Lindsey MacKay was seven when her grandmother gave her a box of linseed oil paints and her old easel for Christmas.
“It had paint globs all over it,” said MacKay, who can still remember the smell. “And that's what really made it something special for me, that it was something she had used.”
She spent her holiday break painting Stonehenge from a photo taken on a family trip, with her grandmother by her side, teaching her chiaroscuro — how to create light and dark tones.
That long-ago Christmas gift has led to a successful career. MacKay, now 51, sells her modern-impressionist work through downtown Fredericton restaurants, two Toronto galleries and by commission.
Many of her paintings are vivid, monochromatic cityscapes, seascapes, figures and florals. She loves texture, often browsing the hardware store for tools that might be good for scraping or rolling.
MacKay, who has shoulder-length blond hair with dark streaks, sits on her living room sofa as she talks about her work. She pets her cat, who has puffy snow-white fur and rests alert on the couch, with a known reputation for attacking visitors.
“When I look at other pieces of art that stand out to me. I'm not one who likes realism. Because to me, if you can take a picture of it, why paint it exactly like the picture?” she said.
Behind her in her living room is a large painting she created of a friendly-looking man wearing a suit with a pink flower on his lapel. Thick layers of paint palette scraps make the work pop off the wall – both to the eye and physically by several centimetres.
“I like people to be able to touch my work because it brings an emotion to them when they're able to touch,” MacKay said.
MacKay grew up in Bridgewater (pop. 8,500) on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Art ran in the family. Her grandmother, Leonie Cumming, was a potter who wrote children’s books (illustrated by another artist), painted, made jewelry and batik. Her great aunt was a watercolourist, and her parents often took her along to gallery shows.
In the summers of her childhood, MacKay would spend time at her grandmother’s home, making pottery or learning painting techniques. Art has always been her favourite thing to do.
“When the art teacher came in, it was like, the room would light up for me,” MacKay said.
After graduating from high school in 1986, she attended St. Thomas University where she met her husband Kevin, who now works as a sales development manager for Coca Cola.
Years after those Christmas painting lessons, her grandmother, who was then 85 and ailing, moved in with MacKay and her parents. At 21, MacKay would bring her paintings from her art class up to her grandmother’s bedroom for suggestions on how to add light to different parts of the canvas and improve her technique. Her grandmother died six months later.
“She was always trying to teach even when she was dying,” MacKay said.
Following her grandmother’s death and unsure what she wanted to pursue, MacKay left St. Thomas University after two years and went to Holland College on Prince Edward Island to study graphic design from 1989 to 1991. But as the field pivoted quickly from hand-based work to computers, she lacked the technical skills to break into the industry post-graduation.
In need of new career skills, MacKay then received her nursing diploma at New Brunswick Community College in Fredericton. She studied as part of the college’s pilot program, so the entire cost was covered by the province.
Throughout this time, she continued to be creative by drawing and painting. But art turned into a lesser focus in life as she became a part-time licensed practical nurse in 1994 at Stan Cassidy Rehabilitation Centre, which mainly deals with spinal cord and brain-injured patients.
She also had two children along the way. Both attend the University of New Brunswick — Laurel, 18, is in her first year of kinesiology and Kalum, 20, is in second year civil engineering. Kalum designs buildings on his computer. Laurel does pen and ink drawings, which, like her mother’s work, are also sold at Isaac’s Way restaurant.
Tina LeJeune, co-owner of the restaurant, said MacKay is good at using texture and capturing light which makes her paintings stand out.
“You can really tell that the talent level has improved,” LeJeune said.
Soon after selling at Isaac’s Way, Brewbakers called MacKay, asking for 12 paintings to decorate their restaurant. She met the owner of the Palate at her hairdresser, and he also wanted artwork for his restaurant. MacKay’s work is now in several downtown restaurants and a home decor store.
She estimates she’s sold around 200 paintings in restaurants since 2010. Her work generally sells for about $1 per square inch, ranging from $250 to over $1,200. The restaurants don’t take a cut unless the payment is made by credit card, in which case they take a small amount to cover the fee.
The restaurant scene has helped her gain publicity and break into the business of commissioned pieces.
In her first time entering a live-painting competition — 20 minutes to create a painting in front of a live audience — MacKay won the Fredericton Art Battle. She also placed in the top six at the national championships in 2014. She participated a second time, but did not advance to nationals.
In recent years, MacKay has sold her paintings at Urban Gallery on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto. Last summer, she began showing at Arta Gallery in Toronto’s trendy Distillery District. She paid Urban Gallery $1,000 to hang eight paintings, but only sold one. Still she received important exposure and promotions in an art magazine and sold two others in advance through social media. She plans to return to the Arta Gallery, which charged only $125 to show her work.
Calvin Hambrook, Urban Gallery’s manager, said MacKay’s work in three group shows has stood out.
“It’s got a simple, naive style, and at the same time it’s relatable and accessible,” he said.
She recently spent eight weeks as the artist-in-residence at Lincoln Elementary School, a position funded by a provincial grant which paid her $1,300 and covered expenses.
MacKay regularly participates in live painting events and donates pieces for charitable causes, including the Miramichi Salmon Association, Ability New Brunswick, Habitat for Humanity and Symphony New Brunswick.
Her income from painting was about $22,000 last year, with approximately $2,500 in expenses. She continues to work in nursing part-time to collect a pension.
But even on days where she has shifts, she still paints for at least five to eight hours in her small studio on the second floor of her Marysville home.
Her nursing shifts are normally followed by several days off. The time in between shifts is used to paint full time.
Large sheets of plastic splattered with dots and splotches of paint cover the floors, reflective of her latest colour palettes. Unfinished canvases lean against one another, off to the side by the walls, waiting to be finished.
MacKay calls her studio her “sanctuary” to escape from the stress of everyday life.
“By myself, you're in your own zone, you forget to eat, you forget to, you know, do everything,” she said. “And then you get a headache and go, ‘yeah, I didn't eat today’ kind of thing. Because you get lost in your work.”
Her grandmother remains MacKay’s creative inspiration. Her studio has a large bay window overlooking a quiet cul-de-sac. She works in a chair she retrieved from her grandmother’s porch while looking at the comings and goings of the neighbourhood.
“Anytime I have painter’s block I'll say, 'Oh Grammy, I just need a little advice from you right now. Just give me a little help,’” MacKay said. “I always find whenever I say that, I always seem to be able to figure out what I'm having trouble with.”