Such happy memories: Sitting beside Toni Onley on the dock, as he stoked his pipe and considered his next brush stroke; watching Maarten Schaddelee peel off a curl of cedar for a delighted child; looking on as Nancy Slaght worked on a pastel painting with her fingers.
Every year, hundreds of people get up close and personal with professional artists in Campbell River. I have been part of the Painters at Painter’s Lodge event for 15 years and, though I’ve always avoided writing about things I’m involved in, it’s time to say a bit about this one.
Painter’s Lodge has, since 1929, been the premier “tyee” salmon fishing resort on the Island. After a fire about 25 years ago, the resort was bought by Bob Wright of the Oak Bay Marine Group and built anew according to designs by J.C. Scott and Louine Niwa. Len Gibbs, an artist with whom Wright liked to “mosey around” art galleries on Saturday mornings, told Wright: “You’re always saying you love the arts. How about giving the artists a free weekend?” And so he did.
From the start, Wright made it clear — the artists were invited to have a holiday as his guests. The artists — exhibitionists all — inevitably painted and drew, showed off their art and made presentations for the other guests about their work and philosophy. Because the artists were Bob’s guests, the usual sales and promotion were left aside. And as we were there in the company of our most admired peers, we brought our best work and dug deep with our presentations.
Twenty-one years ago, Wright started with his “A list.” Robert Genn, Ted Harrison, Fenwick Lansdowne, Toni Onley and Dorothy Oxborough set a standard, and were joined by Pat Martin Bates, Kathryn Amisson, Keith Hiscock, Arthur Vickers, Grant Leier and Nixie Barton. Though the Grim Reaper has winnowed the pack, the regulars return and each year the artists chose a new recruit. At the moment, 32 artists are on the list.
The event fills not only Painter’s Lodge and its sister resort April Point (on Quadra Island), but also bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds for miles around. Day-passes are sold allowing fans to take in a magnificent buffet brunch and wander from tents to conference rooms for presentations, a veritable three-ring circus. Throughout the gardens and along the waterfront, easels are set up, jazz bands play and busloads of school kids soak up the inspiration. This is new life for a community in tough economic times.
For Bob Wright, this was the happiest weekend throughout his wide-ranging tourism empire. His death in 2013 left a huge hole in our hearts. Because it was so clearly his event, no leadership was cultivated among the artists. And the new management team of the Oak Bay Marine Group, while perfectly capable of putting on a smoothly run event, was in no position to tell the artists what to do. Yet everyone is committed to continuing.
Last year’s event was not quite as thronged with guests as usual, though the big tent was filled for the signature “panel discussion” in which 10 artists fielded revealing questions. Among the newer artists are Mark Heine (son of the late Harry Heine, himself a member), Chief Tony Hunt, Nicholas Pearce, Andy Wooldridge and wildlife painter W. Allan Hancock. A mainland contingent includes Kiff Holland, Alan Wylie, Janice Robertson, Brent Heighton, Mike Svob, Suzanne Northcott and Richard McDiarmid. Each is a top-level painter and an engaging communicator.
Aside from meeting the public, Painters at Painter’s has brought the artists — usually solitary types — together to work and play. Their “significant others” — wives and husbands, children and business managers — are always in tow and all have gotten to know each other well. It’s like summer camp for grownups.
Clearly, the old order is changing. Who are the younger artists of sufficient calibre to join longtime members Carole Sabiston and Phyllis Serota? How can we alert our audience in the new age of social media? What crazy ideas and deep inspirations can we bring to the audience?
This year, we are especially challenged by the deaths of three beloved senior members. Ted Harrison, there from the start, was our grand old man, legendary for his storytelling flair and his drop-dead timing. Dorothy Oxborough, the soul of modesty and brilliant portraitist, has packed up her pastels and gone. And Robert Genn, dexterous landscapist and effusive blogger, won’t be bringing his dog named Emily Carr and his ingenious easel-chair-paint box gizmo any more.
But collectively, we’ll rise to the occasion. Caitlin Mackenzie of the Oak Bay Marine Group has been our staff contact for some years now, and is deeply committed to continuing. This signature event has spawned others at Painter’s, including a parallel weekend for photographers and a number of week-long workshops given by artists. Right now, each of us is preparing something new. It’s up to us as never before.
This year, there are still some places available in the lodge. It might be a bit more intimate, and you’ll have a better chance of meeting your favourite artists; as Wright said: “brush with the masters.” Watch them paint, hear their stories, even eat breakfast with them.
This year a contingent of talented artists — David Goatley and Catherine Moffat among them — will be simultaneously painting portraits over the weekend, all working from the same model. Over the years, Painters at Painter’s has become the most important art association in my world.
This year, Painters at Painter’s takes place May 29 to 31. More information can be found at painterslodge.com/event-calendar/painters-at-painter-s.htm and by calling 1-800-663-7090.