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lives lived

Louis de Niverville.courtesy of the family

Louis de Niverville: Artist. Traveller. Gardener. Teacher. Born June 7, 1933, in Andover, England; died Feb. 11, 2019, Oakville, Ont., of lung cancer; aged 85.

When Louis de Niverville was six months old, his parents moved back to Ottawa from Andover, England, where he was born. Then, when he was six years old, he caught spinal tuberculosis and spent five lonely years in hospital, the last year in a plaster body cast. His parents could visit, but he was secluded from his 12 siblings for fear of infection. He missed them dearly. To entertain himself, he would cut out characters from comic strips and play with them. Later, he would say to art historian Joan Murray that “those years of anonymity in hospital developed a strong sense of wanting to be recognized and accepted.”

Louis began to find recognition when in 1957, at the age of 24, he moved from Ottawa to Toronto to work as a graphic artist at CBC Television. Louis’s uncanny talent for using his vivid dreams and memories as the basis for his work made him stand out in the Canadian art world.

Louis often regaled his friends with stories of his pets: Twerto the hamster, Tulip the parakeet, Tamino the cocker spaniel. But most beloved was Cleo the cat – queen of the household – and constant companion for 21 years. Often she would watch Louis make a collage. First he painted papers and laid them on the floor. Then Cleo would tip toe between the papers and come over for a cuddle. When Cleo died, Louis was bereaved, and there were no more pets.

Louis enjoyed travelling to Europe to study art, the Louvre was his favourite haunt. But, for an inveterate traveller, he had a poor sense of direction. Once when driving out of Madrid, after an hour he came back to where he started. If Louis said go right it was often left. But sometimes the detours were interesting.

Louis admired Canadian folk art and to promote it he and Claude Arsenault opened Home Again, a gallery in Toronto. Like folk artists, Louis was self-taught and his highly individualistic approach to art and life inspired his students at Humber College and the Ontario College of Art and Design.

Louis met Tom Miller at a party in Toronto in 1981. The attraction was both physical and intellectual and they were together for 37 years. Both artists enjoyed change and together lived in six towns and cities. Each move was an opportunity to make new friends, renovate a house and establish a garden.

In 2005, they settled in Oakville, Ont., where they built a classically inspired garden, complete with an Italian fountain. To relax from work, Louis enjoyed sitting among the roses and watching the insects, chipmunks and birds.

In the autumn of 2018, Louis was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. As he sat in his wheelchair, unable to create the images that filled his mind, he could see the winter garden. He asked for a collage of Cleo to be hung where he could see it and remember the early days when he worked to become a unique Canadian artist.

With the help of Tom and the palliative-care team in Oakville, Louis was able to die at home in his sleep, but his spirit lives on in his art.

Tom Miller is Louis’s soulmate.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.