Remembering Venice with Mary Ellen McQuay

Mary Ellen McQuay – as she signs her work – is a Canadian photo-artist whose forte is hand-painting photographic prints to deepen colours and enhance contrasts. I first saw her work and met her at Whetung Gallery in the Eighties and then at the Buckhorn Art Festival. I regard her as a friend. Mary Ellen has a calm and cheerful demeanor that is reflected in her work. Her work always puts me in an optimist mood and a contemplative state of mind. Of her many prints that I, first individually and then together with my wife, have bought over the years, here are three of my favorites.

Venice Canal, 1999

This is a wonderfully composed and coloured print, with the bridge and boat as focal points, the canal and buildings creating perspective, the ochre walls, silvery blue rippling water, and turquoise reflections in the water.

My girlfriend and I spent an idyllic six months in Berkeley and then she moved in with me in June 1999. That summer we went to an academic conference at the University of Siena’s Certosa di Potignano – a link I strongly encourage you to click – and then followed it by going to Rome and Venice. I decided to propose to Beth in Venice, and a gondola ride seemed to be the appropriate occasion. When I suggested it, she had both pecuniary – the high season price – and olfactory – the stagnant summer water – objections. I could overcome the former, but it seemed very inauspicious to propose to someone holding their nose.

On to Plan B. We had to leave Venice before dawn to catch our flight home. The hotel ordered a private water taxi – an elegant wood-trimmed vintage power boat – and as we looked back at Venice silhouetted in a deep blue sky beginning to turn to dawn, I asked.

We got the print not long after we returned, and it is a wonderful reminder of our engagement.

Brown Bottles, 1986

I would have titled this print for the lobster buoys at the top. Nonetheless, it shows a wonderful contrast between the bright paint of the buoys and deep brown of the bottles with the silvery shingles and aged wood. The wood neatly divides the print into halves. The partial window frame at the right asks an unanswered question about the people who occupy the house and who go down to the sea every day.

North East Woods, 2001

Many of the McQuay prints we bought were about nautical themes, but this one tells a different story. The leaves in the foreground are bright greens, but the scene turns to mist in the distance. The leaves in the upper left and lower right quadrants leave the centre as the passage into the deeper quieter forest. It evokes a forest walk early in the day, waiting for the sun to dispel the fog.

Her Latest Work

I regret that we haven’t seen Mary Ellen for quite a few years, especially after my wife’s parents sold their Kawartha cottage almost a decade ago. I looked Mary Ellen up online. She is a member of the Iris Group Women Artists’ Collective. While she still does the sort of prints I’ve described in this post, she is now creating more abstract prints, in which she focuses intently on the details of water flowing, ice crystals, leaves, and rocks. Just as I was drawn to her works decades ago, I am fascinated by McQuay’s new visions of worlds in grains of sand.

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