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Portrait artist Barbara E. Mercer at the Florence Biennale

J. Lynn Fraser

cynicism is easy. Optimism is hard. Some people have it throughout their lives. Because Barbara E. Mercer has it she showed her Canadian Icons series of portraits at the Florence Biennale (Biennale Internazionale Dell'Arte Contemporanea) last December at age 70. Because she has it now, at age 71, she is a new member of the historic Arts & Letters Club in Toronto (established in 1908). The it is her optimism and effervescent personality that gets her exhibiting and adventuring around the world. Not to mention the fact that her work is in private and public collections around the world in such diverse places as Sweden and Mexico. Her work was also celebrated in the film "The View from Vinegar Hill" a CBC production that highlighted her work and that was shown internationally. Her work and her life have been both the focus of books and a part of books focusing on Canadian women.

At the juried Florence Biennale 37 artists, in a variety of mediums, from Canada showed their work. In total 891 artists from 72 countries exhibited at the Fortezza da Basso—a famous fort with a moat around it. One of the artists whom Mercer met was a young man whose language she could not speak but with whom she communicated through hand gestures. By the end of their conversation about each other's artwork he had taken her hand and kissed her on the cheek. Mercer thought Florence during her two week stay was "absolutely magnificent" and that the "ambiance was wonderful and mysterious". No doubt encounters like that with the young man did a lot to maintain her enthusiasm.

But then there was also the sightseeing that gave her great joy. She visited the Piazza Duomo, Campanile di Giotto, enjoyed the famous sculpture of David but found it odd that in one venue the lights were kept low so that the Renaissance paintings would not be damaged…yet smoke from candles was allowed to soil the paintings.

The Florence Biennale was organized in part by Harvard educated, curator, art historian, and author Dr. John T. Spike. He would compare Barbara's work to David Hockney and Caravaggio. Spike is the author of more than twenty books and has published major monographs on Masaccio (1996) and Fra Angelico (1997), and the standard catalogues raisonnés of the paintings of Mattia Preti (1999) and of Caravaggio (2001).

While Mercer felt that the trip was worthwhile as a showcase for her artwork some of the artists were disappointed with sales. Due to a foul up at the airport at Frankfurt she was unable to be present while her artwork arrived at the Florence exhibition. She arrived, a day late, to find that her exhibition of Canadian Icons had already been assembled on her behalf. Mercer's Canadian Icon portraits are portraits of people who have influenced her. These include individuals such as: Professor Ronald D. Venter, University of Toronto; Margaret MacMillan author of Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World and Liz Wylie Curator of The University of Toronto Art Centre.

Others were not so lucky with the treatment of their artwork. Some of the Canadian artists found that their work had been damaged when returned to them back in Canada. Mercer describes her experience at the Biennale as "one of the most joyous experiences of her life as an artist". She remarked that the comparison Dr. Spike made of her work to Hockney and Caravaggio, both revolutionaries in the way they paint, "gave her an euphoria that she will never lose".

Despite the varying experiences with the Biennale the Canadian artists formed a bond amongst themselves. The 37 artists, in all mediums, hope to put on an exhibition of their work in Canada. Ottawa has been tentatively chosen as a site for the show.

So if you have it you too can expect to have a life of travel and adventure—like Barbara E. Mercer has had throughout all of her life. Visit Mercer's web site to see her Canadian Icons gallery of portraits, Mercer at the Biennale, and other examples of her artwork.

J.Lynn Fraser is a Toronto based journalist.

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