PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-4251
Donald Cameron Mackay was an east coaster through and through. He lived by the sea and loved to paint it. This blending of location and talent led to a collection of colourful images of harbour life on the East Coast. Although he was born in Fredericton in 1906, his family moved to Halifax when he was just six. As a young man he attended the Nova Scotia College of Art in Halifax, Chelsea Polytechnic in London, the Académie Colarossi in Paris, and the University of Toronto. Later he taught at the Northern Vocational School in Toronto, lectured at Dalhousie University and eventually became principal of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.
In September 1939, Mackay took leave from teaching and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in Halifax. It wasn’t long before the example of Arthur Lismer, one of his teachers, an official war artist in World War I and a member of the Group of Seven, inspired him to pursue the idea of a war art program. Mackay wrote to H.O. McCurry, director of the National Gallery of Canada, and McCurry forwarded his letter along with other letters he had received to the Defence Department. In February 1942, Mackay was appointed an official war artist attached to the RCN.
He worked entirely on the East Coast, where he felt most at home, and painted scenes that are jaunty and bright. The artist was fascinated by the interaction between man and sea, and this passion determined the composition and subject of much of his art. Mackay wrote, “A particular thing would strike me…. The relationship of people to their surroundings, as well as the activity, the sheer physical efforts…. Passing cables and securing depth charges…the gadgetry of the bridge of the destroyer and the various duties that were being carried out….”
PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—AN19710261-4208
If we imagine the Atlantic during the war, it is only natural to conjure up images of cold grey waters and sullen skies, but Mackay concentrated on that other Atlantic that we Maritimers are so familiar with. He gives us sparkling water lit with glowing skies. This summer palette is reminiscent of the colours Lismer used during his years painting the Atlantic coast as a war artist in WW I. Mackay took it one step further and chose compositions as sunny as his paints. Vivid signal flags are hoisted in the wind, while seamen bustle about, happy and industrious. His sailors are highlighted against a palette of blue and gold, a technique that imparts light and warmth to his work. Mackay’s vision is an optimistic one.
After the war–in 1945–he became principal of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He died in 1979.
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