It all started with a portrait.
The mysterious woman’s face with the haunting eyes, head wrapped in a shroud, a sprig of edelweiss, or other white flower, clasped in her hands.
Displayed on the second floor of the Mackie Lake House, once the home to school teacher Paddy Mackie and his Coldstream pioneering family, this and a number of painted portraits had piqued people’s curiosities.
Looking at the back of the canvasses, the one, a self-portrait, plus two others, and a portrait of Paddy himself as a young boy, were all signed by the same artist. A woman named Joyce Frances Devlin, née Noble.
“I remember Paddy showing the paintings with great flair,” said Bernice Nakashima, a former board member of the Mackie Lake House Foundation, who along with her colleagues, has worked to preserve the home as a historical site since Paddy died in 1999.
“He told us that the artist had made a name for herself in Ottawa.”
Looking at the self-portrait years later, Nakashima, who three years ago became responsible for the artist-in-residency program at the Mackie house, decided to track Devlin down.
“I Googled Joyce and found her. I asked why there were four paintings by her in the house.”
The story she heard would be the start of a new relationship –– one that would return Devlin back to her roots.
Sitting down to a tea, poured in floral painted porcelain cup, Devlin looks at her surroundings. It has been decades since she stepped inside the Mackie house, and now she has been welcomed back as this year’s artist-in-residence.
It was the late school teacher and tireless historian Anna Cail (née Fulton) who first brought Devlin to the Mackie’s residence to meet Paddy.
“We knew of each other. I remember having tea with Paddy many years ago,” remembered Devlin, now in her 80th year.
One of five children to Connie and Athelward Noble, Devlin came with her family from Fraser Lake near Prince George to live in Lumby. Her father later set up a planer mill at the base of what is now Noble Canyon in Lavington.
Devlin used to bus into town to attend Vernon High School (later named Clarence Fulton Secondary after Cail’s father.)
“Anna Cail was the most influential person in my life at that time. She was my English teacher and taught me poetry. She knew I was a mill kid, but treated me with respect. She always believed in me and supported me.”
As a nine-year-old, Devlin was taking piano lessons with an elegant British woman named Elizabeth Woods in Lumby, whom she said recognized her artistic talents.
“She saw one of my drawings and said I should go see Miss Brown,” said Devlin, referring to Jean Topham Brown, the late art teacher and original namesake of the Vernon Public Art Gallery.
“After a while, my mother consented, so I started taking the Greyhound bus from Lumby to Vernon to take art lessons at the back of Miss Brown’s house on Barnard Street (now 30th Avenue).”
Devlin decided to pursue art further after spending a summer working as a housemaid at the Orchardleigh Lodge (the current site of Summertree On the Lake in Coldstream), which burned down to the ground in 1962.
“That’s why I became an artist,” said Devlin. “At the end of that summer, I decided I never wanted to work for anyone else again, so I enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art.”
Returning home for summers, Devlin would complete her four-year bachelor of fine arts in the city, studying abstract, portraiture and landscape painting as well as symbolic imagery from such visionaries as the late Jack Shadbolt, Peter Aspell and Gordon Smith.
She would also discover her faith, after attending a Baha’i meeting at the Vancouver Hotel.
“My faith has always influenced my work,” explained Devlin, who has since made pilgrimage to Israel and is a devoted follower of Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the 19th century religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. “One of my teachers taught me the influence of religion in art at school, and I have used this as my modus operandi in my art ever since.”
After earning the Emily Carr Scholarship, Devlin travelled to Italy and Britain, where she studied drawing and classical mural design under James B. Michie. She showed her work with the London Group of Painters at the Bristol Museum and exhibited with the National Portrait Society in London.
After returning to Canada, she would get married, and give birth to two sons. When her marriage broke down, Devlin started working as a portrait artist in Calgary, and her paintings caught the attention of the wife of then Canadian senator John Lang Nichol.
“She asked the gallery, where my work was showing, whose it was, and they said ‘nobody.’ And she said ‘ I will not have anyone else do my family’s portraits,’” remembered Devlin, whose next commission would come from Ottawa.
It was there she was hired to paint the portrait of then prime minister Lester B. Pearson.
“(Pearson) talked about Canada and about its vastness. He wanted to take his favourite view of the Gatineau Hills to use in the background of the portrait. It was a wonderful experience. I remember Mrs. Pearson poured tea for me… I got 10 other commissions that day and the next day, 15 commissions,” said Devlin, who would go on to paint numerous senators and members of parliament.
Devlin eventually moved to the Canadian capital with her sons, and also had a brief stint where she travelled to Cape Dorset and painted a series of portraits of Inuit artists.
She also kept her ties close to home. In Vernon, she had an exhibition of paintings at the Topham Brown Art Gallery in 1969, and a number of her works remain in the permanent collection of the Vernon Public Art Gallery.
However, it’s been south of the nation’s capital where she has maintained a rather quiet existence, painting scenes in acrylics of the verdant Ottawa Valley, and showing her work in numerous galleries and private collections around the world.
“I’ve been painting scenes that people ordinarily would drive by, the marshlands and wetlands near my home,” she said. “My work has continued to evolve and develop and I’ve worked in diverse themes, but I always return to landscapes and nature which keeps my work fresh.”
Nakashima got to meet Devlin face-to-face when the artist had a one-woman exhibition at the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art at the Ottawa Art Gallery this past year.
She travelled to Devlin’s house in the woods in Burt’s Rapids and also spoke to Ottawa Art Gallery curator Catherine Sinclair about the impact Devlin’s work has had on the Canadian artistic landscape.
“This has been two years in the making to bring Joyce here to the Mackie Lake House,” said Nakashima. “It is so special to have her here.”
To welcome Devlin, the public is invited to an artist reception at the Mackie Lake House Sunday at 2 p.m., where some of her work will be exhibited. The Vernon Public Gallery is also exhibiting Devlin’s work from its permanent collection and will host an artist’s talk with her at the gallery, Saturday at 1 p.m. For more information, visit www.mackiehouse.ca.