A Canadian art master meets and teaches a new generation

Cathie Breslin May 7 1960

A Canadian art master meets and teaches a new generation

Cathie Breslin May 7 1960

A Canadian art master meets and teaches a new generation


Don Newlands

Cathie Breslin

“Did you see a fairy?” the wide-eyed three-year-old asked the tall, forbidding man, who with his frayed silk tie, wispy white crown and precarious eyeglasses could pass for Ebenezer Scrooge.

"Not this morning, but I'll draw one for you,” answered seventy-four-year-old Arthur Lismer, one of Canada’s most eminent painters. He crouched on the floor to turn out a red pastel fairy.

Lismer has been a formidable name in Canadian art since 1919, when he became what he calls “one of the dumb founders” of the Group of Seven, perhaps the most distinctive art movement yet to emerge in Canada. But three years earlier he had started teaching art, an interest that is undiminished. Lismer took over the Montreal Museum Art Centre twenty years ago when it had fifty students and no staff.

Housed in a former mansion with eight bathrooms, it offers forty-eight classes a week to over seven hundred pupils aged “from three to Grandma Moses.” Last February the mansion was gutted by a midnight fire that charred many students’ paintings and some Lismer drawings — a loss he describes as "not irreparable.” Classes are being held in odd corners of the main museum building while the mansion is repaired.

The Centre's fifteen teachers are headed by Audrey Taylor, an attractive, benign woman who met Lismer as a shy teen-aged student thirty-seven years ago. She is abetted by student teachers who come from the Bahamas, South Africa. Australia and various corners of Canada. (Over half are from Montreal, some of them graduates from Lismer’s children’s classes.)

Why such a widespread attraction to the school? "Now you're making me boast,” sighed Dr. Lismer. "They come because of a particular quality.” This “quality” is reflected in his teaching philosophy:

"We study the growth and personality of a child: this has nothing to do with talent. Art is the only way a three-year-old can communicate; he can’t talk, can’t read and doesn’t reveal much — except through his drawings.

“At four he begins to make simple drawings, and at five he gives a name to things. At eight he’s in touch with the real world, and won’t admit an angel’s an angel if it doesn't have wings.

"Then we also have classes for grownups; a lot of the ladies have their artist grandfathers’ miniatures at home. Some frightful things come of this, but they enjoy doing it.”

To Lismer, who can create a pink peacock for a continued overleaf four-year-old out of paint spillings on the floor, there is also a danger: “children may think the rest of school will be like this. But you’ve got to give a child freedom before you can do something with him.”

The kindliest of “Scrooges,” Lismer’s gruff voice doesn’t awe the toddlers who learn from the great Canadian artist. The man who helped found the rebellious Group of Seven decorates laughing faces, turns paint spillings into peacocks

Lismer delivers these opinions in a gruff, brisk bark which is meant to conceal his sympathy, and fools no one — least of all the children.

Of his student teachers, who have spread his techniques all over Canada and carried them abroad, he says: “They come here if they're poor in math and can t make university. Within art education there are the passionate pilgrims and the duds.”

His own motivations he finds even more embarrassing. "I don’t think you choose this job; it chooses you. I took it because I couldn’t pay the rent and art materials were cheaper here. My wife says I'm completely nuts.”

I he Doctor before his name is an honorary degree from Dalhousie University, in Halifax, where he did his first teaching. "An hour alter 1 got it I stopped in a little store to make a phone call and tried out the sound of it. I he storekeeper said, ‘Oh. doctor. I m so glad you're here, my baby is sick.’ Í told her I was a horse doctor.”

Lismers own serious work—a few hundred drawings and fewer paintings a year — is born on his summer vacations. "I spend six weeks in the wilds of British Columbia, where there’s no telephone and not a child within 90 miles,” he says. "I make enough sketches to keep me painting the rest of the year. I usually work when there are dishes to be done, so I've got in the habit of painting a picture as fast as my wife can wash the dishes.”

And as for the subject of retirement—"Why, my whole disposition is a retiring one,” he snorts. "What a thing to mention!”

Lismer’s magic touch with word and brush opens a new world for shy and sometimes tearful newcomers

At the Montreal Museum Art Centre, Lismer encourages rather than teaches. He insists: You’ve got to give a child f reedom before you can do something with him”