Artwork by Barbara E. Mercer,  Source of Dreams

Barbara Mercer
Source of Dreams

acrylic on canvas
signed and dated 1990 lower right; signed, titled, dated “Feb. 19/90” and inscribed “No. 161” & “Spirit Pond Suite - The Search for Harmony at Spirit Pond” on the reverse; unframed
30 x 24 ins ( 76.2 x 61 cms )

Auction Estimate: $500.00$300.00 - $500.00

Price Realized $390.00
Sale date: August 23rd 2022

The Estate of Barbara Mercer

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Barbara E. Mercer
(1933 - 2019)

Barbara Mercer was a painter and poet, born in Galt (later Cambridge), Ontario, who moved to Toronto in 1950, where she lived and worked as a scenic artist and set and costume designer for Centre Stage Theatre. In the early 1960s, she specialized in pen and ink and pencil portrait drawings, and sketched internationally well-known classical and jazz musicians and ballet dancers, such as Glen Gould, Igor Stravinsky, and Isaac Stern. Mercer was the first woman allowed to attend the rehearsals of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for the purpose of sketching the musicians.
In 1962, she produced the cover and illustrations of opera stars for Opera in Canada. In 1964, she had an exhibition at Gallery Pascal on Yorkville Avenue, which included her drawings and monoprints. In 1964, in a press release for the Gallery Pascal show, she said: “Without music I could not draw a line. My love of music forced me to search it out in rehearsal halls, concert halls, in the streets, in the parks, in the jazz clubs, in coffee houses and in the hearts of men who devote their lives to it. I love to draw these men at work. The music picks up my pen and draws free lines across the page.”
From 1963 to 1965, she studied art in New York, learning techniques and art history. Upon her return to Toronto, in 1965 and until 1979, she was variously, a scenic artist, set designer, and makeup artist for various theatre, opera and ballet groups and did additional work for the CBC, CFTO TV and TV Ontario. (At TVO, she and her art were discovered by Harold Town who traded his work for one of hers). In 1973, she moved to Markham, to live in “Vinegar Hill” where she worked from 1979, as a full-time artist with increasing success. In 1983, she moved to Caledon East, to the country home she called “Spirit Pond” which inspired her Spirit Pond Suite.

In 1981, her show The View from Vinegar Hill at the Bau-Xi Gallery in Toronto, brought her recognition and was the subject of a CBC film, The View from Vinegar Hill. Painted in a naïve, impressionistic style and a mood of gaiety, her paintings were evocations of imagined scenes, such as The Vinegar Hill Bathers (1980, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa). She showed works she painted during the winter at the Art Gallery of Peel in 1988. Her imagery was often related to fantasy or even most important, her dreams. In 1988, she began to record these dreams, finding them the truest part of her life and the source of her deepest inspiration.

In 1989, she had an accident to her right hand, severing the tendon and nerve, and making it impossible to paint. But her effervescent personality did not allow her to stop making art. She switched to her left hand and found “it” didn`t want to mix colour but to work with pure thick colours, red and blues. In her work of the 1990s, she painted portrait and still-life characterized by strong pattern, outline and colour, and simplified shape, and most important, inspired by her dreams. Her paintings developed a dancing buoyancy: they were mostly of archetypal symbols such as the moon, mixed with animals and flowers.

In 1991, she participated in her first international exhibition in Luleå, Sweden in The Autumn Art Exhibition of the Scandinavian Shield, an invitational show in which artists from eleven countries participated. The only Canadian, she showed twenty-eight paintings, and received critical recognition in print. In 1993, the catalogue of her show titled “Dreams of the Night: Barbara Elizabeth Mercer” at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, explained her belief that her paintings were metaphors for an inward journey and were the “poem of her life”. In 2003, her "My Canadian Icons: Nine Portraits in the Shape of a Diamond" was chosen to represent Canada at the Biennale Internazionale dell`Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy.

Mercer's paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, the Peel Art Gallery and Museum, and in many other collections, including private collections from Australia and Scandinavia, and Europe.

Barbara Mercer was also a poet, and in 2004, published her first book, Mystic Wills, followed by twelve others.
In the 1990s, following the death of her long-term partner Gerry Milne Moses (1913-1994), an official war photographer, the art director for The Imperial Oil Review and a prominent figure on the Toronto art scene, she moved to Toronto`s Cabbagetown where she lived on Sackville Street and wrote poetry till her death in 2019.

Mercer`s life-long appreciation of, and association with, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is reflected in the fact that the Toronto Symphony is one of the three major beneficiaries of her estate, along with the Arts and Letters Club and TVO Public Broadcasting.

We extend our thanks to Canadian art historian Joan Murray for contributing this biography.