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Stephen Weir/Handout

It was her birthday when Noreen Taylor handed out the final RBC Taylor Prize in March, 2020. Shortly after the gala luncheon, once the phone stopped ringing and the business of running a national book prize came to an end, she suddenly found herself, for the first time in years, with some uninterrupted moments in her studio to focus on painting.

The Toronto-based philanthropist and cultural leader had decided to wind down the literary award created in honour of her late husband, the journalist Charles Taylor, because she felt it had accomplished its mission. It was their goal to increase the readership of Canadian non-fiction writing, and, 20 years on, those titles are now ranked among the country’s bestsellers. In closing this chapter, though, Taylor, 75, began to feel there was another pursuit – something quite important to her – she’d been putting off for too long. She remembers thinking: “I’ve got to get back to who I was.”

Taylor, who is also the former chair of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and a board member of both the National Ballet of Canada and the Gardiner Museum, is known for her work as a champion of the arts. But she is also an accomplished artist herself.

Oeno Gallery/Oeno Gallery

Her CV shows a promising artistic career with an exhibition history that winds through three decades and includes influential programs like those at A Space Gallery and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery. Somewhere along the way, however, her work in education, governance and philanthropy overtook that of her paintbrush. Of course, she never stopped painting, but when there’s always a call to make or a meeting to attend, it becomes difficult to concentrate on a body of work, she says. With her duties to the prize complete, and, shortly after, the world quieted by COVID, the artist finally returned with focus to her studio. Now on view at Oeno Gallery in Bloomfield, Ont., Tout Est Possible is Taylor’s first exhibition of new paintings in 25 years.

Hanging in the Prince Edward County gallery, each of Taylor’s paintings recalls a particular scene observed from nature. The artist evokes these moments through a keen palette and what she calls “the music” of her impasto brush strokes, which nest lattice-like in the foreground of the panel. Autumn Glory, for example, burns with the bonfire hues of fall. It’s a kaleidoscopic field thick with rich burgundy panes that let peek through the crimson slivers and flecks of gold in the back. She saw the sight that inspired the painting on a neighbourhood walk with her Weimaraner, Emma. It was a brilliant red maple at the peak of its colour change; the tree had just begun to lose its leaves, opening small windows through which to glimpse the foliage behind.

Another painting, titled Under Spring’s Canopy, is a sheet of jade briskly rippling. Here, Taylor was picturing the early leaves so fresh from their buds that they’re almost transparent, “like stained glass,” she says. “They’re never still … it’s early spring and there’s always a bit of movement in the air.” The rhythm of her brush articulates the energy of the season. It’s true in each work. Storm Approaching is charged with anticipation, while Reflections on the Vimy Memorial, with its slower, more restrained and deliberate marks, is solemn and contemplative. She once heard the Canadian abstract artist Paul Fournier say, “Eighty per cent of what you know is based on how you feel about what you’ve seen.” The idea has become critical to Taylor’s practice: She tries to paint how she feels about what she’s seen.

Noreen Taylor's Autumn Glory.Oeno Gallery/Handout

MidWinter Snowfall captures the twilight sky, like a mixed bag of cotton candy, streaked all over with comets of snow during a rather magical January blizzard. It was the type of storm when everything stops and everyone just watches. Taylor’s paintings are similarly transfixing. You wade into them. They immerse you. Like some relative of forest bathing, they offer respite and calm in a splendour that’s inspired by nature. And who couldn’t use a break about now? “They’re not demanding action of us, so much as they’re asking us to make a kind of attitudinal decision about how we go forward,” says Oeno Gallery owner Carlyn Moulton. Tout Est Possible lends a balm of optimism based in the simple pleasures of looking and recognizing the beauty that’s always nearby.

The paintings arrived at this moment, Taylor says, partly because it seems so dark in so many different respects (and, accordingly, net proceeds from the exhibition will go to Save the Children to help kids made homeless in recent conflicts). But the artist calls herself “the eternal optimist”; she is resolute that even small positive actions will change the world for the better. “I was very aware of how challenged our lives have been in these last two years,” she says, “and yet we can concentrate on the challenges or we can concentrate on the wonderful world we live in.” She has chosen to focus on the activities that will “expand your joy.”

“I find Noreen’s outlook on life, which is reflected in her painting, to be the message we need to hear right now,” Moulton says. “The seasons will continue to return. There’s that cycle: there’s dormancy, but then there’s also life.”

Noreen Taylor’s exhibition Tout Est Possible is on view through April 24 at Oeno Gallery in Bloomfield, Ont.