Donna Wise aka ‘Betty White’ of the art world

Now in her 80s, Toronto-based artist Donna Wise is considered the Betty White of the contemporary abstract art world. Her acrylic on canvas paintings are large, bold, fluid and full of energy. And not just that, she’s been heavily involved in the arts community. For a number of years, she was a docent at both the AGO and the ROM. By invitation she was involved in art auctions for the Canadian Opera Company, National Ballet, ROM and Baycrest Hospital.

Her work can be found in private collections in Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco, Miami and Tel Aviv as well as many collections including those of the Four Seasons Hotel, Ontario Parliament Building and the lobby of the Elgin Theatre. She was awarded an individual creative grant from the Ontario Arts Council in 1985, and she is a life member of The Society of Canadian Artists, Carfac and WAAC.

We had the greatest honour in chatting with Donna recently to find out about her latest works.

What inspired your latest series?

DW: The urge to paint after giving myself a lovely summer holiday has inspired this latest series. We were in the country north of Toronto for 4 months – it was glorious to be back outside and surrounded by nature. It was as though nature was rewarding us for the past 18+ months of Covid lock-down. The colours were so vibrant and everything seemed to be on steroids with their depth of colour.

What is your creative process?

DW: Prepping for the new collection is tedious and exhilarating at the same time. Because I use what is known as heavy paint acrylics, the canvases have to be as hard as a board so the paint won’t bleed through so this takes about 4 applications. I keep a play book that holds the names of each canvas, some design and the specific colour palette for each painting. Each day, page by page, I review the painting, how it’s progressing, are the colours bright or bold enough. Only one colour can be applied to a single canvas at a time which is why there are always 15 -20 works going at the same time.

Have you always worked in acrylics and what attracted you to the medium?

DW: I loathed the smell of oils and turpentine so I found acrylic paint offered so many more options: I could paint with an added acrylic medium to thicken and increase the texture, or make a more fluid acrylic for ease of brush strokes. It also dries faster and was more applicable to my process….and didn’t smell quite so offensive!

Who are your all time favourite artists in the contemporary world and what do you love about their work?

DW: Helen Frankenthaler, Jack Bush and Jean-Paul Riopelle are favourites of mine. I saw an early exhibition of Helen Frankenthaler’s work at the David Mirvish Gallery in the 1970’s and I knew immediately this was the direction I wanted to go in with my own art. In fact, I was so moved by her work that I could not stop crying as I walked through the show.

You’ve been a docent at the AGO. What that experience was like?

DW: I loved being a docent at the AGO. I often guided groups of tired and extremely bored teenagers, taking them trough the galleries with a strategic plan to grab their attention. Dragging them through the Masters and enlightening then as to the tricks of perception, on through the Moore sculpture gallery which showcases his big and sensual sculptures, then finally bringing them to the modern art section where I would hear them parrot their parents’ opinions. I gave them the choice to like it or hate it BUT they had to explain to me their own opinions and rationales, rewarding them for paying attention by telling them that this was what the artist wanted, all great fun.

You’ve seen the Toronto art scene evolve over the decades. Where are your favourite places to explore art in the city?

DW: I enjoy roaming the galleries inside the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Bata Museum, the stunning architecture of the Aga Khan Museum, the Michael Museum…in fact, any or all galleries that may be open in the GTA.

If you could spend time with any artist who would that be and what would you want to know from them?

DW: Without hesitation I would say Helen Frankenthaler. Where did she get the time to do everything? She was famous as an artist, a teacher and an historian – can you image the conversations we could have? What a fountain of knowledge!

Where are the most inspiring spaces in the city for you?

DW: The night sky instills awe and wonder in me, either in the country or if you are lucky to get high up in a building, or just look to the west. I enjoy the Toronto waterfront, especially early in the morning, and the local parks and botanical gardens offer an ever-changing palette of natural colours for all seasons. Trees are healing and calming, just let them “speak” to you and you, too, will be inspired to create.

When it comes to showing your work in public, what do you wish people to know?

DW: I would just want the viewer to see the painting and connect with it emotionally like I did with Helen Frankenthaler’s work. I hope they can see and respond to the joy I put into each and every canvas.

Anything else you’d like us to know?

DW: It has been a very tough past 18 months for both artists and galleries. Many galleries have closed, as have many stores that supply the artists. But we artists are definitely a resilient group and we eagerly anticipate more opportunities for showcasing our work LIVE in public in the coming months. You’re all welcome to visit my website  to see some of my work and I look forward to meeting everyone at a gallery very soon.


*Photos courtesy of Donna Wise



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