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.


Linda Jansma, se­nior cu­ra­tor at Robert McLaugh­lin Gallery, says Oshawa is fer­tile for art be­cause of peo­ple like pi­o­neer­ing painter Alexan­dra Luke.

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