Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Norway Bay artist completes 360˚ portrait of community’s beach

Lee Robinsong doesn’t like cold water.
This is the reason he gave for why he’s spent the past 12 years observing the beach and Ottawa River in Sand Bay from a dock, refraining, usually, from joining his wife and her family for a swim.
It’s hard to believe, coming from a man who has spent a quarter of his life on Cortes Island, off British Columbia’s coast.
But 12 years on a dock, through all the seasons, has given Robinsong the time he’s needed to absorb and interpret every detail of the landscape visible from his perch – details which last week, he reflected back to the community in a creative tribute to the cove he’s come to call home.
Robinsong is a painter. His subjects are almost always landscapes.
The natural scenes he recreates on his canvases are not presented in the standard rectangular window-frame orientation traditional to landscape painting, but instead on a circular canvas, where what might be one edge of the landscape flows seamlessly into its opposite edge.
The landscapes Robinsong recreates are continuous, untinterrupted, and capture a level of detail often more pronounced than one could pick up if only passing through a place.
He’s been painting landscapes in this way for a about 35 years – portraits of various scenes from his home in the Cortes Island wilderness, but also of foreign places, like English meadow near the place he married his wife Patty Loveridge, or a summer field in the South of France, this one on commission for a childhood friend.
In June, after his decade of dock-sitting on the Ottawa River, he revealed the first painting he’s done of a Pontiac landscape: a portrait of Sand Bay. It captures Loveridge and her sister-in-law going for an early morning swim with turkey vultures soaring above them, as the sun reaches its first rays over the tops of the trees. Loveridge’s mother is there too, watching the scene from a chair on the beach.
“This one was really interesting to me because it’s the first time I’ve painted this part of the world,” Robinsong told THE EQUITY last week, gesturing to his oil painting, some parts still damp to the touch, in his Norway Bay studio.
“My pallet is totally different from B.C. or any other place I’ve been to. So I had to really really understand the colour of white pine, of oak, and all the other trees.”
His wife Loveridge grew up spending her summers at her family’s cottage in the bay. Her grandfather was Hugh Proudfoot, MP for the Pontiac from 1949 to 1958, and mayor of Fort Coulonge for five years before that. Her grandmother was Iva Langford. Her grandfather built the family cottage in Sand Bay in the 1950s, and generations of Loveridge’s family have grown up coming to it as a second home.
“It’s incredibly special to have this painting and it’s just such an incredible way to honour the place and history,” Loveridge said.
“I’m sort of a newbie to the place, but I know how to paint,” Robinsong added, noting he only moved the Pontiac three years ago. “Basically it was a painting for the community.”
Painting, for Robinsong, offers itself both as a means of honouring a place and of grounding himself in that place.
The son of a British diplomat, Robinsong spent his childhood untethered. He would be five years in one country, be it Germany or Chile or Ethiopia, and then uprooted to spend another five years somewhere new.
A dyslexia diagnoses in Zurich landed him in a strict English boarding school for 10 years.
When he was kicked out as a 17-year-old, he moved to Winnipeg, where his family was stationed at the time.
Landing in the prairies, he found himself forced to familiarize himself with yet another new landscape.
“You look at the horizon and it’s flat, and you turn the circle, and it’s flat all the way around.”
It would be years yet before Robinsong began painting his large circular landscapes, but it was in the prairies that he began to engage with landscapes in a new way.
“I was always wondering what was happening behind me, and what the light was doing over there,” Robinsong said. “So that’s what really drew me in, was to understand the light, and the landscape, in its totality.”
After completing a degree in graphic arts, Robinsong began migrating west, towards the B.C. coast. He spent some time working as art director for Greenpeace, the then-young environmental advocacy organization.
When he got sick of the city, or the city became too expensive, he moved his family further west, to Cortes Island. It was there that in 1982, he purchased a 40-acre piece of land with nine other neighbours and friends, and founded the Hollyhock Farm, where they ran seminars and workshops for environmental activists. It was on this farm where he raised his two children.
It’s around that time that Robinsong began using his massive circular canvases to record, in excruciating detail, the landscapes of the island.
“What I was essentially doing was, because I’d lived in so many different places I’d called home, I didnt want to forget anything about the place,” he offered, a revelation that came only years later. “It was psychological need to never forget anything.”
This need created a process of dedicated study of his surroundings, and an even more rigorous study of how to represent them on a canvas.
In his studio in the windowless basement of his home in Norway Bay, the evidence of this process was everywhere.
On the walls, collections of photographs were taped up together to recreate the 360 degrees of landscapes he has painted, or wants to paint. On his table, a palette of oil paints offered evidence of his dedication to recreating the precise hues and tones of the environment in which he lives, a process that was made more difficult when he began painting without any natural light source.
In the middle of it all stood his painting of Sand Bay, three feet in diameter, protected by a homemade cedar frame.
Robinsong was proud to point out the two turkey vultures in the sky.
“People go like, ‘Ou, isn’t that a death thing?’ And that’s part of the reason I included them, is to demystify these beautiful creatures that are the cleanup crew and very prominent in these skies around here,” he said. “These guys are part of this whole system.”
Capturing the system, in its wholeness, and making this wholeness visible to others, is at the core of what Robinsong does.
“If you’re in a place for any length of time you become accustomed to stuff, but when you’re accustomed you don’t see it anymore,” he said. “And so this is why I like to come into somewhere like Sand Bay, and make it my own, and just reflect it back to people.”


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