Sticks and Stones: 2021 Orillia Retrospective An Exhibition by Will McGarvey Review by Reva Berman: Visual Artist and Biologist

Sticks and Stones: 2021 Orillia Retrospective

An Exhibition by Will McGarvey 

Review by Reva Berman: Visual Artist and Biologist, October 2021.


The paint never had a chance.  Spread lusciously and energetically, the paint never had a chance to decide if it would elicit joy or fear.  Will McGarvey’s  paintings are phenomenally strong, and sing  about the beauty of the land. It is revitalizing to see. Yet, each piece has a subtext, that there is something awry. We feel somewhat wary. This show strikes a balance.

One is drawn into the crisp Canadian landscape. The horizon; the big sky of complex illuminated clouds.  Like cotton, like candy, creamy yellows. The paint is singing on the canvas. And suddenly, one sees a woman slaking her thirst in a puddle on a country road while animals also come to drink, a few of them directing their gaze at the viewer. The fertile land full of infinite life.(Buffalo Slaughter Irony: Feeding the Children Mercury, 60”x40”). Stop! Don’t drink. Wait! This  beautiful scene is land poisoned by industry and greed of the culture. Kill the buffalo that once provided for the people in balance with nature and replace them with agrobusiness. Yet the shock of this disaster is balanced by the intense beauty of an expansive painted surface..

On the horizon, the far shore, a beloved river deep in the background.  The river is deep red.  On another horizon, the far shore resonating, an ice hut in the foreground, all reflection and light.  The loneliness of winter. The harsh danger of the landscape somehow lives in lines and brush strokes of red, scattered from painting to painting.  What is the iconic red element? 

Is it the threat of uncertainty in the beauty of nature? Is it a storm, a chemical, a flood, the freezing cold, climate change, the blood of the earth, pollution? COVID?  Populism and the politics of hate?

That red, deep in the landscape, vibrating off the greens leaves me feeling uneasy, despite the tasty beauty of the paint itself.  Is our environment becoming inhospitable? Is the beautiful land becoming dangerous? The artist is forcing us to consider the absurd and the ironic. (The Refuge, 36”x40”)

For several years, McGarvey has painted a political threat beyond the horizon. A group of paintings  hang in their own alcove; based on historic photos of race riots and the KKK in the US. This body of work predicted the populism and violence that ultimately came to pass recently in the US. That red again, together with green, and echoes of how brutal humans can be.  A portrait of the leader (Man in a Red Hat, 30”x30”) and most chilling, a group of shrouded gathered for a lynching (The Sheriff Wore White, 16”x20”). Images that you will not soon forget.

The artist wants us to see the beauty of the land, as it is our strength; but in order to truly be strong we must also know and see the risks. Be aware.  McGarvey proposes that we see our world for what it truly is, the dichotomy of a brilliant day (Morning Light on Water’s Edge, 48”x60”) and the complexity of visualizing a virus moving through our world (Hope on the Horizon in World War C, 48”x60”).  Even more, visualizing the insidiousness of populism, riots, (White Knightshirts for Red Hats and Blue Lines, 36”x48”) all left hanging with a spilled vase of US culture (Swan Song of Evening, 30”x30”).  

The paint never had a chance.  Does it define beauty or fear? The paint, so masterfully applied, defining reflection and shadow across big space. The paint feels eternally wet, on melting ice, on the cold slushy main road through a small town (Winter Shadows in Maynooth, 30”x40”).  The forces of the world, resonating off the canvas. The deep chill of winter; the heat of summer and the intensity of colour and form vibrating off the canvas. 

Those who are familiar with the Orillia Museum of Art and History know that there is a spot in the main gallery where a window to the spacious alleyway outside lets in the true northern light.  At a certain angle one sees public art on the wall outside the window,  commemorating another Canadian landscape painter and his vision. And that’s how I happened to view the show together with Arthur Shilling (1941-1986) whispering through the window. When you walk through this exhibition you will see him yourself,  reminding us of how important it truly is that we have the beauty of colours to lift us beyond the shadows of our darkest feelings and thoughts. And that is how it is in these fluid oil paintings, natural form is broken down into shape and colour, texture and a surface that emerges from the canvas into our space.   McGarvey proposes to power our struggle with fear by using the energy we feel when beholding the underlying beauty of our world, all the colours… matter how ugly or scary it may seem.

As the paint is the star of this show, and its masterful application, it is only fitting that the paint be used to bond our real world with the abstracted world.  Take time to consider the works produced with palette scrapings, and how the images produced bridge into the paintings of the same palette (Cherry Blossom Life on Wonderland Avenue, 60”x192”).

The bones of the earth, the elements of our environment…. said to break our bones. Our world is filled with a beauty that sustains us as well as with a violence that strikes terror (Three Souls Float Away, 8”x8”). Will McGarvey gives us a bridge to consider the forces of the world, and the immediacy of our existence.  Humour and irony intermixed.  Is The Last Snow Angel the last this spring, or the last  snow angel for ever-lasting more, melodramatically invoking climate change in an act of joy? (The Last Snow Angel, 24”x36”)  “Get off the ice!”, I yell inside my brain, “it’s melting!”.  The ice hut hums, warm in the light, hundreds and thousands of reflections.

Each painting hums and resonates, as you may see if you are fortunate enough to be able to see Sticks and Stones in person.  I urge you to do so, as many have done to date, and to bring your thoughts back to the artist, to the curator, to OMAH and engage in a dialogue to further these important ideas.  Yes, the art is beautiful. Yes, the execution and technique is masterful.  But it is the ideas that resonate in proposing how we may consider and value beauty, and how we might bring it into our lives a little more.