature for me, its beauty and fragility and our role within it.”

Ms. McDermid grew up in Hamilton where she found some wild and natural spaces that she loved, but it was on summer visits to her Island relatives that she understood the differences between urban and rural settings. “The variety in nature on the Island, the wildlife, the flora, provided very creative inspiration. I see design in nature, that is the attraction for me. I’m not a landscape painter, where you look at the whole complex picture; I prefer to focus more on the forms and elements of nature.”

The artist studied visual art at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and paints in oils, acrylic and watercolours; she also has a keen eye in photography, which is also on exhibition. “You have to find your authentic voice,” says Ms. McDermid. “In school I was enrolled in commercial art, and that lasted a week. I didn’t want to be held within the confines of graphic design, so I did comics, and I loved animation and experimental painting.” The artist finally settled on painting, using oil more now, which she says is “good for paint-outs because the paint can be layered and there’s a richness of tone you don’t get with acrylics. With oil I can paint in ‘impasto’ style, where the paint is layered thickly on the canvas.”

Ms. McDermid is a fan of ‘plein air’ artistic creation, where artists practice their art outside, and she can be found on occasion in field and forest in what she calls a “paint-out.” With a little folding stool, travelling paintbox and charcoal pencils, she will sketch outlines of her subject matter to be filled in later. “There’s a whole feeling out there that is not in the studio. Painting becomes more immediate, the senses are completely awakened outdoors.” The artist paints outside in all seasons, including “in snow and high winds, in the LaCloche Mountains,” she says. “Plein-air reawakened my interest in painting.”

“Influenced by the patterns, visual rhythms and other design elements found in natural environments,” the artist uses “bold colour and lines for a strong expression of feeling.” In her oil painting “High Spring: High Falls,” water tumbles down the centre of the painting in dramatic , stripes of turquoise, mauve, red and green, traversing wider striated soil layers anchored under a sea-green sky. The water hits the orange ground, tucking in behind it like strands of ribbon around a gift. “I’m not a realist,” says Ms. McDermid. “I use colour as a form of expression. Colour can offer meaning that is more representative than realism can be.”

Ms. McDermid seeks “more simplification of the topic I am painting, narrowing it to its essence.” In ‘Stand by Your Land’, we see Gore Bay’s East Bluff depicted in bold yellows and greens, the water indigo in places and brilliant Caribbean turquoise in the foreground, with a cerulean blue sky canopy over all. Is this really Gore Bay? The painting reflects Ms. McDermid’s feeling about the view of the bay from her studio window in the Harbour Centre. “I would open the studio door and greet the bluff – I became attached to the bluff.” ‘Stand by Your Land’ is an expression of sheer joy. On her way to work every day, Ms. McDermid passes by six lakes, she says. “Six lakes! I feel so privileged to live here. I feel this is what I want to see now. “

‘Luna’ and ‘Ensō’ will be on exhibition at the Gore Bay Museum until September 26. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 10-4; Sunday, 2-4. Tel: 705-282-2040. More work by Nancy McDermid, erin-blythe reddie and other artists may also be seen at Oriole Arts Studio and Gallery in the Harbour Centre in Gore Bay. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 am to 4 pm.