Mac checked his watch. Shit. How long had he been staring at The Plough? He had planned to take in the Paul-Émile Borduas retrospective while he was here. Now, there wouldn’t be time, not even for a quick peek.
If Anne Savage had started him on his artist’s path, Borduas had shaped his approach. Mac could still picture the lanky, slightly rumpled artist the first time he saw him, shrouded in a bluish haze of cigarette smoke, surrounded by students in one of the lounges at the Nova Scotia College of Art, his jarringly vibrant Abstraction verte on an easel next to him. “The important thing is to be able to create,” Borduas had proclaimed with a fiery zeal that would, two years later, get him fired from his teaching post in Montreal.
Mac couldn’t argue, thanks to Aunt Emmeline and those Canadian artists. Unfortunately, the war interrupted his dreams. But as soon as he could, Mac made his way to Halifax and enrolled in the college that Anna Leonowens, the real-life Anna of Anna and the King of Siam, had founded and that Arthur Lismer of the Tate exhibition had once presided over as president.
As predicted, his parents balked at both his plans and his choice of venue from which to pursue them. There had been weeks of explosive arguments — between him and his father, between his father and his mother and between Emmeline and both his parents. In the end, Mac and Emmeline prevailed and his father grudgingly agreed to pay his first year’s tuition and to make a modest contribution to his living expenses.
Mac had never seen anything like Abstraction verte. He found its bold jumble of green, white and red strokes on a sea of black both confusing and compelling.
Never shy, he asked Borduas what it was.
“I don’t understand any more than you do,” the artist replied. “Whatever it is you are searching for in the painting, I’m searching for it, too.”
“Then how do you know what to paint?” another student asked, a baffled expression on her face.
“I have no preconceived idea,” he confessed to his rapt audience. “I obey whatever impulse comes first.”
That became Mac’s creed, too. He would scan the blank canvas in a meditative sort of way and, when the inclination struck, begin to paint. The result, what critics and academics now called “an idiosyncratic brand of abstract expressionism” but which Mac refused to categorize or label, had propelled him to artistic superstardom. Only once had he disregarded his intuitive practice, and that had not turned out well.
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