Doris McCarthy: a teacher of art and life

Artist, teacher and lover of life — Doris McCarthy lives on in her paintings and through those who knew her.

McCarthy died peacefully at age 100 on Nov. 25 at her home near the Scarborough Bluffs. Her funeral visitation was held Dec. 1.

The service brought together friends and schoolmates who shared memories of the Canadian icon.

Evelyn Stoynoff, a graduate from Toronto’s Central Technical School, said she is lucky to have been a student of McCarthy.

“We did still-life watercolour painting in her classes and she was very devoted and she paid attention to each of the students,” Stoynoff said. “She’d point out and say, “Give me your brush and I’ll show you on the side how you need to sweep the watercolour and the paint.”

McCarthy graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design in 1930, and two years later she taught at Central Technical School for 40 years.

Friends said McCarthy valued education and believed in life-long learning. In 1989, she graduated from the University of Toronto at Scarborough (UTSC) with a bachelor of arts in English.  The school’s art gallery, named after McCarthy, celebrated her 100th birthday in July when she was present via Skype.

McCarthy wrote three autobiographical books: A Fool in Paradise, The Good Wine and Ninety Years Wise.

“Back in 1985, she decided to go to the east coast to learn [printmaking],” friend and fellow artist Olivia Ruth said. “When she came back, I asked her how it was and she said it was wonderful because she figured she was with the best guy that could teach her. But also, she said, ‘I’d only just begun to learn.’ And that was always her attitude. I think most artists or most people who are accomplished never feel like they ever get there because they got to keep learning.”

Lora Carney, an art history professor at UTSC, said McCarthy’s work will continue to influence generations of artists and art lovers.

McCarthy planned to write a book on woman artists, but decided it was going to be too big of a book and take too much time away from her painting, Carney said.

“I started going to her house in Scarborough and meeting with her and taking away boxes of that material and eventually a lot of it ended up in the Art Gallery of Ontario library in a special collection,” Carney said. “So it’s benefiting lots of people now, lots of researchers.”

McCarthy taught art lessons as well as life lessons. While her students learned about art history and artistic skills and techniques, they also learned “how to live life.”

“She was happy. She was positive,” McCarthy’s friend Anne Tough said. “I think that’s one of the things that I learned from her — not to waste the day, not to waste time, just to act on things.”

McCarthy is known for her landscape paintings and portrayals of Arctic icebergs. Friends and former students said she was an innovative artist and the way she lived was reflected in her work.

“Because of her attitude towards life, she was able to sit, for instance, on an iceberg and paint a painting,” Ruth said. “She was sort of like a pioneer. There isn’t anything she wouldn’t try and there’s so much more to come from artwork when it’s done in the raw.”

McCarthy painted across Canada and ventured to different parts of the world, and would return with photographs she took to share with her students through slideshows.

McCarthy loved to share her passion for art with everyone around her, Tough said.

“When she travelled, instead of writing postcards home to people, she would draw the message,” Tough said.

Carrie Bryce, a collector of McCarthy’s paintings, said she saw the artist as an adventurous individual.

“She didn’t have limits,” Bryce said. “She went out and painted in the arctic by herself. She built her own house on land that she bought. She was a very empowered, very liberated woman to do that.”

McCarthy donated her house to the Ontario Heritage Trust to be used as an artist retreat after her death.

Bryce said she and her husband Alan Bryce, an art dealer, fell in love with McCarthy and would end up buying an art piece of hers at every show they attended.

“She’s our favourite artist,” said Bryce. “She saw things that other people didn’t see, like the beauty of icebergs, of things other people didn’t really paint. I do think she’s going to be recognized like the Group of Seven.”