A life-changing encounter with a famous artist

Irma Coucill and her portrait of Matt Kinch
The artist Irma Coucill and her portrait of Matt Kinch. Photo by Tom Coucill.

Little did Leasiders Craig and Matt Kinch know that an impromptu knock on a door on Broadway Avenue in 2003 would signal the start of a long-term, life-changing experience.

Fascinated by a car sitting in the driveway, Craig and his 14-year-old son knocked to ask the owner if they could look around the car.

The homeowner responded that the car was her son’s but that she would give them the keys to have a good look. The Kinches respectfully declined the gracious offer, gleefully examined the car, and then knocked again to thank the homeowner for her kindness.

The 85-year-old woman asked them in for tea, and while, Craig points out, they didn’t drink tea, they happily did that day.

For years after that visit, the Kinches and the woman remained close, sharing dinners, visits, and long conversations.

Matt had a spark of youthfulness the woman greatly appreciated and the two enjoyed many, many visits in her home.

That woman was Irma Coucill.

While you might not know her name, there’s a strong possibility you’ve seen her work.

Described by her family as “a classy lady and talented artist,” Coucill played a significant role in Canadian art history.

A prolific portrait artist, Coucill began her career when commissioned to draw portraits of Norwegian pilots stationed in Canada.

In 1958, when her husband Walter, also an artist, heard that the Hockey Hall of Fame was searching for a portrait artist, he recommended his wife. Thus began that stage of her career, which spanned 14 years. In all, Coucill contributed 370 portraits.

She also produced artwork for multiple newspapers and magazines. She was an artist for the Junior Encyclopaedia of Canada and produced two books, Founders & Guardians: 72 Portraits and Canada’s Prime Ministers, Governors General And Fathers Of Confederation: 83 Portraits. Coucill’s work is featured in multiple government buildings including Rideau Hall.

In addition to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the artist, who died aged 97 in 2015, produced portraits for the Canadian Business Hall of Fame, Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and the Canadian Indian Hall of Fame. Locally she is known for the familiar portrait of Leasider Agnes Macphail commissioned by the East York Foundation. For Canada’s Centennial in 1967, she provided a book of portraits of the 33 Fathers of Confederation.

She was also asked by several well-known figures to create portraits, including author Ian Fleming of James Bond fame.

For Coucill, though, everyone was held in the same esteem. Patti Kinch recalls that during one visit, the artist excused herself to take a call. She spoke for a few minutes, then said, “I must go, I have friends over.” It turned out that she was speaking with Stephen Harper, who was calling to thank her for the portrait she had done of him.

Matt Kinch remembers his multiple visits and what he calls “an unexpected friendship. I remember spending many afternoons where we would talk for hours sharing stories. She loved to laugh. (Our visits) became something I looked forward to. So much so that I would bring my friends over to meet her. She had no problem opening her studio to strangers and would give each guest the same attention and warmth. She would pull out portrait after portrait of Canadian legends (hockey being a standout for us young lads).”

What came from a random encounter led to a lifelong, life-enriching, friendship…and a beautiful portrait of Matt for which the Coucill refused to accept payment. Their friendship was payment enough.

About Susan Scandiffio 158 Articles
Susan Scandiffio was born in Scotland and raised in Toronto. While she holds a master’s degree in history, her main passion (besides her wonderful family) is sports. Susan can often be found at the A.C.C. or in a Leaside arena or playing field, scoping out stories for Leaside Life.