The Art of Being Mary

Posted on November 12, 2014 under Storytelling with 4 comments

Mary MacGillivray CMYK

This portrait was drawn by one of Mary’s former students, Bruce MacKinnon



There is an art explosion in Antigonish.

In a community that’s traditionally sports mad, art and culture are giving the athletes a run for their money. The area is home to several art galleries showcasing up and comers and established artists.  The Antigonish International Film Festival, Antigonight: Art after Dark and Antigonish Art Fair: Art in the Park are examples of the proliferation of artistic expression.

I took art in grade school under the watchful eye of one of the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame (the CNDs). As hard as she tried to encourage me, I just wasn’t cut out to be an artist.  My finest creation was a paint-by number special from The Met in the Mall.  The sisters were forever imploring us to pray.  Mother St. Roderick suggested that I pray to one saint in particular: St. Jude.  St. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases.  I know now why she put CND on my art work: Can Not Draw.

Like most things in life, it can take a very long time for dreams to become reality. It takes hard work, dedication and vision.  And wisdom.  You don’t become recognized as an artistic hub without solid groundwork being laid.  In Antigonish, we owe a lot of the current success and prominence to a humble ninety-something woman; Mary MacGillivray.

I bumped into Mary recently and we had an animated discussion on a wide range of topics. Mary taught art in the school system for many years.  Not only did she give many budding artists a start, she mentored other art teachers who still speak of her glowingly.

However, it was when young people had a chance to attend art lessons in her home that she had the greatest influence.

Simply put, her basement studio on Hawthorne Street was magical.

We all know what it feels like when we just can’t wait to go somewhere. The sense of anticipation, knowing that we are going to do something we absolutely love, is hard to describe.  Such was Mary’s art room.

It was a well-worn path around the back of the house that hundreds, if not thousands of students trod to meet the smiling face of Mary MacGillivray.

Mary wasn’t patronizing. She treated her students as equals … as adults.  She challenged them.  She could have done the easy things, but didn`t.  She wasn`t afraid to let her charges dabble in some tough mediums like oil.  It was ok if things didn`t turn out right the first time.  Trial and error was not only an accepted methodology; it was part of her creed.  She believed that lurking inside each and every child, was an artist.  They wouldn`t necessarily become famous or do it for a living, but they would gain confidence by learning how to express themselves through their art.

For many, Mary MacGillivray’s art classes provided a safe haven from the noise and confusion that often accompany the teenage years. Her warm, distinctive voice was infused with a faint Celtic lilt.  It welcomed her students and drew them in to the wonders that lay in store.  The hours passed too quickly.

Filled with a sense of accomplishment, they rushed home at supper hour. The evening meal always tasted so good on art afternoons.   How better to end the day than a favorite supper of home-made macaroni and cheese topped with ground crackers, a feast of mother`s own brown beans or fresh out of the oven bread baked by Mrs. J.

Mary’s greatest masterpiece was the art of kindness.

The path to the art room may be overgrown but the fruits of her labour are everywhere to be seen.

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