Dorothea Weise and the symphony of colour
For close to 15 years Dorothea and her husband, Karl, lived two doors down from us. Quieter, more considerate neighbours you couldn’t find. And kind-hearted: The feral marmalade cat we chased from our backyard invariably found a warm welcome at their back door.
We didn’t really get to know Dorothea or Karl. We did know that at some point they had emigrated from Germany, and that Karl had been a writer and that Dorothea was an accomplished and well-respected artist. We’d hear of shows she was mounting. At Art on Kent we saw some of her work and LCVI art teacher and Kawartha Arts Network co-founder Anders Widjedal told us how much he admired Dorothea for her adventurous spirit, the way she took artistic chances with her work.
For someone who seemed somewhat shy and private, Dorothea seemed to have a large, warm circle of friends. After Karl passed away in 2014, in his 91st year, Dorothea sold the house and moved to the Rivermill complex.
This summer, though, we became neighbours again. Dorothea and a friend shared a plot with me at the community garden.
A few weeks ago I asked Dorothea if she’d be the subject for this column, hoping after all these years to learn more about how Dorothea and Karl came to be here, more about her art, and more about her community involvement.
She graciously invited me over.
There’s no question I’m in the right place. There’s a profusion of art: acrylic scenes along the Scugog, densely detailed etchings, a sombre portrait of her grandmother, dressed in black and radiating strength but also gentleness. In a hallway delicate watercolour fantasies, and above a mantel a seascape with translucent planes of colour capturing a maritime atmosphere.
A painted silk panel divides one space and sculptures sit on tables. We sit down at a table. Like most of the furniture in the apartment it was designed and constructed by Karl, using hand tools.
As we begin to talk, and Dorothea begins to tell her story, she has a pencil in hand, and all the while we talk, the pencil is at work. In an ‘artist’s statement’ accompanying her resume Dorothea describes her early years: “As a child in wartime Germany, I played in industrial rubble in a coal mining region of the country.” There was bombing, constant hunger, and dislocation but equally painful to her, clearly, was living in a monochromatic world.
“Everywhere I looked I could only see black and stark grey.” She tells me of sooty snowfall, and soot covering even the leaves of trees.
In the 1950s Dorothea studied at the Art Institute in Essen Werden. After graduating she placed an ad in a paper, and received an offer to illustrate children’s stories and newspaper work for a well-known author.
That’s how she met Karl. They were married three years later.
Karl had always dreamed of moving to Canada. “It represented,” Dorothea tells me, “freedom, vast spaces, unspoiled nature.”
In 1966 they packed boxes of books and no fewer than four typewriters with German keyboards and immigrated. Karl would write stories about his new country for a German audience. They fixed up a winterized place on Pigeon Lake near Omemee, then built a home, still near the lake, on 50 forested acres.
Dorothea had come to Canada because it was Karl’s dream, but fell in love with the colours and natural beauty. When she lists artists she admires, the Group of Seven is right up there alongside Chagall and the Impressionists.
To earn a living she did commercial artwork in Toronto, but found a profitable sideline: She and Karl collected rocks rocks from beaches and Karl cut birch limbs into discs. Dorothea painted Canadian plants and wildlife (and cats, of course) onto them with acrylic paints. They were snapped up by Whetung Gallery, Niagara Parks Commission, even the Craft Ontario Shop in Hazelton Lanes and also went out of province. Altogether she sold over 12,600 rocks.
Thirty-three years ago Dorothea moved to Lindsay. Thirty-three years filled with artistic activity and achievement. With some friends she formed the Lindsay 5 and exhibited in shows around the Kawarthas. For 20 years she was included in the Kawartha Art Festival. She also taught art-classes at the Victoria Park Armoury for 15 years and privately in her home studio.
The Sunset Years
As she approaches 80, Dorothea has decided to scale her activity back a bit. But by almost anyone else’s standards she seems fully engaged still with our community. The day before my visit she’d just taken down a show that had been on display at City Hall for six weeks. Almost half of her 20 works had sold.
She’s enjoying the community gardens, reads, and takes Cardinal Bus tours to Toronto to see shows at the Royal Alex and meet-up with Toronto friends. But a constant in her life is — and always has been — her art.
Before leaving I ask what her next artistic subject will be. She brings out her iPad and shows me image after image, all photos taken from her balcony, all sunsets. “They’re symphonies of colour!” she says.
We’re a long way from monochromatic Gelsenkirchen.