by Maggie Estey
Emmaline Mortimer, painter of birds, is a lot like a bird herself. She knows it.
“I am flighty as a bird,” she says. “I do tend to fly.”
As we at Art + Concepts have been gearing up for our November 28th Christmas Party, through which we have decided to introduce Mortimer’s series of bird paintings, I’ve learned a lot about the Fredericton-based artist and her life. Now knowing her story, I picture Emmaline Mortimer as a hummingbird zipping between locations, professions, subject matters and even mediums.
Mortimer is a painter of birds, but her work features several subjects: Other types of animal, plant life, crystals and minerals, an especially vibrant series on candy she has coming up, and she has turned her brush on herself, exploring her identity with some recent self portraits. Along with having graduated with a degree in Fine Arts from NSCAD in Halifax, Mortimer has earned an Honours in Philosophy and a Major in Psychology from UNB Fredericton. She worked in personal care as she prepared for medical school, ultimately deciding that she did not really want to be a doctor. Mortimer is also a talented beadworker, and for a time had a booth at both the Boyce Farmer’s Market and the Fredericton Flea Market. Mortimer worked in floral design, and has devoted some years to learning and teaching Chinese Martial Arts.
She is a timid species of human. She paints birds because she finds colourful plumage beautiful and a joy to paint; she loves to penetrate the particular qualities of each little creature through her rendering of them — but ultimately, she admits, her pieces are like little mirrors turned on herself, in part because she is a flier.
Anxiety sufferers are people who can get stuck on the fight or flight mechanism built into their bodies — Mortimer’s background in psychology gives her special understanding of this, and she really works to resist the urge to bail in stressful situations. Thankfully, nature is one thing that soothes her body and mind.
“I have always felt close to nature, ever since I was a little girl,” she recollects.
The feeders at the Mortimer family’s home, outside of St. Stephen, attract hundreds of birds. All kinds of sparrows, especially redpolls, Hairy, Downy and Pileated woodpeckers, evening grosbeaks, grackles, cow birds, red and yellow wing blackbirds, nuthatches, hummingbirds, finches.
Later on in her life, Mortimer drew a lot of strength and inspiration from a three-year stint planting trees in Alberta; She loved working, sleeping and living outside. The physical labour was difficult, but this was tempered by the calm of the woods, and the presence of animals. Her memories of that time seem dominated by warmly-recollected anecdotes about various encounters with animals. The dogs that tree planters were encouraged to bring with them for the summer to provide protection from predators. The beavers who built a dam down the hill from one of the camps and woke her in the middle of the night, slapping their tails on the water to ward off danger. Even the mother Grizzly that charged her and her supervisor when they stopped on the highway to see what a group of cars and trucks had stopped to look at.
“The tree line was about fifty feet from the highway, there was quite a bit of space between us, so we thought we were safe,” Mortimer remembers. “[The bear] was approaching us along the tree line and when she got horizontal to us, she stood up on her hind legs, huffed, and charged. We were standing in a group and she aimed at the biggest man in the group. He was videoing the whole scene.”
True to form, Mortimer flew.
“We scattered. I screamed like a little girl, waved my hands in the air and ran around the back of the truck. As I came around the other side, she saw me and broke off her attack. She was huge. I have never seen any animal so big and powerful. Afterwards, my supervisor and I went for a little drive to calm down. I think I was in shock for days.”
All the same, trauma aside, Mortimer says she knew what was going on.
“I intuitively knew that she was not really after blood. I think she just wanted to teach us some respect.”
It was one of many lessons she appreciates from nature and the animal kingdom.
“I do understand that, in the forces of nature, there is the instinct to survive, and there are always forces of violence and destruction. However, because these are natural, the power is handled appropriately. Thinking about, observing, and or feeling the spirit of the various beings in the animal kingdom can be quite grounding. I could make reference to Eastern Medicine here, as well as Shamanism. It is easy to do, just meditate on whatever you want to attune to.
“Or… do a painting.”
Mortimer has been a migratory species of human, like so many Maritimers these days. She says birds migrate for the winter, and people migrate for the money.
“The interesting thing to me is that most people actually return, like I did. Once you realize that the search for money is actually an empty pursuit without family and friends, then your priorities tend to change.”
Mortimer returned to St. Stephen to be with her family and help care for her ailing grandfather. She has been in New Brunswick ever since, and it has meant a lot to her to be able to stay in this region.
And it means a lot to us, as a gallery, to be able to shine a light on this very special work. The birds that pop into Mortimer’s work are not always local — she spends hours researching bird species all over the world, studying their habitats, songs, and, of course, gorgeous plumage — but Mortimer is.
Our Christmas party, featuring nine of Mortimer’s birds on canvas (and hot apple cider, and three kinds of shortbread!), starts at 11 a.m. on Saturday, November 28th, and goes until close at 5 p.m. (though the treats may not last so long) at our location on the second floor of Delta Fredericton, 225 Woodstock Rd.
Art + Concepts will also feature 26 of Emmaline Mortimer’s small paintings in its 2015 Advent Calendar — a dear little Christmas present in your e-mail inbox every day, November 29 to December 24. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to subscribe.