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Wendy Wacko and Doris McCarthy are sitting together on a wooden window sill by a large window overlooking pebbled ground, long grass and a body of water.
Wendy Wacko (left) and Doris McCarthy. Photo courtesy of Wendy Wacko

They Were the Picture of Friendship

Painter Wendy Wacko pays homage to her mentor, Doris McCarthy, with a gift of art to U of T Scarborough

Wendy Wacko was in high school, in the 1960s, when she first came across work by artist Doris McCarthy. “I fell in love with landscape painting when I was still in my early teens,” says Wacko, who herself is an artist – and former gallery owner – in Jasper, Alberta.

Wacko went on to study art at the Central Technical School’s Art Centre in Toronto, where McCarthy taught classes in art history and still life. In 1977, a chance encounter with McCarthy on a flight to Alberta led Wacko to invite the older artist to paint with her in Jasper. “She was curious about everything,” says Wacko. That first painting trip sparked a decades-long friendship. During that time, Wacko collected McCarthy’s art and helped produce a documentary on her life.

Watercolour painting of an Inuit boy, in a blue and red jacket and blue pants, sitting on a bench
Photo courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery

Taught by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer, McCarthy (BA 1989 UTSC) was known for her paintings of Canadian landscapes, especially in the Arctic, around Georgian Bay, and Alberta’s Badlands. Like the Group of Seven, she took an outdoor approach to painting, hiking into the wilderness, sometimes in cold or rugged conditions, to capture the scenery around her. “The only way landscape painters get better is if they work outside,” Wacko says. “A lot of painters try to regurgitate photos. But I hear her voice saying, ‘Talk about it, don’t copy it.’”

A member of the Order of Canada, McCarthy died in 2010, four months after her 100th birthday.

In 2019, Wacko purchased more than 600 items from McCarthy’s estate, including paintings, sketches, journals and notebooks. Earlier this year, she donated 180 of the works, valued at $1.5 million, to the Doris McCarthy Gallery, which in 2024 marks its 20th anniversary. Ann MacDonald, the gallery’s executive director and chief curator, welcomed Wacko’s gift for its “astonishingly comprehensive” look at McCarthy’s art. Wacko says her goal is to inspire the next generation of artists and art historians, noting that teaching and mentorship were as much a part of McCarthy’s life as art was. “Doris showed how important it is to work outside of your comfort zone,” she says.

Oil on canvas painting, depicting the eroded rocky formations of the badlands and the various colours of different sediment layers
Photo courtesy of the Doris McCarthy Gallery

Wacko still has about 350 items from McCarthy’s estate. They serve as a continued source of artistic inspiration for Wacko, who, in her 70s, is still producing paintings of her own. But the pieces are also a reminder of the unique friendship and connection that the two artists had. “I loved her on so many levels,” Wacko says. “She taught me so much.”

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