Bright-hearted teacher of art

ARTHUR LISMER was one of Canada's foremost painters in the 1920s, and for at least two decades thereafter. Just as important, he was a great teacher of children, for whom he devised superbly effective art programs. Lismer, a lean, sensitive-looking man, started out as a commercial artist in Toronto, following his emigration from Sheffield, England, in 1911. His long involvement in art education began in 1916, when he moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to become principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design. When he arrived, fewer than a dozen students were registered there.

Lismer's aim, as he expressed it at the time, was to have the institution ``provide instruction to students, craftsmen, teachers, public school scholars, and most of all to aid in the creation of an art-loving public.''

That was no easy matter. Halifax's art fraternity was insular and defensive and nowhere near the mainstream of Canadian art, which coursed through the provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

Even so, during his three-year term at the school, Lismer substantially increased the enrollment, introduced bursaries and prizes, and brought in important exhibitions of Canadian art from the National Gallery of Canada.

Returning to Toronto, Lismer became a member of the Group of Seven, which, from around 1926 until 1931, was Canada's most vibrant and influential body of artists. In 1926, he helped form Toronto's Art Students' League. In a diversity of activities the league extended art classes to underprivileged children. A year later Lismer was appointed educational supervisor at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario).

While at that gallery Lismer established a children's art program, considered at the time to be the most successful in North America. It was innovative to the extent that, in 1936, he received and accepted an invitation to create a similar program in South Africa.

Lismer was later offered a position as educational supervisor at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He accepted the job and worked with children there for 28 years, right through to the end of his life in 1969.

Staunchly Canadian in his own art, Lismer, writing in 1933, urged Canadians to show ``sympathy'' for the country ``as a heritage of great national and aesthetic sustenance for the creative activity of a new people....''

According to art historian Dennis Reid, Lismer's first ambitious canvas, ``The Guide's Home,'' painted in 1914, was notable for its ``high-keyed color and open, suffusing light.'' Mr. Reid said Lismer believed in isolating the essentials in a scene and working ``with a conscious design in mind.''

As distinguished a painter as he was, Lismer fell short of the recognition afforded certain of his friends and colleagues. His profound interest in teaching art to the young overshadowed his personal productivity and, in the eyes of art connoisseurs, became the predominant factor in his life's work.

Lismer was an extraordinarily patient, kind, and gentle man; all those years that he spent working with children attests to that. I think this painting, ``Bright Land,'' also gives evidence of gentleness.

As wild and untamed as the scene so obviously is, the artist has bestowed a soft roundness on the land, trees, and cliffs; the landscape naturally inclines to a sort of jagged fierceness, but he has smoothed everything over. In comparison with the works of his colleagues in this genre, ``Bright Land'' is almost a pictorial expression of leniency and amiability.

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