Marsha Mitchell

Marsha made colourful plein air landscapes as a child; both at Strathmere School of the Arts and Ottawa’s Municipal Art Centre on Green Island. Working in Ottawa in the 1970s and 80s, she explored graphic design, audiovisual production,film and writing; in government, the private sector and NGOs. She came back to painting in the 1980s as a grad student at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

While completing her M.A. Ed. from St. FX, Director Ron Shuebrook admitted Marsha to the Three Year Diploma Program at the Ottawa School of Art, where she concentrated on landscape with colourist Richard Gorman. She graduated in the spring of 1989 from both of these programs. Professional Studio with Jim Boyd of the University of Ottawa came next, then two years of multimedia courses at the Toronto School of Art. In 2001, Marsha completed her formal education at Carleton University with an interdisciplinary Masters degree in landscape history and arts, and a practicum at the National Gallery of Canada.

After designing a house in the Gatineau Hills with Robert Mitchell around 2008 and travelling widely in Asia and Europe, Marsha returned to painting. Later work reflects an evolving relationship with the landscape around her.

Building on Nature

Meech Lake is a great place for landscape painting; its beaches look out on classic scenes of bays, rocky hills and a mix of trees. When the bathers and boaters leave, it’s views are as pristine as the Group of Seven’s. And its sandy stretches of shoreline are much easier to work from: easels can stand firmly on picnic tables or crew cut grass. As well, clearly labeled outhouses and large garbage bins announce themselves near every nearby public parking lot.

My views of this scene started to change in 2006, when Robert and I decided to build a house near Blanchet Beach and live the waterfront life all year long. He was then a management consultant travelling to rural areas around the world to evaluate economic development projects. I had just completed a thesis on landscape history; way back past the Group of Seven, through the ruins of the eighteenth century, to the Roman poets. Their notion of peaceful retirement in Nature had become an objective for us.

Early on in our search for country life, we came across an ad in “The Ottawa Citizen” for land on Meech Lake. It’s narrow road, on which we’d dodged cyclists and joggers, bifurcated a property for sale; Century 21 signs on either side pointed both up to a heavily wooded cliff on the left and down at the lake on the right. The acre or so on the hillside, behind an old shoebox of a cabin, was high, wooded and brambled. We clambered up it a few times before deciding to buy. Surrounded by crown land, it felt like this lot was part of an endless timeless climax forest. The four deer who’d come to greet us clinched the deal.

A thick file of approved plans, two years, twenty subcontractors, ten building supply stores, five permits and only a handful of setbacks later, our house was basically finished and the landscapers lined up. In keeping with the house’s Arts and Crafts style, informed by the 18th C. Picturesque movement, the plantings, planters and materials we chose were all rooted to the Chelsea area. A local horticulture designer had been hired to garden our whole lot in a naturalistic manner, with top quality soil, the way the Genius of the Place intended.

But Nature, defaced by backhoes and chainsaws, wreaked vengeance; heavy rains on melting snow had washed away the surface of our winding driveway. From the dormer in his office, Robert noted this bleak scene…and large cameras trained on the house! He stopped typing his report on river pollution in Guyana from small scale gold mining. Descending the silty hill to investigate, he was confronted on film by two strangers. They claimed that fine sediments from our idealistic project, all about respecting Nature as we’d understood it, had trickled into the lake and was fouling the spawning grounds of a type of bass.

The City pages of “The Ottawa Citizen” printed this story the next day…which happened to be my birthday. The journalist consulted the Provincial Policy for Protecting Lakeshore, Riverbanks, Littoral Zones and Floodplanes. The NCC sent in a team of biologists. No fault was found. Contractors finally came to grade the driveway. The Municipality of Chelsea deepened and thoroughly cleaned its roadside ditch between the lake and the mountain. We constructed a catch basin beside it, from large local rocks, according to the specifications of three levels of government.

Over a decade later, the improved slope in front of our house is densely covered in native bushes, wildflowers and ferns. Retired, Robert no longer gives advice on landscapes far far away. Likewise,I have abandoned the long long ago; painting Meech Lake now with only a nod to classical traditions;

“To build, to plant whatever you intend, to rear the column or the arch to bend in all, let Nature never be forgot…” (Alexander Pope,1731.)