By Gary Storr
A true artist knows when a painting is done. They step back, survey their work, then throw down their brush and declare, “Enough is enough.”
I tried painting once. It didn’t go well. I picked up a brush and, on my canvas, painted the sky. Then the clouds moved and I painted it again. As the plumes reshaped and drifted across the blue vastness, they floated simultaneously across my rendering. Art imitating life. I would never finish a painting at this rate. To borrow a phrase from Kurt Vonnegut, my art was “unstuck in time.” It didn’t make random temporal leaps like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five but it moved fluidly along. I would have to learn to stop, to freeze my subjects in a single instant: a collie suspended in mid-air awaiting a frisbee that would never come; Christmas carollers holding sheet music, their mouths framed eternally in perfect ‘O’s, halting a hymn that no one would hear. “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” said Leonardo Da Vinci. The trick is to know when to quit.
Ofra Svorai knows. I stood in the gallery where she exhibits her work and let my eyes wander. They fell upon a painting only four inches square. In it there was water, quartzite and, at dead centre, a lone pine. The scene had been brushed in oils on a block of wood and set into a plain wooden frame. It captured a momentary glimpse in time and yet was timeless. On the back was printed: “Low Lake.” I had to have it.
My wife Debby and I had canoed extensively on the lakes below the La Cloche Mountains near where Ofra had painted Low Lake. I had camped and snowshoed on the ridges in winter. We had seen almost all of Killarney Provincial Park but had never set eyes on Low Lake. I studied the map. The portage from Nellie Lake to Helen and Low Lakes was two and a half kilometres long. All of the carries leading to Nellie Lake from outside the park were arduous, and they would have to be tramped twice – in, and back out. I am fast becoming a relic of my former self. No thanks.
I looked at the map again and then showed Debby what I saw. She agreed – it was doable. We’d start at George Lake, head west from Killarney Lake out through Baie Fine, cut north into McGregor Bay and then head up into Low Lake. Nine days return. We booked campsites. Imagine! An entire canoe trip sparked by a small chunk of wood with a picture on it!
As canoe trips go, this one was memorable for the weather. Lovely, sunny days paddling in and two idyllic days and nights camped on Helen Lake. We’d circumnavigated Low Lake but found the only campsite there inhospitable. Then, on the return trip, meteorological hell broke loose. We were hammered by a monsoon on the portage into Baie Fine and were forced to huddle under a tarp in our remaining camps. Crimson sunsets bled into the water. Red sky at night, sailors’ delight? Nuh-uh. It teemed all night and all the next day. And the next. On the last day it stopped.
While portaging from Killarney Lake to Freeland we encountered a fellow tripper. As we returned for our second bundles he passed us with his first. At the Killarney end of the carry a woman hobbled along the trail. Her knee was wrapped in a makeshift bandage. She leaned on crutches fashioned from paddles: the handles were sticks duct-taped to the shafts. Debby and I shouldered our packs and grabbed a couple of theirs. After completing the portage I returned to offer support to the injured woman. We chatted as we inched along. She’d been the victim of a campsite mishap and her hinge had gone east when it should have gone north.
“I’m Ofra,” she said by way of introduction.
Ofra? How many Ofras could there be? “Ofra, the artist?” I ventured.
“Yes,” she smiled through the pain.
I could barely contain my excitement. How cool was that?! I explained how her tiny gem had inspired our trip. And now, to top it off, we’d gotten her in the bargain!
“The little painting of Low Lake?” she asked. “I remember it. I was fond of that one – I almost didn’t sell it.
Does art imitate life? Does life imitate art? Oscar Wilde would have it both ways. In his essay, The Decay of Lying, he argues that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” For Debby and me, Life, in this case, was influenced by Art. If not beguiled by Ofra’s small treasure, Low Lake, and indeed, Ofra herself, would have remained undiscovered by us.
I looked up. If those clouds would just stop moving I might be able to paint them.