Lucy Gerritsen

Story by the artist & edited by Bridget Beardwood.

Art is not separate from the Artist’s Life.

As a child I lived in the little village of Millgrove and later in Flamborough Centre. I was the middle child number three of four, of parents who had immigrated from the Netherlands. Happy memories of hot summer days, playing in creeks, walking along ditches in the countryside, visiting family in Vineland that had a peach farm. We would receive bushels of peaches from them and then spend days helping our mother peel and cut them up for canning, camping up north, getting an ice cream from our grandfather (Opa) who was visiting from Holland. Being outside in nature, farming, preparing food were integral to our family life.

But then in 1971, when I was 11 years old, my father died suddenly and everything I was and did was coloured by death and his loss. We had to sell our home and move to the city (Burlington). Finances were an issue, as we were now in a single parent household on welfare. My mother began working to make ends meet. She had grown up during the war, on a farm in Holland and left school in grade 7 to help out. So the jobs she qualified for were minimum wage labour jobs. My siblings and I began working (ages 14, 12, 11 and 5) assisting our mother cleaning buildings. By the time I got to high school, though I wasn’t conscious of it, I entered a stage of teenage rebellion. However, by mid-high school, I met someone that introduced me to the sport of Judo.

Studying Judo became one of the factors that led to my making better choices and my development as an artist. My teacher Mr. Masatoshi Umetsu, became my mentor and father figure. He was a first generation Japanese Canadian who had taught judo to the RCMP, helped to establish the sport of Judo in Canada and then – was interned and displaced to Ontario after the war. Through this kind and selfless person, I began to learn more about gardening and growing things — working throughout High School and University in his landscaping business and vegetable garden. We would go on day long hikes and covered much of the Bruce Trail, from 1977 through 87. He introduced me to the writings of Lao Tsu and taught me how to speak some Japanese. All of this influenced my thinking about life, death, the earth and ultimately my approach to art.

By the end of high school in 1979, I had spent most of my time in the art rooms, making pottery, and drawing. Having joined the Burlington Cultural Centre and Potters Guild, I also experienced the benefits of being part of an artistic community. I applied to McMaster’s Art Program and was accepted. I learned so much from all of my professors: George Wallace, Hugh Galloway, John Miecznikowski, Lorne Toews, Don Carr, Anne Kahane and Marguerite Larmand.

Photographs from McMaster events, circa 1982-1983. Courtesy of the artist.

PHOTOGRAPHS FROM MCMASTER EVENTS: The legacy of McMaster’s art program for me was being in a community where I felt more like a colleague than a student. Creativity and development came from the atmosphere of support as well as challenge. Human relationships also developed in this environment and several “love stories” happened. Note Lorne Toews and Libby close by at our student Christmas Party picture? They later married and are now an integral piece of the fabric of Hamilton’s cultural community.

I also became a leader of sorts in the community and had the honour of presenting George Wallace with a retirement gift: (a bronze medallion I had sculpted and cast of “St George the Student Slayer”).

I am not sure when I first heard about and got involved with Hamilton Artist Inc. I think it was in 1982 or 83, before I finished my degree at McMaster.

It was an extension of McMaster in a way, but even more so, a place where artists could talk, collaborate, share stories. Culture develops through the discussions, relationships made between artists, thinkers, writers. The Impressionists had the Café Gerbois. We in Hamilton had the Inc.

Lucy Gerritsen. "Dedication to Abandoned Wood", circa 1980s, woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist.

DEDICATION TO ABANDONED WOOD: After finishing Mac, I traveled to Japan with Umetsu. I worked grueling hours to save up enough money to do this. I had never been outside of Canada, so doing this was significant for me. By this time, I loved making paper which Marguerite Larmand had introduced me to at Mac, as well as woodblock printing. I practised judo at the cradle of where it all began, with the first woman to have competed at the Olympics. I learned more about Japanese papermaking and woodblock printing and made paper at a small papermaking village. I saw a large retrospective of Munakata’s woodblock prints. These experiences, added to the beauty, history and age of things in Japan, and especially the old weathered wood, influenced who I was and how my work developed.

For example, I found a large piece of wood on the shores of Lake Ontario. Every New Year’s day I would go to watch the sunrise with Umetsu and we would walk along the beach. It was here that I found it. It was split, rough and wonderfully weathered and eventually became “Dedication to Abandoned Wood”.

When I returned from Japan, I continued serving on the Board at the Inc., where I worked on various committees, Third Space development and the newsletters.

At the same time, Bryce Kanbara, Pat Kozowyk and myself took over the Hamilton Art School which had been founded years earlier by Mac graduates Randy Sims and Marlene McNeil. Cees and Annerie VanGemerden had rented a space in the same building and we met and became friends. The building on the corner of Hughson and King William became another pocket where creativity flourished. Sadly, we were unable to keep the Art School going, and so I accepted a position as Administrator of the Carnegie Gallery. As an artist I was focused on landscape in the woodcut medium and participated in a variety of exhibitions.

Lucy Gerritsen. "From Sam Lawrence Park". circa 1980s, woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist.

FROM SAM LAWRENCE PARK: Artistically, I continued to focus on woodcuts. I also made some income doing portrait commissions, but I liked the immediacy of woodcuts and kept finding very interesting pieces of wood that lent themselves to making woodcuts. The idea of using wood that had been discarded appealed to me. This became my first solo show in 1987 at Gallery 252 which I called “Dedication to Abandoned Wood”.

Lucy Gerritsen. "The Conflict". circa 1980s, woodblock print. Courtesy of the artist.

THE CONFLICT: “The Conflict” came out of my ongoing concern of polluting industry versus the earth, which I represented as The Escarpment. The effects of pollution and climate change were obvious and I did what I could to draw attention to it.

I had also begun to become more aware of social justice issues as I became acquainted with Rob Stevens, one of Hamilton’s most dedicated social activists and early supporter of the Inc. He was and still is one of the most authentic, humble, smart and caring of persons.

It was (and still is) very difficult if not impossible to live on income from being an artist. With Cees and Annerie, we formed a chapter of a Hamilton Artists Union, again in the hope of making change. I had chosen not to apply to Teachers College like many of my classmates, based solely on the premise that I WAS going to live as an artist, damn it.

Well, I was naïve, fearless… and bullheaded. I wrote an article in the Inc Newsletter about “Consuming Culture”.  But I did not make the full connection that in order to make a living as an artist I would have to conform to the system and make art as a product for consumption, as opposed to a true authentic expression. I thought maybe I could do both. I still strive for this.

Lucy Gerritsen. "Costa Rica Sketchbook". circa 1980s, landscape chalk pastel drawings. Courtesy of the artist.

COSTA RICA SKETCHBOOK: In my effort to have greater understanding of societal issues, I applied to a development agency to experience and learn first-hand of the third world. I was assigned to go to Costa Rica. In Cees VanGemerden’s “Our Friends” book he wrote the caption “Vaya con Dios” under my photo. As someone who had more affinity to Eastern thought, who had long ago rejected the concept of “God”, this was ironic.

I kept a sketchbook journal of my experience in Costa Rica and a short visit to Nicaragua and took rolls of photographs. The deep blues and greens of the mountains and rough countryside were so beautiful to sit down with my sketchbook. But the extremes of poverty and wealth were overwhelming.

Perhaps this is what led to my having intense dialogue with a person I met, who worked at the artisan shop I had been placed at. We would walk home at the end of the day and discuss world problems and lack of solutions. We married and he slowly convinced me that his religion had the answer. He/they made points I was unable to counter. This I realized was a big mistake in hindsight. I feel now that I was especially vulnerable because in spite of having some good friends, I had rarely had an intimate relationship. Over time I lost touch with the art community.

Lucy Gerritsen. "Movement of Water". circa 1990s, oil on wood, folding screen. Courtesy of the artist.

MOVEMENT OF WATER: After living in between Costa Rica and Canada for a few years, I began to have doubts, seeing hypocrisy and flaws. I responded by opening a small studio in Waterdown. I taught classes and started painting again as I began the process of working through this emotional life baggage. I revisited my affinity for Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. I mounted a themed show of “Windows of Time” and created folding screens that to me expressed the passage of time and looking at the earth for wisdom.

I reached out to my dear friend Pat Kozowyk and we reconnected. We never discussed my experience in detail, but her unquestioning understanding, walks on the farm, kindness and support, is what helped me to start thinking independently again.

Finally I was able to extricate myself from religion and marriage. But I had lost confidence in my ability to think critically, and this put a devastating hole in who I was. I had become mistrustful of myself and my ability to make sound decisions. I became more introverted and solitary.

Lucy Gerritsen. "Winter Escarpment". circa 1990s, oil on wood, folding screen. Courtesy of the artist.

WINTER ESCARPMENT: The escarpment remained the central subject of artistic exploration for me. It had always been a symbol of the wisdom of the earth and now I focused on it. I was able to put together “The Escarpment”, an exhibition of screens and paintings on hand made paper at Chagall’s restaurant. I liked the idea of exhibiting in a living space, rather than a static gallery space.

I continued painting, gathering strength and independence and continuing to find solace in the beauty, textures and enduring quality of the earth.

Lucy Gerritsen. "Rooftop Escarpment". circa 1990s, oil on handmade paper. Courtesy of the artist.

ROOFTOP ESCARPMENT: By the late 90’s, I was getting tired of living in poverty. I had survived through doing various commissions, odd jobs and teaching. Now, I accepted that I was not going to be able to make a living solely as an artist, and decided to learn print production and graphic design. Of course I continued painting and creating. I am unable to stop ideas from coming into my head. The escarpment remained as a subject of interest. I came to terms with living a solitary life. I was content.

Life has a way of changing trajectories, whether you like it, plan it or try to avoid it. In 1998, through friends of friends, life threw a person into my path that I did not expect. But that’s a story for another decade.

Additional Information

“Consuming Culture” Article