By Kevin Somers
We were visiting a cottage on a Muskoka island earlier this summer and between the ideal setting and toys that float, it was picture perfect. Inside, large windows provided spectacular views from every glance, but amidst nature’s best, an oil painting by Ellen Cowie stood out. It is a commissioned piece of canoes on the dock, with the lake and a neighbouring island in the background. The sun is twinkling off rippling water and tranquility emanates from the canvas. There’s a photographical precision to the piece, yet a surreal richness that couldn’t have come from a camera. All the guests stopped to admire the work and agreed it was something special.
I had tea with Ellen recently and she’s as lively as her paintings. “Family is everything to me,” she said. Indeed, the second youngest of 10 children, Ellen and husband, Brian, married for 25 years have 6 kids of their own, between 23 and 14. “They’re all wonderful people,” she said of the extended clan.
Ellen has paint in her veins: her mother’s mother worked in oil and her father’s brother was a gifted sketch artist. Grandmother, Rose McGuire, raised 10 kids during the depression and didn’t begin painting until she was in her 60s. Although she began late, Grandmother was talented and prolific. “Her paintings were always around,” Ellen said. “Her style was more towards realism.” Ellen’s uncle, was not a professional artist, but, “He drew and sketched everyday. One of my strongest memories from childhood is him coming on Sunday and sketching with a pencil or a piece of charcoal. In a few seconds, and with 15 lines, he could capture a portrait. He was a truly an amazing artist.”
Cowie has taken something from both, combining the realism of her Grandmother with the startlingly swiftness of her Uncle. “I go straight to work,” she said, “no sketching or measuring, I just start painting with oil.” Although deceased, Ellen’s ancestors speak to her still, “Sometimes when I step back and look at my painting, I hear my uncle say, That’s enough, Ellen, and then my grandmother says, Maybe a little more over here, Dear.”
Because of higher obligations, Ellen has only been painting full time since 2001. “I always knew I would be an artist surrounded by family,” she said, but how she’s arrived at this point is the stuff of legends. “I got married when I was 18. I loved Brian Cowie and wanted to have a family with him.” Brian’s career meant the family has moved 15 times. “There were times when I’d go months without painting,” she said. Laughingly, she explained how her family would force her to go and paint because her withdrawal from creating made her irritable. “I always came back feeling better.”
After misdiagnoses, it was discovered in 2000 that Ellen had severe thyroidosis and her nodal gland was removed. The three years previous, while raising her family with a wonky thyroid, Ellen had also been parking cars at Casino Rama. “I was exhausted all the time. In the hospital, a light came on. I thought, what am I doing?” and she gave up parking for painting.
Brian is Native, so Ellen has full status and received assistance from Kagita Mikam, an organization dedicated to helping First Nations people. “Their financial and moral support really helped me get started and I’m so grateful to them.” Another break came from Ellen’s brother, Jim Donnelly, owner of Foot’s Bay Marina on Lake Joseph in Muskoka. In 2002, he provided Cowie space to take part in the area’s annual studio tour, The Big Art Thing. The show was a success and later that summer Jim asked Ellen to return to the marina because he had a surprise. Jim had converted part of his business into a seasonal gallery. “Go home and paint over the winter and fill the gallery with nice work,” he said.
It was a daunting prospect, but when opportunity knocked, Cowie answered with enthusiasm. Along with her talent and work ethic, the gallery provides Ellen with an ideal location. During the summer, she paints outside the gallery and the public can watch her work. “Wayne Gretzky’s family watched me paint every day for 5 days while they were on vacation,” she said. When a young man commented to Janet Gretzky that Ellen’s painting was like a photograph, Janet, who knows Greatness, replied, “No, it’s better than a photograph.”
Person, place, or thing, Cowie is confident; “If I see it, I can paint it. I’m not afraid of the canvas.” She prefers commissioned work, “It’s challenging. If someone wants me to paint something they are passionate about it, so I have to find inspiration in it too.” You can see that inspiration at www.artincanada.com/ellencowie/. This may be the ancestors talking, but I think Ellen Cowie is going to be BIG.