THE PRAIRIE by RFM McInnis
— PART TWO —
When I left Vancouver for Toronto, it was winter. I was not impressed by the mountains, but even in January I was thrilled by the blank visual of the vastness and flatness of the prairie. Approaching elevator towns I felt a special something that made my heart jump. One day, I knew, I’d have to paint this. It was in my blood.
After five years living in rooming house after rooming house in the Annex, within walking distance of everything I required for building an art career, including pubs, art supply stores, art galleries where I now had representation, achieving my purpose in Toronto. I had a new girlfriend with whom I was living… She was a poet and an art historian whom I met at an art gallery where she worked and I asked her to model for me. Two can live as cheaply as one. She quit her job and we did everything together roaming all over Toronto in search of subject matter. Then, I felt it time for a new experience. We decided on Calgary which meant my third train trip across Canada. My intent was to live and paint, learn the history and experience the people of every part of this vast country. I was born and raised in the Maritimes, lived in Ottawa for four years, Vancouver and B.C. for seven, Toronto for five. Now, the Prairies, which appealed to my sensibilities and temperament like no other place. Perhaps it was the flatness and simplicity I felt, reflecting the east coast flatness of the Bay of Fundy and fog, in whose essence and simplicity I was raised. Only here was sunshine!
I rented cars and painted every weekend on the prairie and worked with models in my studio during the week. It was at a time when the bungalows and small houses were being knocked down on city streets and high office towers of the oil boom were being erected in their place. Landscapes of every kind were being purchased to fill the walls of the head offices located in the downtown. Every company had an “art committee” buying up everything. I was at the right place at the right time painting prairie landscapes. The figures had no market at all, save for a few collectors who had an advanced appreciation for art.
But, Calgary was not to last. My relationship was ending at the same time I met Françoise who was visiting from Montréal. Her aunt worked at an art gallery I frequented after a morning’s painting with my models. I invited Louise to bring Françoise to visit “an artist’s studio”. It was instant love, and after three months, I found myself in Montréal with Françoise and her two children. “Les enfants” did not speak English and I did not speak French. That was a problem. So that we could all work in our respective languages we moved to Ottawa where I found representation at a gallery in that city, just as I had in Montreal in the several months I lived there. This was Career Building at its best.
Three years in Ottawa, Les Enfants decided to go to live with their father, as life in Ottawa was not to their liking. Nor ours. Françoise and I decided to move west, this time to Edmonton where I already had gallery representation but had not lived. Seven years in Edmonton, interrupted only by a one year sabbatical in Les Èboulements, Québec, where we went for me to paint and redefine my methods (1991), suggested that I needed new vistas. From Edmonton, we found an old homestead property closer to the kind of prairie I desired and moved to Connemara, on 12 and a half acres of flat land between Cayley and Nanton, Alberta. For 12 years I painted out every window, in all seasons, under every cloud condition. The view from my studio was the Cayley grain elevators. We had barns and granaries and the original homestead house on the property, with trails through caraganas, flat wheat fields all around. From the kitchen window, the view was the foothills and mountains, a small white crown, 80 kilometres to the west. But, models were a premium in cattle country, at the western-most end of the Palliser’s Triangle, where prairie ends and cattle country begins.
To rectify this problem we thought “Where haven’t we lived?” Winnipeg seemed the most viable place, the middle of the country. I was not ready to leave the Prairie. At the end of Alberta’s bicentennial year, the moving truck was loaded down with all our possessions. Françoise, now my loving wife, was a weaver, a spinner, a quilt maker, with several looms and spinning wheels. I had easels and boxes of paintings and art supplies. Furniture we got rid of to the Salvation Army, a truck load. In Winnipeg, the eastern end of Palliser’s Triangle, we found an unoccupied three unit apartment building for sale and bought it. Three floors! two for studios and one in which to live. And models readily available in a big but small city. This was “ McInnis Studio” for 11 years. How fast time flies!
As we aged into our 60’s and 70’s, the stairs became too much. Downsizing was in order. Again we gave away everything we did not need. Françoise found a small bungalow in the French part of Winnipeg, in Saint Boniface, where Louis Riel was born. We sold the apartment building, and moved into the much smaller quarters on a quiet residential street. Now, a bedroom serves as my office/ studio/ storage room. Another, as my modelling room with small sofa and various chairs, and a third for Françoise’s quilting/sewing room. Plus she has a finished basement for her weaving. This is the new reality for a senior painter and a 55 year career. The prairie is a quick drive south or west whenever I need to let my eyes wander. As I often say…”I’m getting too old for this.” But, do painters ever “retire”?
Main Image Details: Painting with Arthur Shilling, east of Calgary, 1980