In one well-lit corner of the living room of her condo, Margaret McLauchlan has set up her artist’s studio, complete with barriers to prevent her long-haired cat from entering. A paint-spattered table holds, among other items, small bottles of liquid acrylic paint, small containers for mixing colours, latex gloves, and a large plastic bottle of a murky-looking substance. This is Tri-Art Liquid Glass, a recently invented sticky acrylic medium that, when mixed with acrylic colours, can be poured onto a wood panel to produce sinuous masses and striations akin to marbling, but also textured patterns of all kinds. Each colour of paint, when mixed with the glass medium, has a different weight; some colours sit on the surface, some blend, others create sharp edges. There is randomness but also precision.
Missing from the artist’s table are brushes. Margaret has a tremor that prevents her from using exacting tools. She props a 16x20 panel on a plastic tub on the floor, starts pouring and tilts the support as she goes. “Sometimes I make a mess,” she says with a laugh. “I might trip, or drop the paint, or the panel flips upside down.” For Margaret it’s pure play, with often stunning results.
The actual creation of a painting can take as little as five minutes, but the preparation—applying gesso (not easy for her), opening screw-top bottles (a challenge), mixing colours (another challenge), deciding the order in which to apply the colours (really the only form of control she can exercise)—can take up to two hours. At this point she usually takes a walk.
Margaret calls herself an accidental artist as she tells stories to explain her trajectory from dabbling to launching a one-woman show. She had always created images, whether by using collage or paper maché, or by painting with her hands, but she had never felt she was a “real” artist. Three years ago she won a trip to any destination in Canada, and so with five other artists and two instructors she flew to a city in B.C., from which she took a helicopter to the Bugaboos. After this adventure she was encouraged by an internet site to create a painting—any size—every day. With discipline, she did it. And then she discovered liquid glass. Here was a medium that gave her complete freedom. “I just wasn’t afraid anymore to try,” she says. In fact, she was so mesmerized with the technique that she couldn’t not paint. “Maybe the next one will be exceptional,” was a thought that propelled her. In Margaret’s condo, hanging on the walls in every room, propped up on the floor or on an easel, and covering a grand piano, is a sampling of the 200 paintings she has created so far.
On one wall I also notice several black and white photographs of northern scenes: a husky, dogsleds, glaciers and an Inuk woman ice fishing in traditional dress. These are images taken by Margaret’s father, Don, an RCMP officer who was stationed in small remote communities across the Arctic in the mid-1900s. Margaret was born in Baker Lake and spent eight years in the North at a time when the Inuit were still nomadic. Her playmates were the children of the two Inuit RCMP special constables, the only sedentary inhabitants in the hamlet. Margaret’s father’s photos offer a clue to her inspiration.
Baker Lake sits at the confluence of five rivers, but the only access remains by plane. From her earliest childhood Margaret remembers flying over the winter tundra. When, after retiring from her job as a kindergarten teacher, she re-established her connections with the people of the North, she again found herself in tiny planes, glued to the window, marvelling at the massive skies and endlessly interesting landscapes. In her work, to reference these scenes, she uses a colour palette limited to blues, black, sepia, green and white, the latter in all its iridescent variations.
Why does Margaret use numbers to title her work, I wonder aloud. “Giving my paintings names is too limiting,” she responds. She prefers that her abstractions work their magic on the viewer without the constraints of a descriptor. The work can be evocative, though, of black rivers, calving glaciers, cracking or melting ice, moving masses, and even sealskin. “Look at this little part,” she says to me delightedly as she points out an iridescent patch of dark blue. Under the intense light of the kitchen, it swirls and sparkles enticingly.
Many of Margaret’s paintings have found their way back to Nunavut among the Inuit, a fact that greatly pleases the artist. Those that remain are her constant companions, a connection to the vast and distant landscapes that keep calling her back.
North of Ordinary goes from March 6-31, with a reception on Sunday, March 10, 2-4pm.