Story and photos by Geoff Dale
WOODSTOCK, ON – Entering Eleanor Kent’s meticulously decorated apartment one instantaneously gets the pervasive sense of artistic creativity permeating the whole space.
Bristling with wildly imaginative personal expressions from a lifetime love affair with art, her living quarters resemble more of a comfortable gallery. Carefully selected artifacts showcasing her fascination with all things feline dot the landscape; her eight-year-old cat Lizzie snuggled away in a cozy spot – everything in place and a perfect match to her artwork.
Her personal business card doesn’t beat around the bush with superfluous superlatives. Alongside her phone number, it simply reads Artist Eleanor Kent. Known to virtually everyone in the small Southwestern Ontario city of Woodstock as Elly, she has clearly earned the right to sum up her achievements and reputation with that one word.
Now in her mid-sixties, neither stop nor retire seem to be part of her vocabulary. As she leads a guest through her home, she explains the various life connections of material that adorns the bathroom – appropriately named the aquariroom.
Then, like a friendly tour guide, she proceeds on to the art room – a compact work space filled with countless tools of the trade, precise pencil sketches, startling ink drawings and intricate photo collages proudly lining the four walls and resting atop her desk and cupboards.
“I love doing photo collages,” she explains. “Since 1999 I’ve done 57 and am currently working on five more. It’s a creative adventure each time. I retired from my job as a commercial artist with Allied Arts in London in 1975. Since then, I’m always doing something artistic that catches my fancy, a work possibly commissioned or for friends.
“Even when I’m sitting on the couch, I can be just doodling or doing some sketches for birthday or Christmas cards for family and friends. I’m proud to say, while I took a few formal classes, I’m a self taught artist. It’s just a case of seeing something, then just getting right to the job at hand, producing the piece. My teacher certainly saw that instructions weren’t really necessary.”
Stopping for a moment, she casually leafs through one of many catalogues of previous advertising works for such places as Robinson’s department store in Hamilton, A.D. Plastics Ltd. (also a Hamilton business), the North Bay Nugget newspaper (employed there as silk screen designer/artist) and Kresge’s head office in Toronto, to name a few.
“I didn’t have to be told what to do or how to do it,” Elly says. “I just saw the object in front of me the first time and produced it right away. My parents told me I was destined to be an artist because at the age of three I was always removing bits of soot from the fireplace and drawing horses on the wall of our rented house.
“As a commercial artist I always felt somewhat restricted by the nine-to-five schedule but now I can create when the mood or inspiration strikes me. That could be lunch, during the day, in the middle of the night or early morning.”
Her achievements are all the more remarkable because of whiplash she suffers from, the result of a 1967 car accident and continuing chronic back and right shoulder pain endured from the early 1975 to the present day.
None of that deterred her from forging ahead to create unique lettering and banner stylings for the local Bartley’s Dairy Bar, City of Woodstock, Fritzies’ Drive-in, pencil drawings for the recently opened Municipal Building, the City of Woodstock and Oxford County crests and the now famous logo for the nearby Pittock Lake Conservation Area.
In 2005 she took home the grand prize in the sunrise/sunset category of Tourism Oxford’s 2005 photography competition.
Prior to her moving to her current dwelling, residents and visitors alike would stop throughout the year, just to admire the self-created seasonal delights that graced her old balcony, prompting her to say, “I’m really quite proud of some of that work – the copper tubings and other mediums I’ve utilized to celebrate seasons and holidays.”
A highly inventive individual driven by the creative process, she recalls an exhibit in St. Thomas years ago caught the eye of acclaimed Canadian naturalist/artist Robert Bateman, who took a shine to her work.
“What I love working in is gouache (opaque watercolour), creating art focusing on animals and landscape, which are my favourites,” she adds. “It is a thicker medium but wonderful to work in.”
Her intricate triptych (panel art divided into three sections) is a centrepiece of the aquariroom, artistically recollecting 40 years of her life through the painstaking process of piecing together many seemingly disparate photos from an intriguing variety of geographic spots from Pittock Lake, Pennsylvania and Niagara-on-the-Lake to England, the Grand Banks and points in between.
“Many of my early works, including one of Harold and his Group of Seven, are the focus of the main living room wall,” Elly says. “Each tells a story of their own while the work traces my early growth as an artist.”
Showing off some of her recent cards – entitled puppy in stocking and kitty in stocking – she says will continue her artwork because, as her card so succinctly says, that is who she is – an artist.
“I get so much pleasure from what I do,” she adds. “It’s not a magical thing where I get overwhelmed by some huge inspiration from within. It’s just part of me. It’s brings me enjoyment and I hope my work has brought some of that to people around. People are often in tears when they see a painting of a parent or a pet.”
An official survey has yet to be done but if one was undertaken, it would show many homes in Woodstock and area boasting a work or two by Elly Kent and, along with it, countless hours of that enjoyment. And what would Christmas be without a card from Elly?