December 9, 1916 A Visit by Florence McGillivary

December 9, 1916 Florence McGillivray Visits

 It should  be a full moon tonight but with the heavy clouds and fog I can see no moon or starlight. The quality of evening light is such that it is hard to tell whether it is being lit from above or from below. Most houses have electrical lights and the better neighbourhoods have street lamps so the light has crept into every corner of the city making it hard to see the night sky.

Florence McGillivray visited me in the Shack today. I had spoken to Florence briefly at the Heliconian Club, last Friday, but nothing beyond the social chatter. We both had much more to talk about than the occasion would allow.

Florence had to drop off a letter of application to Jim MacDonald so she decided to stop by. She knew I’d be here, because I avoided the crowds on Saturdays. I avoided the crowds especially now, ever since the “Give Us His Name” advert in the papers. I felt like a marked man walking on the streets.

“Tom, you don’t know how dreadful it is to be with those society woman!”

I smiled. In many ways Florence was like me, a bit of a free spirit eschewing the norms and demands of the day. She’s fair a bit older than me, over fifty years of age. But she was so unlike other the women consigned to marriage or to spinsterhood, playing a subservient role in the marriage of sister or brother. A third wheel, just like my aunt Henrietta, my mother’s sister, who ended up as part of the marriage deal for my father and moved with the family in Leith. Florence, despite her many years of being an artist and teacher, was only now being nominated as a member the O.S.A.  She and the  ‘Two Franks” as I call them Frank Carmichael, and Frank Johnston, were being nominate for membership.  The latter Frank has now decided to himself ‘Franz’. The elections will be in March, so once elected, we’ll have to have another celebration for his re-christening.

“Florence, I do. I don’t like going to those events. I dislike talking for the sake of it.”

“I know, Tom. Let’s not dwell on it. Can I see what you’ve done?”

She came closer to me and  I noticed her dress was muddy and damp on the bottom. The unpaved side-streets are treacherous for a women. Severn Street is a muddy mess, and there’s no boardwalk on the sides.

“Do you want me to get a rag to take that off?” I pointed to the lower hem of her dress. I saw that her laced boots were muddy too. I offered to take them off and polish them.

“No that’s quite fine, Tom,” she giggled,  “I have another dress, and I can take care of this mud business when I get back. We have more important things to attend to.” She moved across the room. “What’s this?” She spied the canvas I had finished a few days ago, propped against the northerly wall.

No, not exactly. Parts of the scene are from the Park – the hill in the background. But the scene is on the Petawawa, just outside the eastern boundary of the Park. Close to the Ottawa.”

“It’s a beauty, Tom! The light is different out there You’ve really captured it!”

She was right. The further east you go, the light changes. I don’t know what it is, but I can sense when I’m getting close to the Ottawa River, the countryside is different and how it reflects the light is different. I knew she wasn’t saying empty words, because she has made the same observation when visiting relatives in Ottawa. The way I had chosen to paint this canvas was a rejoinder to the critics who called into question my methods of painting. So I decided not to use any method –  I jabbed on the paint as  willed, making dots and blotches in no regular pattern. Much to my surprise, it worked.  During the job of painting, I focused on what I wanted to looked like and put on canvas whatever each spot asked for. Like automatic writing, but with painting. I let the supernatural and the unconscious do its work; I was the mere instrument.  When Dr. MacCallum saw the finished product he was enthralled by its effect. “Damn the critics,” I said to him. Now with Florence’s reaction, I knew I had a pretty good piece.

We had tea, and spent more time going through my sketches. We talked about decorative composition and I may experiment with what I have done with decorative panels combined with a natural background. I’m not sure what kind of effect that will achieve, but I remember ‘After Glow’, her painting which was quite a success and purchased by the Gallery in Ottawa. When she left, Florence said doesn’t know how long she’ll stay in Toronto and Whitby. She may decided stay with relatives and make a go of it in Ottawa. I told her that if she goes in the spring time and I am already up North, she could come through the Park to visit me.