Merle Harstone’s paintings, so full of colour – laughing, dreaming, ruminating – can hardly be confined by the abstraction her style calls for. In “Meditative Posture Belly Roll,” one of a series of acrylic paintings inspired by meditation, she points out the very distinct outline of the human figure, the gentle slope from the hip to waist and the soft pink encouraging peacefulness and calm. In some the use of mixed media – porcelain, glass, wire – adds a physical tension to the piece, or forces a reflection on perspective; in other works the geometry and placement of specific elements suggests a journey, carrying themes of birth and growth.
Painting is the language Merle uses to express herself, she says, but also to think things through. Her art provides her with a means to struggle; sometimes it is through virtue of the process as much as the finished work that she says helps “the piece become the counterpoint to restore balance.” In this way these paintings capture who she is at that time. “When you come to everything you do,” she says, “we bring who we are at that point.”
Merle started in painting ten years ago after taking a one-week course at Magiollys in Orangeville, where she was immediately drawn to the abstract style. “People either get it or they don’t,” she says. “It will be natural or it will be painful.” For Merle the calling was a natural one. “It was like singing and dancing,” she recalls. “It was wonderful for me to be lead into it and now work in it.”
Her inner life is not her sole source of inspiration; she draws much from her surroundings. Merle grew up in Don Mills and lived in Mississauga for a time before moving to her current residence in Caledon, on the same land where the historic town of Silver Creek used to reside. Silver Creek was once a regular stop for the stage coach that would pass through on its way from Owen Sound to Port Credit; the railway put in south of the location caused the town to shutter. The remains of the grist mill and wagon wheel repair shop can still be seen partially buried on Merle’s property.
“It’s cottagey but it’s homey, it’s so homey,” Merle says as she walks by the creek that runs alongside her yard. “It’s like a big, warm hug. We’ve felt more at home here than ever.”
The sounds and atmosphere around Caledon all contribute to her art. “I love the beauty of the place,” she says. “It feeds me, it nurtures me.”
As does her connection with other artists in the area, with whom she’s part of the Caledon Hills Studio Tour, among other communities.
“I feel connected to the home and the house and the land,” she says. “And to feel connected to the people as well is wonderful.”