Merle Stewart McKee
Merle Stewart McKee is active/lives in Canada. Merle Stewart McKee is known for landscape, flower, abstract painting.
Merle Stewart McKee
Biography from the Archives of askART
Merle Stewart McKee is a Canadian artist shaped by the land that nurtured her - from her birth in Flin Flon, through her idyllic childhood in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, to her international experiences in New York, and her later life in British Columbia. The powerful influences from senior, respected doyens of the Canadian art world who recognized her talent and allowed it to flourish, who supported her experimental ventures, who advised and gave her active help and encouragement, led to her innovation, her portrayal of a wide variety of subjects, and her experimentation in and use of a diverse range of media. These mark Merle as an artist whose work deserves wider recognition for its very ‘Canadian-ness’.
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Raised in a small farming community, Merle attended the tiny Deer Park School, then Brickburn Consolidated School where she excelled in sport, and was fortunate to have been helped through the triple difficulties of dyslexia, discalculia and dysgraphia by sympathetic teachers – most notably Mr K G Breckman - who never allowed her to give up. By positive reinforcement and help, both in the classroom and in the grain fields where many of the young spent their holidays ‘rogueing’ (walking up and down the rows of high quality grain in government plots and removing the weeds), Breckman built her self esteem, her confidence, and talked with her on national and international subjects thereby giving her the gift of something far wider than a classroom education.
Always interested in the raw nature by which she was surrounded throughout her childhood, Merle spent many hours sketching and painting. An eighth-birthday present of a sketchbook began a cache of memorabilia of a life in art. One of her earliest memories was planting cosmos seeds with her father and watching the plants grow and bloom. She was fascinated by cosmos then – and still is; from painting them in their tangled glory and their various hues from white through red, to year by year planting them in her own garden and the garden of her church, St Anne’s, in Richmond. Merle has memories too, of Sunday family picnics during which she always picked a sheaf of wild flowers, berries, seed heads, leaves – the memories of which linger in some of her paintings. A delightful collection of scrapbooks with art done by Merle during her early years at Deer Park and Gilbert Plains show that she, even then, had a natural ability to work in different media, use different techniques, be bold in her use of color; there are drawings as diverse as flowers such as zinnias, water lilies, bleeding hearts, tiger lilies and some startlingly purple tulips, to some primitive landscapes with excellent perspective, and a pencil portrait of a running Alsatian dog! There is a First Prize Certificate from the Gilbert Plains-Grandview Agricultural Society for her painting of The Cliffs of Dover - she recalls having to use encyclopaedias to research the cliffs and write about them before painting the picture. (Merle’s mother received first prizes at the same fair for her baking and canning.) There is a quaint and prescient note in a folio of 1950s life drawings she entered in an Agricultural Society competition: “Merle, Keep on going in Art Work your (sic) a natural. (signed) Judge.” (Note to Merle … even Judges have problems with grammar!) Neither were fungi forgotten; there is a small sensitive depiction in oils of toadstools, painted by a 15-year old Merle that hints strongly of the level of skill and the confidence she had developed in her art.
It was about this time that Merle decided she did not wish to continue with formal schooling; schoolwork was still a daily struggle – even though she had dropped Mathematics. She took up a job waitressing at The Chalet, at Clearlake, Manitoba. It was here that she met Joseph and Tundi Lekufka and their two little daughters Christina and Eveline who had emigrated from Austria to Canada. When they stayed at The Chalet, Merle babysat for them after she had completed her day shift. Joseph ran a high class hair salon in Winnipeg and suggested to Merle that she might like to become an apprentice hairstylist, and model for him. He met with her parents and it was agreed that Merle should accept his offer.
Merle proved a quick learner. Joseph, sensing that the written exams would be a stumbling block for Merle, convinced the hairdresser testing authorities to waive the written requirements of the course but substitute a face-to-face interview. Merle approached what could have been an intimidating test with her quiet confidence and passed with flying colors. During this time, Joseph took Merle to New York as a model for an International Hairdressing Competition. Peggy Sellars chose Merle’s dress, Joseph came second in the competition, and Merle received many modelling offers: despite some of these being very tempting she chose to return to Winnipeg.
But New York had changed Merle. While she was there, staying in the mid-city, she visited many of the art galleries and, seeing centuries-old paintings and sculpture from all over the world as well as glimpses into current art trends, she says she was both ‘turned on’ and ‘blown away’ and immediately felt that art was where her future lay. She returned to Winnipeg, and after a short time once more hairdressing with Joseph, she married and set up a small studio at her home where she began to paint recreationally.
Realizing she needed more formal training to supplement the techniques she was developing by her own experimentation and, in order to progress these skills, Merle enrolled for classes. Over the following years she studied at classes at the University of Saskatchewan and the Alberta College of Art, as well as at summer schools and in private tuition … all the while adding to, refining, and experimenting among the myriad skills and techniques of the art world. She became a docent at both the Alberta Museum (where she was appointed to the Board of the museum) and the Vancouver Museum and enjoyed the challenge of introducing groups of children, and adults to the world of art.
The 1980 show at the Masters’ Gallery in Albert was a turning point for Merle. In an exhibition that was attended by large crowds, Merle had 100 paintings. By the end of the day 50 of them had been sold, and before the show was over it was a sell-out for her.
By the time she moved to British Columbia she had no concern about her place in the art world as she had studied with many of the best lecturers and artists of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. But it was still difficult getting work into galleries unless you had college connections with well-known instructors, and knew gallery owners; art was still a male-dominated domain.
A TRIP AMONG THE INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN MERLE’S CAREER.
Tuition was not confined to art studio lessons, and many were the sketching trips taken to the wild, open space of the Canadian hinterland – well known to Canadian artists, particularly from the time when The Group of Seven raised public awareness of Canada’s natural beauty. Merle was fortunate to have been guided in her work by a group of talented artists and mentors who followed on from this pioneering art movement, men and women with whom she became close friends.
Armand Vallee was an Austrian watercolor artist with whom Merle took her initial night classes in sketching, life drawing, oils and watercolors. She particularly remembers his sketching skill, and both in his studio and on trips to the foothills of Alberta, she was profoundly influenced by his ability to make a few quick lines come to life. He was also an accomplished ski instructor who taught Merle to ski, but had to act as her rescuer when she broke her ankle.
Post war, art was not a lucrative occupation and Armand Vallee supplemented his income by breeding worms to sell to fishermen. Merle worked for him, packaging the worms. She was asked by friends if she was busy painting but when she replied that she was working at a worm farm her friends were overcome with incredulous merriment!
Frank Palmer: ‘If you are not sure what color you want, use a little painted patch of paper as a trial’, was the first piece of advice Merle remembers from her days under Frank’s tutelage. He lectured in drawing, illustration, painting and murals. He endorsed many of Merle’s own experiments with watercolors, and gave her a host of new effects to try. His ‘everlasting homesickness for the prairie’ (of Alberta) resonates with Merle; many of her landscapes reflect that feeling.
Otto Rogers was one of Merle’s early teachers before the new college was built. His strength was that, being impressionistic, he helped her break away from the realism which had marked her early art.
Illingworth (Buck) Kerr: ‘The kids from the sticks, be it from Alberta, B.C. or Saskatchewan, came to us with no intellectual sophistication. Talent they had, but talent is a raw attribute.’ This perfectly summed up Merle, endorsed by a note he wrote to her: ‘Merle, you are a natural.’ Over a period of many years, right into Buck’s old age Merle accompanied him into the foothills of the Alberta they both knew and loved, to sketch, to paint, to produce work to share this environment with others.
Stanford Perrot: student, lecturer, and from 1967 – 1974, head of the Alberta College of Art. He instructed Merle in the use of oils, and watercolors (‘because of its gentle, colorful transparency and unpredictable qualities’); life drawing, design and art history. He was a very conscientious teacher and his instruction filled the gaps in the knowledge Merle had received from Kerr and Palmer. He touchingly inscribed a copy of his painting, Stan’s Flower Garden, with a note to Merle.
Molly Lamb Bobak was among the first generation of Canadian women artists to work professionally and earn a living from their art, and was the only woman to be appointed an official war artist in World War II. Merle met her when she was visiting Alberta from her native Nova Scotia and attended her workshops on painting wildflowers. Although she and Merle differed widely in their styles of art, they both shared a deep love of flowers and Molly had a great influence on Merle’s development of her own style. When Molly returned to Nova Scotia Merle organized a show for her at Heritage Park, Calgary, thereby introducing Molly and her art to a new audience. Additionally, at Molly’s request, Merle personally hung all the art.
For the Stampede at Calgary in 19??, a number of Alberta artists organized exhibitions: the entire body of work was juried by the professors from the Alberta College of Art. Japanese dancers were guests of honor at the Stampede and two of the chaperones with the party persuaded Merle to send her paintings back to Japan - they all sold.
James Houston, named Saumik (the left-handed one) by the Inuit – became closely associated with Merle through her interest in Inuit art. She had begun her collection purchasing goods that were sent from the north to a small store, Cottage Craft Gifts and Fine Arts, in Alberta, in which store she first met him.
Among others in Merle’s large circle of friends in the art world in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba were: George Wood, who lectured Merle in oils and acrylics; Gordon Snyder,an artist and curator; Ted Godwin, a member of the Regina Five; Jean Mihalcheon, ceramicist; Roy Kiyooka, a painter and multimedia artist.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF MERLE AS AN ARTIST
Merle’s work has ranged widely: oils, watercolors and acrylics; lithographs, mono-prints and etchings; and covers a wide range of subject matter: landscapes of her loved Alberta, flowers and wild flowers, to abstracts; every painting carries a personal story.
‘I believe it is important that the basic elements of design are well taught and mastered. The artists who tutored and mentored me certainly gave me the solid grounding that enabled me to work in any medium and allowed me to open my mind to be confident in my own experimentation. To them I owe my deepest gratitude.’
Shell Canada Ltd
Nova, an Albertan Corporation
Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board
Midland Doherty Limited
Marshall Maclin Monaghan Limited
Husky Oil Limited
Biographical information provided by Virginia O'Donnell, friend of the artist.
All of the information provided has been collected from Merle personally using her personal notes collected over the years.
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