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Lynn VanderHerberg’s global canvas

David has some explaining to do. He’s in a bit of a spot. He made Lynn VanderHerberg weep and her vast network of family, friends, and fans won’t take kindly to that. Lynn first met David as a teenager. It was love at first sight. She cried then, and when they reunited years later, she openly wept.

“People must have thought I was crazy, standing there weeping. We were on a bus trip, and there were a lot of onlookers,” she laughed, although with moist eyes again. “We were standing at the entrance to the Hall of Prisoners at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and in front of us were so many of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, and they all led to David, standing so tall and so perfect. I’m not a religious person, but something like that can only come from God.”

Lynn wept from the joy of the artistry, and for the work left undone, the commissions abandoned when Michelangelo was called to Rome to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. David, whom Lynn has forgiven, was finished in 1504 and then there were partial sculptures, figures emerging from marble, forever trapped in blocks of unfinished stone, work interrupted as Michelangelo devoted four years – 1508 to 1512 – to the Vatican.

Lynn’s first meeting with David was as a young teen, when her father was stationed in Germany as a Master Warrant Officer with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals for three years. “Living in Germany was huge in my life,” Lynn recalled. “My parents weren’t the type to go to an art gallery, but the art and architecture was so visible, so accessible. We travelled throughout Europe with a travel trailer and saw so much of the culture. I’m a small-town girl and the art and architecture and food were so different; the lifestyles and attitudes were much more open than what I had experienced. Those were incredibly influential years.”

On a school trip, Lynn and her classmates would be dropped off in downtown Amsterdam, or the heart of another city she’d only discovered in books. “There was art everywhere; it ignited my soul.”

David though, holds a special place. “He changed my life.” She first saw him as a teenager, but the second time was far more powerful, because Lynn was returning as an established artist. “I loved him even more,” she realized. “I saw him through the eyes of an artist. I knew how hard it was to finish a piece, all the mistakes to get to that level of excellence, and I was overcome with emotion. It was unexplainable. I started as a child doodling and drawing eyes and writing in calligraphy and now I’m standing in Florence, weeping in front of David. There was an understanding as an artist that you can develop into something incredible. It was possible.”

Lynn has always loved art. As a child, she would doodle everywhere – on phone books and whatever paper was at hand. “I loved to draw eyes and animals; it drove my parents crazy,” she laughed. She remembered her grade four teacher, Miss Black, a wonderful woman who encouraged her artistic gifts and introduced her to cursive writing, which led to a lifetime love of calligraphy.

Throughout high school, she took as many art classes as possible, and remembers her first piece was a still life of fruit with an applewood frame. Apples are a recurring theme in Lynn’s repertoire. She did the cover art for this year’s Applefest program and for several years the banners throughout Brighton depicted part of her apple series. Her goal was to paint every apple indigenous to this area, in what was once the apple capital of the world. A global view of a small town is her hallmark.

After attending Loyalist College in Belleville and working with adults with developmental disabilities, Lynn and her husband Gary started a family. Now married 41 years, they have four daughters living around the world. One is in Shanghai, one in Calgary, and two in Toronto.

With a young family, Lynn continued her passion for art, and fell in love with watercolours. She bought, borrowed, and begged art instruction books, and enrolled in a course. “My first instructor was Ron Sayeau and he’s still my mentor. He’s very special,” she said. “He’s so gracious with his talent and knowledge. He shared his passion for art and that was a gift I realized I had to share as well. It is not mine to keep selfishly; it must be paid forward.”

There were more classes from Lucy Manley, but mostly Lynn is self-taught, taking every life experience, every trip and memory, and incorporating it into self-expression. The result is an organic openness to the world, with a strong focus on detail.

She credits those family trips through Europe as early influences, the exposure to different worlds and views, to ageless works of art and architecture. As much as Lynn still loves to travel, her heart is very much at home with Gary, in the home they built together 35 years ago. Gary stockpiled rocks for five years for the custom fireplace in their living room and the rock wall at the precipice at the back of their property. Their home is perfectly accented with art from near and far, a perfect reflection of their individual and shared experiences.

She finds inspiration in neighbourhoods, whether it’s in Brighton or Toronto or Europe. “I am captivated by people in small towns and the opportunity to tell their story in that slice of time.” Several years ago, Lynn did a painting at Lola’s Coffee House and the owners posted it on Facebook. It garnered 2,000 views. “I couldn’t believe the power of social media,” said Lynn. In turn, she now uses it to share her latest muse. A recent post on her Facebook page said, “Just felt like painting flamingos today,” and followed with a collection of five pieces done in about a day.

There’s a quiet confidence in Lynn’s work. There’s undeniable talent, certainly, and humour at times, but prevalent in so many of her works is a subtle understanding of the world around her. On a recent visit to her daughter in Toronto, she dropped by the Trinity Bellwood Park market, and of course, a painting ensued. She’s a welcome regular at the Codrington Farmers’ Market and paintings of vendors are inevitable. They capture more than just a moment, somehow also communicating the character, the story behind the colour.

“It’s a pleasure to paint Melanie of Dahlia May Flower Farm,” smiled Lynn, flipping through a stack of watercolour portraits. “I love her story and what she has overcome and achieved. She has known what she wanted to do with life since such an early age and she is so strong and honest with her feelings. Her writing is an art on its own. Every painting of her is a different chapter.”

There are so many stories inspiring Lynn. “I want to paint Annie Boulanger and her wood-fired pizza oven. She’s another inspiring entrepreneur building a business with her heart. The success of the Codrington Farmers’ Market is another story to tell through paintings. The energy and the focus of the vendors excites me. It’s like Lola’s or a coffee shop in Italy. It’s about documenting the people and the conversations through painting.”

As serendipitous as this sounds, Lynn is a very disciplined artist. Her studio is the north end of her kitchen table, where her canvasses and supplies are neatly arranged. From paint to pencil, everything has a place. She faces large windows overlooking the south lawn of her rural property, and when inspired, will paint deep into the night. It is not uncommon for her to be at the table, unaware of the passage of time, still painting at 3 a.m.

In addition to her travels, she credits her success to intense practice. Those who know her well would suggest it is also the result of a willingness to create and embrace new adventures. An incredible cook, her kitchen boasts spices from around the world, many gathered on her trips abroad, and her pantry is home to an enviable cookbook collection. A vegetarian for years, she is a fan of Ottolenghi and Deborah Madison, whose cookbooks are nestled side-by-side with a well-thumbed Eataly. “Did you know they’re opening an Eataly in Toronto,” she asked. “We’ll have to go. Have you been to the one in New York? It’s wonderful. Let’s go there.” Were it not for the imminent arrival of another grandchild, she’d be on the road, probably dining with Mario Batali by nightfall.

Seizing the moment is an essential part of Lynn’s palette. She and Gary took their four daughters around the world, sharing their love of travel and new experiences with them. She’s delighted her adult children are now doing the same with her granddaughters. They were watching a National Geographic documentary about the Galapagos, and on the spot committed to taking the girls there. They did. They took them to the Far East, to Europe, to Africa. Nairobi was her favourite, and as David captured her heart, Kenya changed her soul.

A few years ago, she joined an art excursion to Morocco. She stayed at the Peacock Pavilion owned by Marrakesh by Design author Maryam Montague. “There were artists from all over the world there,” recalled Lynn. “We painted in one tent, we dined in another tent, and when I walked into Maryam’s house, it blew my mind. It changed my life.” It took Lynn 22 paintings to get it out of her system. So far.

For her 60th birthday, the daughters sent Lynn and Gary to the Fogo Island Inn. Typically, it was another life-changing moment, and inspired a series of postcards, cards, and prints. “It’s such a great idea, this scientist from Fogo Island putting together a plan and investing millions of her own money to rebuild an economy on the island after the cod fishing industry collapsed. Everything from the food to the furniture is made on the island by local craftsman. The music, the art, the quilts, the construction, it’s so local. It’s people helping and respecting talents and making a living from their passion. People working together using all their skills to rebuild a community. We were enamoured by that incredible story”

Love is the absolute basis for Lynn’s life. Family is paramount. She and Gary’s sister Anne Neerhof started Nine Daughters and Company, a boutique event décor rental business. They specialize in hand-painted glass and table design, and were inspired by a love of entertaining. With the obvious nine daughters between them, they have a special line devoted to incorporating children into special events. “It’s all very personal to us,” shared Lynn. “We are very close as a family and we want to help others have perfect family celebrations.”

With a large and supportive extended family, Lynn’s rock is always Gary. They met across a camp fire as teenagers and have grown together through opportunity and challenges. A successful contractor, Gary suffered a life-changing injury 20 years ago. It has only drawn them closer. He deals with it with humour and his love for Lynn is unbridled. She glows when she speaks of him, and when they’re together, they’re alone in a crowd. “We are each other’s biggest advocates,” she smiled, again, with tears in her eyes.

Capturing the light is what Lynn does best, whether it’s overcoming a tragic accident or just appreciating a beautiful moment. She is drawn to nature, to the light and the changes, to the clouds. She is a gifted photographer, shooting weddings and events and family time, and for someone so organized, she has spent time lately looking for lost lenses. She feels the ice storm a few years back resulted in some of her best photos.

To Lynn, a moment is a chance to tell a story through her art, whether it’s photography, watercolour, pen and ink, pastel, or calligraphy. It could be food, it could be storytelling. It’s all art to Lynn, and she willingly shares her gift to help others. She accepts commissions, she compiles portfolios and presents them to clients, and she understands her art must sustain itself financially. She also understands it is a gift and must be shared for a good cause.

This year, she is working with Primrose Donkey Sanctuary, helping raise funds. She painted donkey portraits and her good friend Cindy Lewis of Brighton’s Rock, Paper, Scissors is selling the cards. All proceeds go to the sanctuary.

Animals are a new passion for Lynn and along with her flamingos, she is working on a goat face. It’s charming and sweet, and technically perfect. Her good friend Ang Young, head of the art department at East Northumberland Secondary School, says it might be Lynn’s best piece ever.

Ang is a respected artist, used to mentoring talent, used to offering a critique. Of Lynn, there is only praise. “Many people will attempt to paint and then, when the results aren’t fantastic, they quit. What they fail to recognize is it takes a great deal of perseverance. Lynn is a self-taught artist who has worked for 20 years to learn the techniques of using watercolour. It takes so long to gain the skills to produce the loose, imaginative work at which she now excels.

“I remember about a year ago her telling me that she was going to do a live painting of a wedding. I was shocked. No artist I know would ever attempt to do something so difficult and in front of such a large audience. Her years of experience have given her the confidence to challenge herself. Her latest works appear effortless. They aren’t. They are the result of two decades of effort.”

To Lynn, it was a chance to challenge herself in search of constant improvement, and it tugged on her heart. “I really enjoyed it,” she simplified. “I enjoyed everything about it, from the young man who was asking questions while I was working to the chance to document life right now in a painting. It was a wedding; it was a moment in their life. I love the challenge of the unfamiliar, of taking myself out of a comfort zone, and I want to paint for people who appreciate it.”

Lynn is looking forward to her next trip with Gary, her next adventure. There will be paintings, there will be experiences, and one way or another, they will become part of her canvas.

In the meantime, she is very content at her kitchen table, or at a picnic table at the Codrington market, or Lola’s, watching her slice of the world, watching the world go by, and maybe stopping for a minute on her canvas.

“There is incredible character in everyday people, in everyday life. How we see it is our personal form of expression. We can travel around the world, or we can get a perspective from one spot. Either way, life is happening right in front of me.”

Photography by Daniel Vaughan