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Article from Magazin Art (Fall 2003) courtesy of the publisher.

Mark Fletcher: Story-teller Extraordinaire

     “I am essentially a story teller,” says Mark Fletcher. “It is the driving force of my paintings. They impart a visible substance to the stories I want to tell, stories about the land and the men and women who live on it, and more particularly the impact of change on it and them.”

     That is probably the most compelling of the reasons why the St. Marys, Ont., artist has spent so much time in Newfoundland during the last twenty-five years. “The outports used to be thriving, self-contained communities, their inhabitants sturdy and self-reliant” he says. “The lived a hard life, but I have a sense that it was an uniquely fulfilling one.”

     The outports are now largely abandoned, the result in part of government policy and more recently the decline in cod-fishing. “The people who lived there were the victims of events over which they had no control. I tell their story in my paintings of abandoned buildings and rotting wharves, and their contrast with the past.”

     Much the same subject matter is to be found in prairies communities whose sustenance has been leached away by the inexorable passage of time. There, too, the broad sweep of the land as Fletcher depicts it tends to dwarf the men and women who inhabit it. The distance to the horizon in his paintings transcends conventional dimensions to the point where it assumes a mystical aspect.

     The mysticism is further enhanced by Fletcher’s minimalist style. It is a style which is wonderfully appropriate for capturing the immensity of the space within which his stories are told. “They are stores not easily told,” Fletcher says. “There is no single narrative line. They are much too complex for that. My purpose in telling them is to capture those individual scenes, those human vignettes, that illuminate and interpret the larger picture of how lives were lived in a forgotten time.”

      His stories are sometimes told by the expressions on the faces of his human subjects, and by their body language. He reveals their history with a spareness of line which speaks volumes. He says he is more interested in his message than in his medium, and describes his work as awkward and clumsy. But that is obviously not how the critics see it.

     His story-telling has attracted an audience which is close to world-wide. His themes of hardship wrought by change are universal, his subjects readily recognized in their reluctant acceptance of the roles which have been forced upon them. Fletcher’s vision in this respect is influenced and darkened by his perception of remote and uncaring forces at work. Yet it is not without the hope that the men and women he portrays in the end will prevail.

     Fletcher had an early interest in painting but it was secondary to his other interests, most notably his interest in the skies above and later in the land below them. He studied meteorology at the University of Guelph before switching to earth sciences. “I was thinking of a career in marine forecasting,” he says, “and then of a career in sediment analysis or something akin to it, anything in fact that had to do with the more esoteric aspects of the natural world.”

     But then his earlier interest in art reasserted itself and he took another year at Guelph, immersing himself in the history of what has since become his vocation. His studies at Florence, Italy, were complemented by post-graduate studies at the Instituto Allende in Mexico. His first exhibition was the 14th annual juried show at the Tom Thomson Memorial Art Gallery, Owen Sound, in 1980.

     He has since participated in numerous group and solo shows, one of the most memorable being the first privately sponsored show in Korea in 1992, at the Lotte Gallery in Seoul. He has had a studio in St. Mary’s, in central Ontario near Stratford, since 1988. He has devoted much of his time to such organizations as the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colours, and to various teaching positions. But while an artist living in Ontario and exhibiting there, he is by no means an “Ontario” artist. His work is much too eclectic.

     Now in his mid-forties, Fletcher is not the active cyclist and skier that he was. Those sports served him well when he was younger, imparting to him a first-hand sense of distance, of the lay of the land as much as the clouds in the sky. It was an invigorating time for him and it is still very much in evidence in his paintings. Nowadays, music claims his time away from his easel. He plays the bagpipes, classical guitar, and other stringed instruments.

     Has the passage of time dampened his commitment to story-telling? Not in the least. He still responds to that ancestral pull of the land and the stories he tells of it are as compelling as ever. “It’s the story of the country,” he says. “I am still telling it, bit by bit. It is an endless inspiration.” What it has most recently inspired will be on display at the White Rock Gallery on Johnston Road, in White Rock, BC. He is also represented by Harbour Gallery, Lakeshore Road West, Mississagua, ON.

- by John Meyer