Housewife-painter? No. Housewife Artist

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Barrie Hale

Eleanor Mackey is 36 years old, a housewife and a mother of four, and she paints. Late last month she had her first one-man show at the Isaacs Gallery in Toronto. All her friends came; the place was packed, there was a big party afterwards … and, although all this sounds like just another one of those stories about ladies who paint on Sunday and get their pictures on the women’s pages, it is anything but.

The showing of Mackey paintings at the Isaacs was the debut of an important artist — someone whose name is going to come up in future discussions of the character of contemporary art. It was the sort of event that provides the good news in the general critical ho-hum of every new art season. But what is equally important is the way that Eleanor Mackey suddenly got so good that she could make such an impact her first time out.

She has always painted — not just on Sundays, but every day, working away on her own, developing intuitively, but not quite able to spring loose in a way that would mark her as one of the unique people, someone doing her own, valuable thing. Then, two years ago, she heard about the New School.

The New School is something new in Canadian art education. Its curriculum is entirely controlled by young, practising Toronto artists, who are established critical successes; They are, as critic Barry Lord put it, full-time artists who teach part time, not, as is the case in every other art school, part-time artists who teach full time. The New School has no grades, gives no diplomas, and has no academic entrence requirements. It’s a non-profit private organization whose sole concern is turning out practising, professional artists; unlike provincially supported art schools, it has no interest in turning out teachers and commercial artists.

Most important of all, it has begun to turn out people who paint like themselves, not the way their teachers do. Eleanor Mackey’s work is the first major example (two other alumni are planning exhibitions later this year); her work consists of wave upon wave of diluted acrylic paints; in the most recent, and best, of them, the color play is richly absorbing. Though they are about color, they work in other ways as well — the waves themselves, moving across the surface of the painting, create an ambiguous illusion of depth that keeps the eye active. And they are, the best of them, about themselves, as all good paintings are.

Nobody at New School taught her to paint that way. What she did get from her instructors was the strength to do it. “From one of them,” she says, “you’d get a  very emotional approach to color; from another a very intellectual, analytical one; from another, there was joy, the whole joy-of-paint thing, and from another a fantastic understanding of space…. I got so worked up and upset. I agreed with every one of them. that’s the thing — you get so confused that you have to make up your own mind. And you’re encouraged to make up your own mind. I matured at the New School. All the things I’d been feeling, intuitively, came together there. I could articulate them …. I feel now that I’ve just started.”

It’s a good start. It would be nice to say, here, that now Eleanor Mackey has found her own thing, she has found -wealth, fame, and all the other good things that are supposed to be the just rewards of virtuous labor. But that just doesn’t happen to artists very often in our society, not too many of them. The really essential thing, for an artist, is to do what you do so well that the ideas -just keep coming, and life’s work is constant progress.

It has happened for Eleanor Mackey. Right now, she says there is just so much happening in her head she can’t keep up with it all. Within two days of her opening — a major disturbance in any artist’s life — she was painting new things. And that’s what they really teach at the New School — how to survive, as artists.



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