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Creative Flow: Celebrating Four Ottawa River Artists

Dyes on silk
Dyes on silk by Dale Shutt

Ottawa Valley residents sure love their river. The Ottawa’s sinuous watercourse binds Ontario and Quebec residents together, whether we stroll or cross-country ski alongside it, paddle on it – or paint its many moods.

Local artists are drawn to the Ottawa River and most speak passionately about its history and natural beauty.

Four creators – Ottawa’s Margaret Chwialkowska and John Almstedt, as well as Pontiac-based Dale Shutt and Elke Bzdurreck spoke with me about their connection to the majestic river.

Meet them now – and view their works.

Margaret Chwialkowska says she has been painting the river for the past seven years. “It was love at first glance,” she admitted. “It’s the most beautiful thing Ottawa has to offer. We live a block or so away, so a stroll along it is part of my daily routine. I’ve always preferred taking the bus instead of driving along the River Parkway, so I can sit and look out at the riverbanks passing by; the view is always arresting.”

Ottawan John Almstedt reveals his “Group of Seven” connection to the river when I asked how long he’s been painting it. “Since 1967, when I met Ralph Burton who painted with A.Y. Jackson. Around then, A.Y. had a stroke so he and Ralph couldn’t paint together any more, so the joke was that I replaced A.Y. Jackson! We painted together until 1983, and after Ralph passed away, I spent more time in remote settings where there was usually little or no human presence. Things such as barns, fences, green pastures in the autumn – even if present – are now excluded.”

Pontiac resident Dale Shutt loves the river so much she and her husband call one of its islands their home: Ile du Grand Calumet, in West Quebec. Shutt has been painting the Ottawa for 35 years and although primarily using dyes on silk, she also uses pen and ink as well as acrylic.

Shutt is drawn to water, admitting, “There is something both calming and exciting about being on or around water. My husband and I love to paddle along the shoreline – he fishes while I gaze at the water and the shore and am inspired. My most recent series of paintings is inspired by early morning and evening reflections on still water. There are many things to be seen and even more to be imagined in those shoreline reflections.”

Also living on an island, Elke Bzdurreck says, “I have painted and illustrated images of the Ottawa River since 1978. I use pen and ink, watercolour and acrylic on canvas. The river runs through beautiful countryside, especially in Pontiac County where the Laurentian Shield is exposed. It is dramatic scenery and the sunsets are incredibly colourful.”

I asked if they feel a particular affinity to the river. Shutt immediately agreed, “Like most islanders everywhere, I feel a special connection. The river is constant: one can imagine it having been there forever and going on forever. It surrounds me and connects me at the same time as it allows me to feel separate. Something special happens when you are on water. I’m not sure I can put it into words… always hope I can put it into a picture.”

Almstedt also concurred, saying he’s lived across from Westboro Beach for more than 40 years. He watched his family grow up by the river– and shares his memories. “The river is where our children paddled, skated, slid and played and is where I often went to do a bit of paddling and painting. Logging might not have been good for the river but it provided interesting subject matter. There were the boats, the huge B.C. fir log booms, the cradles filed with rocks, the little maintenance shack in the middle of the river – and of course the boats. Sometimes on a hot summer evening I would paddle out to the shack bringing a refreshment to the worker who lived there during the summer and to talk about the river.”

His and the three others’ stories are mirrored by the river itself. From sunrise to sunset, light plays upon its surface, shimmering along its embankments, shifting the mood as daylight wanes and twilight deepens into night.

Chwialkowska reveals her appreciation of these moods. “I have painted the river in all seasons and different times of day, but my favourite is late afternoon, before sunset, when the light is golden. In this window of time, the clouds seem to move faster across the sky, the light changes from minute to minute, and the entire landscape becomes very alive and full of fantastical colours on which I thrive. My artwork in general is inspired by nature and local landscape but often emboldened by liberal use of colour.”

Not only do the artists all express their feelings. They acknowledge this river is an entity worthy of our continued respect and protection.

Almstedt explains, “It’s a river with great physical and natural diversity – I’m thinking of both flora and fauna. It maintains its huge volume of water throughout the year, which provides support for the aquatic life, animals, birds and nearly 2 million people who depend on it for their drinking water. It also provides a great amount of electrical energy, recreational space, aesthetic enjoyment and restful tranquility.

Bzdurreck adds, “I believe that the Ottawa River is a major artery of our Earth, a lifeline, bringing water down long distances through mid-eastern Canada to the St. Lawrence River. In the past, timber and furs were shipped by the waterways all the way to Europe.”

Taking a moment to reflect, she recalls a special moment in time. “In 1990, I witnessed one of the last log booms pulled down the river by a tug boat, right in front of my cottage.”

I’ll leave the last word to Shutt, who so loves playing on and with the river. Revealing her awe of it, she explains, “I have canoed the river around Grand-Calumet Island. I have sailed its deep water beside the looming cliffs at Deep River as well as on the big flat laziness of the river at Ottawa. It is hard to comprehend that this is the same river in each place. It always changes and surprises and can carry you away in more ways than one.”

It is not only artists who love the historic Ottawa River. It is you and me, too. Happily for us, these four creator’s obsession with the river’s eternal presence sparks their creative flow – and leaves us with their legacy of beauty.

The four invite you to contact them:
Margaret Chwialkowska: artistsincanada.com/margaret ; 613-729-9351;
John Almstedt: ottawariverinstitute.ca/art-gallery/contemporary, “john.almstedt@sympatico.ca”mailto:john.almstedt@sympatico.ca ;
Dale Shutt: daleshutt.com, dale@daleshutt.com, 819-648-2441;
Elke Bzdurreck: www.elkebzd.com, bzd@sympatico.ca

Katharine Fletcher is an author and freelance writer who live at Spiritwood, her heritage farm north of Quyon, Quebec. Her latest book, Capital Rambles: Exploring the National Capital Region includes explorations along the Ottawa River and is available at bookstores throughout Canada.

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