The following story is part of a volume of stories collected from the residents of the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. For more information on this project, click here.
Mary MacGillvray was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia, on January 2, 1920. She spent most of her married life in Antigonish where she has taught art from her home and at Dr. John Hugh Gillis High School. In her free time, she likes to read—anything from Corn Flakes packages to biographies. Mary still loves to sketch friends and is always looking for an intriguing face to draw.
Mary MacGillivray: Artist and Teacher
Mary MacGillivray’s whole life has been centered on art. She is an artist and a teacher of art. One of her works is featured in the People’s Place Library. It is entitled, “The University”. Mary began drawing at an early age. She used to practice by drawing movie stars such as Cary Grant and Gary Cooper. Her son, Brian, has kept all of these drawings, to Mary’s amazement. She taught herself to paint using oils and then acrylics. She never took a shine to using watercolours. She is just beginning to realize that her paintings are worth something. She knows that if she does not value her own work, no one else will. She really did not think her work was any good for the longest time. She thinks maybe this was because she compared her work too much to the work of other artists. She was always very critical of her own work, and her family and teachers never gave her too much encouragement. Mary does not consider herself an art critic to this day because she does not think there is one way to do anything.
Mary grew up in Sydney, Cape Breton. She was the oldest of five children, in a family of three boys and two girls. Her brothers have all died because they were heavy smokers. She smoked for a while and then stopped. Leona, her sister, is seven years younger and now lives in Phoenix, Arizona. When she was a little girl, Mary always came first in school in the subjects she liked: English, art and history. Her teachers were nuns, and they were not particularly nice. She remembers that they were always trying to put their students down. In general, though, Mary had fun during the Depression even though her family did not have much. She spent a lot of time skating and biking. Her father was too handsome for his own good. He was the best looking worker at the steel plant, where he worked in the general office. He was very witty, though, and knew how to tell a good story. Her mom was a little bossy and never really encouraged Mary with her art. Her mom also got very cross when she didn’t like something. Mary thinks now that this was because she was a little jealous of Mary’s ability. Mary thinks she got her brains from her mother. Her mother loved poetry, but Mary prefers the visual arts.
Mary always wanted to be a teacher and used to play school as a child. Mary taught her first art class to children in the basement of her home just after she married and moved to Antigonish. She had eight students to begin with, and from then on, she remembers being an art teacher all her life. She still has students coming up to her and saying that her art class was their favourite class. One of her students, Bruce MacKinnon, has gone on to be a well-known artist with the Chronicle Herald. Mary went from teaching in her home to teaching at Dr. John Hugh Gillis High School. After teaching there for a few years, the principal suggested that she go back to school to get her full teaching degree. She went to St. Francis Xavier University (StFX) and now has an X ring. She found some of her courses at StFX a little boring; her English course was taught by a nun and it was especially boring. However, Mary believes that education is what sets people apart. None of Mary’s children have chosen to pursue careers in the arts but they are all well educated: Burke is an engineer, Brian is a teacher, Rose Ann has a PhD in law, and Adele is now studying fashion design at Ryerson University in Ontario.
Mary has four paintings now hanging in her room at the R. K. MacDonald Nursing Home. They are: “Iris”, “Peonies”, “The Road Going Down to Arisaig Beach” and “Arisaig Beach”.
Mary remembers painting the iris. She just sat on the ground and chose to paint them then and there. She painted them at the perfect time because she knew they would lose their petals and not last long. She considers this painting to be one of her best works.
Mary remembers painting the peonies, but does not like this painting as much because she believes she did not complete the foreground of the painting to her satisfaction. She also prefers wild subjects because bouquets and house plants are “too perfect.”
Mary painted the trail down to Arisaig Beach on a beautiful autumn day. This painting is now her son, Brian’s, favourite.
One of Mary’s last paintings was of Arisaig Beach and the Northumberland Strait. She painted the scene because she has always loved the ocean. She chose to paint the exact spot where she and her children had taken a walk with the family dog, a lhaso apso. Their dog jumped off the cliff, and they all thought he was going to die. He lived!
She took all of her paints on this special, windy day. Her husband and his friend dropped her off at the beach before going on to New Glasgow to play golf. He left her with a golf umbrella, so she could keep out of the rain. She sat down and painted the beach in front of her just as storm clouds started to gather. She painted most of the painting during a Scotch mist.
Story collected by Lise de Villiers, Fall 2011. All photos by Kathryn Collicot.