Celebrating a heritage of unassuming beauty
Durham Reach showcases art joined by common geography and a shared creative outlook
The city of Oshawa has always been better known for autos than for art.
But the automobile took a back seat to culture in the 1950s, when pioneering abstract expressionist painter Alexandra Luke held salons at her cottage studio at Thickson Point on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Her influence made the city home to the largest collection of works by Canada’s famed Painters Eleven collective — she was one of the11— at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery.
“The city was quite fertile ground for art because of people like Alexandra Luke,” says Linda Jansma, senior curator at the gallery. “There was a woman called Dorothy Van Luven who was an art teacher . . . and there was Ron Lambert, who was taught by Luke. H. . . as told by her to go down to Provincetown and study with (colour theorist) Hans Hofmann, which he did.”
Lambert, now 80, returned from his studies to paint and work in Oshawa. He is present among the 70 artists gathered for Durham Reach, a comprehensive show of local artists celebrating the McLaughlin Gallery’s 50th anniversary; showing that art practice is alive and well far from the art scene of downtown Toronto.
William Caldwell is another one of the 70. It was Caldwell who, tired of how art was being presented in Oshawa, decided a gallery was needed.
He called upon local artists of the time and, in 1967, the Oshawa Art Gallery opened in a second-floor space, above a downtown shoe shop.
Later, Luke became involved and, with a substantial donation of Painters Eleven works from her own collection — plus substantial funds from her husband, Clarence Ewart McLaughlin — the gallery was relocated beside city hall and renamed to honour Ewart’s father, Robert, brother of Samuel McLaughlin, the founder of GM Canada.
In 1987, Arthur Erickson redesigned and expanded the building and, in 2011, the British Columbian architect’s friend, Douglas Coupland, was commissioned to create the sculpture Group Portrait 1957. It is a commemoration of the Painters Eleven and their roots in the manufacturing heritage of Oshawa.
That heritage, of factories, forests and farms, continues to influence artists who live in the region.
They can differ in their choice of medium, but their shared choice of area code remains a factor, both helping and hindering their creative progression.
Margaret Rodgers, author of Locating Alexandra, says she once curated a show of artists from Hamilton and Burlington during her time at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington.
“I referred to us as cats looking across that great bowl of cream,” she says of the experience of being so close, yet still so removed from Toronto, “and this, while changing, can tend to be the case still.”
Poet, painter and former architect Ingrid Ruthig says, “For me, being in Durham has meant freedom to discover and set my own direction. Occasionally you run into someone too short-sighted to see beyond the Rouge River, but we’re here all right, getting on with the important stuff, the creative work.”
Jay McCarten lives and works at Thickson Point. He says just getting on with the work could be the connecting element of the area’s artists.
“Maybe that’s the message of artists out here; that’s the cohesiveness,” he says. “It’s that everyone out here is just working, without looking for the big limelight thing . . . I just want to do the work, not do it for a show, just do it; maybe we’re just blue-collar people here.”
The ethic runs deep in the region’s art makers. Many of them have little factories, working studios, hidden in the rolling farmland north of the Oak Ridges Moraine.
The major galleries, however, are in the town and city centres of the south. But they play a vital role, says Rodgers.
Illustrator Dani Crosby, who teaches in the fine arts program at Durham College, says she has found a welcoming creative community in the region.
“Through networking and an effort to connect through participation in local events I have had the pleasure of meeting and building relationships with creative companions from all walks of life,” she says.
Durham Reach follows on the example of Luke’s salons at Thickson Point and on those first shows at the Oshawa Art Gallery, connecting local artists under one roof, enabling creativity, comprehension and cohesion as well as removing obstacles that may interfere with the full enjoyment of a good painting.
Durham Reach runs until April 2 at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 72 Queen St., Oshawa.