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There’s A Birch Tree Now Paint It!

Tuesday, June 4, 2018


Marilyn Coulter was ten years old, the only child in a group of women art students.  They were with their instructor in High Park in Toronto’s west end.   The instructor was Clara Harris.  Clara gave Marilyn her first challenge:  ”There’s a birch tree now paint it.”  And in Marilyn’s words “I didn’t know where to start”.  


Marilyn’s story is remarkable and she gave me the opportunity to talk with her:














You can see from the video that Marilyn has an excellent memory and a good sense of humour.  Here are some additional highlights not included in the video:


Marilyn lived in the Baby Point area just 3-4 blocks from Clara’s house.  Clara’s students would congregate at the Old Mill and Humber River sites and Clara would drive down with the painting equipment. 


With marriage and children Marilyn’s artistic pursuits were put on hold.  But not for long.  At their vacation home in Tweed, immersed in nature, her interest in landscape painting was renewed. 


In later years Marilyn became President of the Humber Valley Art Club: some of the members being part of the original Clara painting group.



Nobody Could Mix Green Like Cara


These are the words of Florence Wright who was featured in the November 8, 2017 Curator’s Blog, Who Is Florence Wright and Why Is She Important?  Florence was a student of Clara’s and other notables in the art field:


Florence’s first stop was art school at Toronto’s Central Technical. Charles Goldhamer, well known artist in Canada and the U.S.  was the Chairman of the Art Department and recognized Florence’s talent.  “Every morning the students would line up to get their art supplies so they could complete their assignments, Charles would always let me go first.  This ensured that I got what I needed.”  The neighbourhood around the school provided the perfect sketching backdrop to capture people and street scenes. “I’d mingle around on the street and paint something”.  


Doris McCarthy , also at Central Tech was one of Florence’s teachers, liked her work and invited her to her home “Fool’s Paradise“ in Scarborough Bluffs regularly.  She wanted Florence to accompany her on a painting excursion to Iceland but personal obligations made this impossible. Florence’s description of Doris: “She was so good and so enthusiastic and would invite people off the street to come into her home.”


Florence received awards for her watercolour paintings including three from A.J. Casson.   "I received awards from him before I even met him.”  Florence was a regular at Kleinburg: “I’d paint the barn at Kleinburg at different times of day.”  She eventually met A.Y. Jackson and Casson at the McMichael.


As Clara’s student Florence remembers her:


Clara was rather rather stiff and formal and spent the majority of her time painting. 


Nobody mixed green like Clara and she taught us how to do that.


Clara would never touch a student’s work.  Otherwise it would lose its authenticity.


You could almost touch the skin of Clara’s portraits as it looked so real.


She and her husband Fred socialized regularly with members of the Group of Seven at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club.


Of her many accomplishments Marilyn’s favourite work were her sets for the Ontario Ballet Theatre.  No mean feat.   First she would present small samples of her designs to the ballet master.  Once he approved these Marilyn proceeded to work on large 10 x 30 foot panels.  These were done in acrylic, applied with a sponge and took two months to complete. Marilyn did Beauty and the Beast, Wind in the Willows, Rapunzel, The Magic Flute and Aladdin.   When asked if these significant commissions made her nervous she smiled and then replied, “I just took the work in my stride”.

Some of Marilyn’s comments about her passion as an artist: 


"I painted what I saw.


"If the viewer of the painting feels what the artist feels then the painting is a real success.


"When you get older you don’t want to paint outside as much so it broadens your scope of how to portray the scenes.  It’s a challenge not being on location.


"Clara always tutored me and when she moved from her home she gave me her easel.  Oh my goodness using Clara’s easel!  It had a rope that she’d used to hold it down if it got windy."


You can learn more about Marilyn’s life and work through these two websites:


Marilyn and Laura had organized and prepared a sizable display of Marilyn’s art for me to view.   So many were beautiful watercolours and I admit, I purchased some of them.    


Special thanks to Marilyn and her daughter Laura for sharing so much information that contributes to Clara’s provenance.  Marilyn’s life as a successful artist reveals so much about the effort and sacrifice required.   It was a special day!

Blossoming from student to teacher Florence had a class of six art students at Martingrove Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke.  And in April 2019 Florence participated in The Women’s Art Association of Canada’s (WAAC) exhibit Women Artists Over 80   (See Events and Exhibits Section).  It was time to chat with Florence again:

Thanks Florence for being so generous with your time, information and viewpoints.  Your firsthand information gives us access to the Toronto art scene in the 1900’s that few have experienced.

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