A new book and nearly a painting a week are impressive accomplishments for 12 months of work. Especially when you’re almost 95.
But, although age has slowed her physically, Ruth Dickson’s creative spirit is still strong.
Dickson will exhibit paintings at the Pearl Ellis Gallery from Aug. 13 to 25. And launch Strangers to the Land with a reception and reading at the gallery on Aug. 15 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Strangers to the Land is Dickson’s sixth book and a prequel to her autobiographical trilogy.
“When I turned 90 I decided I’d lived long enough to have something to say about my past,” she says.
That’s when she took her walker and a manuscript to a week-long workshop at the Victoria School of Writing. “I was the oldest student they’d ever had,” she recalls. “But they thought my work was funny and interesting and were excited about it.”
Then a story Dickson wrote for young adults made the short list in the Surrey International Writing Contest. “That confirmed my belief that old people can still think young,” she says. “That gave me a big lift.”
Dickson writes the first draft of her books in longhand as it “helps her think.” She taught herself to type and transcribed the first two, poetry collections titled Voice of the Salmon River and Scraps from My Basket, on an old Remington typewriter.
For her more recent works, The Lighthouse Kids, a fictional story about two children growing up on a lighthouse, and Pebbles in the Stream: River Rocks and Among the Blue Mountains, part of her trilogy, Dickson joined the technological age.
“Computers make it very easy to move text around and change things,” she admits, “but I hate it when I have to learn a new word-processing program!”
Her newest book, Strangers to the Land, tells the story of Dickson’s early childhood on Scottish lighthouses and her family’s move to the Canadian Prairies in the late 1920s.
Dickson grew up in the days before parents knew where their children were every minute of the day. Her book portrays a feisty little girl who explored islands and scrambled over lighthouse rocks just like her pet goat, yet was also responsible for looking after her two younger siblings.
She experienced the same freedom in Canada but also the sting of being “different” and the challenges new immigrants encounter while adapting and fitting into their new surroundings. The book ends when Dickson marries and the next book in the trilogy begins. Strangers to the Land, featuring two of Dickson’s paintings on the cover, is available at the Pearl Ellis Gallery, Blue Heron Books and Laughing Oyster Bookstore.
“We often lived in isolated areas,” Dickson says. “That gave me a love of the outdoors and remote places and also a rich fantasy life. I wanted a good education like my mother had but the Depression meant that didn’t happen. So after I married I decided to learn something new every year. I discovered you can learn your whole life — and to never be afraid to try something new.”
While living in Sayward, Dickson played around with her with her young children’s paints and pastels. Later, when the family moved to Cowichan, she took her portfolio to the University of Victoria and was accepted into the second year of the art program and eventually taught oil painting, silkscreen and batik at Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University).
Sea & Shore, Dickson’s exhibit at the Pearl Ellis Gallery includes 65 paintings, most created within the last year.
“I drew sketches on half a dozen or so canvases and then swung from one to another,” she explains. “The subject matters are varied; I prefer to work that way rather than crank out cookie-cutter images.”
Dickson’s normal routine is to paint one week and write the next. One wall of her spare bedroom contains a table and painting supplies while the other is set up for her literary endeavours.
The environment plays a lively role in her written work and is also her favourite subject to paint, especially with watercolours. But she’s also adept at nudes and still-lifes. In fact, her paintings are so diverse many people think they are the work of several painters.
Since she moved to Comox 11 years ago, Dickson has participated in every Brushworks painting group and Pearl Ellis Gallery members’ show. Last summer she even worked on a painting on the plaza outside the gallery.
And, although she says she’s slowing down, a new book is in the works. A Road Renamed is a collection of short stories set in a mill town on central Vancouver Island. “The theme is a writer collecting stories at a beauty parlour,” Dickson says. “It’s based on my observations and life experiences but all imaginary.”
The Pearl Ellis Gallery is located at 1729 Comox Ave. across from the Comox Mall and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.
Paula Wild is a published author and regular contributor to the Comox Valley Record’s arts and entertainment section.