Leaside artist Martha Johnson loves painting outside in Leaside’s gullies and ravines. You may even spot her when you’re strolling through Leaside’s industrial areas or the Don Valley. Warning: Do not approach! Martha recently revealed to me, “I prefer not to be disturbed during my marathon painting sessions. I often start early afternoon and don’t pack up until the sun sets.”
Martha enthused about the joy of plein air painting. “Painting outdoors permits me to fully immerse in my art and I’m treated to wildlife surprising me as they appear, then disappear. A major portion of my visual art practice, painting and sculpting local wildlife, began with the sighting of a grey wolf crossing Wicksteed in Thorncliffe over 20 years ago.”
Martha fell in love with creating from an early age. As a young child, she remembered colouring with purple and then scribbling with orange crayon, as she discovered the joy of colours. Recognizing a budding talent, her father, who worked in an advertising department, started bringing home art supplies for her to experiment with.
To add to her artistic cred, Martha has a familial connection to the famous artist Tom Thomson. “My Uncle Bill (William) Little was the music director for the Taylor-Statten Camps in the 1930s. Spending a lot of time up north, he met a lot of people and was intrigued by the mysterious 1917 death of Thomson. He was also a family court judge and sought out and gathered facts from locals that resulted in the publication of his book, The Tom Thomson Mystery, in 1970. A follow-up was published in 2018 by Bill’s son John Little, Who Killed Tom Thomson?”
After graduating with a Fine Arts degree from University of Guelph Martha worked as a costume and set designer with the Canadian Stage Company. A highlight was The Dream in High Park’s 1987 production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Next, she worked in advertising as an art director predominantly making cold calls to agencies.
Her advertising boss left a lasting impression on young Martha. “He continually pushed me to come up with a strong idea before embarking on any project. He’d say to me, ‘What’s this idea? It needs to be stronger. I need to defend it to my client.’ This concept of having a strong idea at the outset has informed all my projects and artworks.”
Throughout her career, Martha has crossed paths and studied with many artists including Tom Hodgson, a Painters’ Eleven group member along with Harold Town, Jack Bush, Oscar Cahén, Hortense Gordon, and other renowned Canadian artists. “Tom gifted a cherished easel to me that initially belonged to Oscar Cahén, who was shocked when I met with him in the 1970s. His once pristine easel that he’d initially given to Tom Hodgson was now paint-splattered from years of my use. I admit, I’m not the tidiest artist.” Inspired by the Group of Seven and their colleagues, Martha continues to seek out locations where they painted in and around Leaside and the Don Valley.
Martha’s local landscapes, including her painting Chartreuse Laneway, Spring Branches, painted near Stickney Avenue and Laird Drive, will be showcased at a solo exhibition entitled Veritas Green at Pier 1 Gallery 55 St. Clair Street West. Learn more at: https://www.marthajohnson.ca.