Teacher, artist, writer, philanthropist. Born on Dec. 13, 1918, in Montreal; died on July 16, 2016, in Antigonish, N.S., of congestive heart failure, aged 97.
Alice Brunton, born a month after the First World War armistice, was very young when her parents separated. She was raised in her maternal grandparents’ household. Her grandfather, John Porter, was a professor at McGill University and he and his wife, Ethel, welcomed memorable guests to their home, including author Stephen Leacock; many of them also visited the family’s summer place in Guysborough, N.S.
Throughout her long and accomplished life, Alice followed her own path. After graduating from McGill with a bachelor of arts in 1940, she married Ralph Hoskins, whose career as a chemical engineer took them across Canada. During those demanding years, Alice focused on raising their adopted children (Andrew, Elizabeth and Rosemary), but also found time to study at the Montreal School of Art and Design under Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer.
The year 1967 was a watershed for Alice, as she began teaching art to high school students in Pierrefonds, Que. Five years later, after her marriage ended, she ventured to Australia as an art teacher for disadvantaged teenagers in a Sydney suburb. In 1974, she moved to Halifax and furthered her education at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and Dalhousie University. For nine years, she served as the first education officer and education curator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Alice “retired” to Antigonish in 1984 and soon gained prominence in the local arts community. She travelled the back roads of Nova Scotia, painting watercolour landscapes that offered insights into nature with haiku-like simplicity. She began exhibiting at Lyghtesome Gallery and pursued Reiki, meditation and gardening.
In the 1980s and ’90s, she wintered in Toronto, joining the Arts and Letters Club and studying Japanese. As a volunteer at Covenant House, she painted portraits of homeless young people, often boosting their self-esteem. In Antigonish, she remained an avid volunteer, teaching art and art appreciation to children and adults. She participated in local theatre and donated generously to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the St. Francis Xavier University Art Gallery. In 2007, the school awarded her an honorary degree for her contributions to the arts.
Japan was her spiritual home. A devotee of Buddhism, she took the first of two solo trips to Japan in 1970, making the traditional Shikoku pilgrimage on foot. She published two illustrated books about those travels, and returned for a third visit at age 89. Our daughter, Ruthie, was Alice’s last watercolour student; after painting class, they would often read Japanese fairy tales together. In her early 90s, Alice performed, in kimono, a Japanese fan dance at several community fundraisers.
Alice was always resolutely independent. Despite growing frailty, she kept busy, publishing an enchanting children’s book (Forest Friends) and a survival guide for old age (Greater Happiness for the Aging and House-bound). In her last weeks, she laid down her paint brushes and moved to a rural nursing home. Rain or shine, she sat on the verandah, communing with nature, her lifelong source of inspiration.
In late August, family and friends gathered to celebrate her life. Her son gave a moving eulogy, noting, “Everything was an adventure to Mom. She was fearless.” Next spring, a friend will take some of her ashes to Japan during cherry-blossom time. A pilgrim of a long life, Alice regarded death not as a final destination, but as her next great adventure.
John Blackwell and Laurie Stanley-Blackwell are friends of Alice.
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