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Read a Story - Helen McNicoll

 

 


The Golden Silence

by: Anna Stanisz, Assistant Curator, Education, McMichael Canadian Art Collection

“Dorothea, oh, Dorothea, please do something...”

The sound of Helen’s voice was raspier than usual. Don’t get me wrong, it was always there—a slight creakiness, characteristic of deaf people who have long ago forgotten the sound of their voices. When she was really, upset, you could hear an odd screeching sound seep out through her carefully crafted sentences. After so many years of painting together, I knew the whole range of my companion’s intonations. Obviously, Helen was extremely annoyed, and I didn’t blame her.

When we looked for models this morning, only two little sisters showed up—seduced by Helen’s travelling casket full of magical dresses. Everyone else was busy with chores. It was the harvest season after all, and local farmers were reluctant to send their helpers away. Seeing the girls, I knew that we would have a problem.

Molly, of course, was no problem at all. Nobody would have guessed that only an hour ago this poised little angel was wildly running on the St. Ives’ beach along with other fishermen’s children. Now she was cautiously seated on the edge of a chair, being careful not to soil the pristine whiteness of her borrowed dress. She was fully aware of eyes observing her, almost like she could feel the speculative gaze of the Salon’s art connaisseurs commenting on her elegant hat and golden, perfectly combed curls. Older and wiser, she was a proper little lady. Not like Fanny…

At the age of three, Fanny was a delightful terror. She was constantly moving—faster than our eyes could ever follow her—looking for new things to explore, grab, and experience. At this instant, she was crawling right under the chair trying to capture a doomed grasshopper in her sweet, chubby hands—oblivious that her frilly skirt was rubbing into the moist grass.

I loved Fanny in motion. I always liked painting children full of life and energy.  I would place them right there in the scorching heat of the midday, the cerulean blue of the sky clashing against the golden sunshine, trapped in their tresses and cheerfully flapping frocks. Then I would surround them with fireworks of colour from the flowery meadows or jewel-glittering beaches.

“Miss Dorothea Sharp’s subjects are appealing because they are based on the joy of life,” art critics would say about my paintings. I could feel this “joy” vibrating in every tiny crease of Fanny’s soiled dress at this very moment.

Helen was faithful to shadows. The strong colour contrasts were far too wild for her taste. Immersed in silence, she would abandon the loud purity of hues, concentrating on the soft nuances of tones—the hesitance of whites or the ambivalence of greens and blues. Kind Helen would shelter her children from the sizzling summer heat in a cool oasis of refreshing shade, stilling them by a task requiring their complete attention. Only the buzzing of insects and the soft whisper of moving branches would remind the viewer that time had not stopped and that somewhere beyond this circle of silence, the world of adults continued to revolve in a hectic way, ignoring the simple pleasure of a peaceful moment in an orchard.
   
“Dorothea, oh, Dorothea!  Please do something about Fanny!”

Helen’s pleading voice was not angry anymore, just tired, reminding me again how precarious Helen’s health was lately. Well, it was up to me to fix the situation. With a sigh I looked around, trying frantically to find something that could hold the toddler’s attention for another few minutes. Yes! There it was, a big box of bright oily pastels quietly sitting next to the satchel full of paper. I could imagine Fanny examining their slippery texture and smudging them all over the table.  By now Fanny’s dress was extremely dirty.  Why not give it a try?

A moment later, I could see Helen’s shoulders slowly relax, and even without seeing it, I could feel her smile brightening up her face again. The golden silence of the summer day was restored, interrupted only by the sound of the fast moving brush gliding in a waltzing motion through the surface of the canvas.

My heart stilled along with the orchard.

 

Pictured Above:
Helen McNicoll , 1879 - 1915
Cherry Time , c.1912
oil on canvas
81.7 x 66.4 cm
Gift of Hubert B. Sceats
McMichael Canadian Art Collection
1995.30.3

 

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