It happens when she most needs it and least expects it. A heron appears—riding the wind, reminding Wendie Donabie she’s not alone in facing a storm or a struggle. “I’ve always known the heron to be my spirit animal,” says the painter, poet, and author. “Herons appear when I have an important decision to make, or I’m looking for a message that things will be okay.”
Heron’s Nest, Donabie’s Muskoka studio and gallery, sits high on a hill overlooking downtown Bracebridge. It’s the kind of perch you expect bearing such a name: a century-old home in red brick, with a wide front porch and a collection of art dedicated to nature. Donabie and her husband Hugh Nichols moved there three years ago, transforming part of the building to showcase Donabie’s work as well as others’. “It was never a question I’d name the gallery Heron’s Nest,” she says. “It came to me and it stuck. There is no other name.”
Inside: walls covered with the natural world. Whales. Turtles. Deer. Water lilies. Donabie’s paintings encourage you to step into them, leave behind the noise and haste, pause to communicate without words, appreciate the planet. In a variety of mediums—oil, acrylic, watercolour, Chinese ink—the images “evoke a sensory response and tell a story,” she says. “I’m concerned about the environment. But rather than paint how bad it is, I paint what we’re going to lose if we don’t smarten up and do something to save it.”
The artist’s process starts with a walk and a camera. From drives and hikes with Hugh throughout Muskoka and beyond, Wendie seeks out her next muse. “When I witness a scene that causes my heart to flutter and goose pimples to rise on my skin, I’m moved to capture the moment with a photo,” she says. Back in the studio (situated above the gallery) the image is cropped and often combined with others to develop a composition for a painting. “A preparatory sketch comes next. Then the painting begins, and time loses meaning as the paints, brushes, and palette knives magically pull up images hidden in the fibres. I know a painting is finished when I experience the same emotional response that inspired its creation.”
Donabie’s work ranges from realistic and impressionistic to abstract and even whimsical. Especially riveting: a series of tree renderings that are otherworldly, akin to mystical scenes in Lord of the Rings. In these works, the artist mixes acrylic mediums with tissue paper to create texture. The result is the true ‘look and feel’ of bark and branches—an effect that makes you want to reach out and touch. “I really love trees. Without them humanity couldn’t survive,” she says. Her current series was inspired by Peter Wohlleben’s book, Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, How they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world, in which the author shares the ability trees have to communicate with one another, to nurture and protect not only themselves but species other than their own.
Donabie’s love of art started early but was fleeting. Her talent wasn’t encouraged as a child, yet she recalls visiting an uncle’s studio and loving not only the soft scent of oil paint, but also its sensual, buttery texture. Career and family took her away from art, leading Donabie in a different direction. However, she came back to painting in mid-life after losing her first husband. Courses at Western Tech, Haliburton School of Art, and Sheridan College helped the artist establish an artistic footing. She began writing, too, penning Sea Words, Poetic Reflections, and several years later, Mother Earth – The Mother of Us All. The latter short essay won her an award and became the inspiration of her coffee table book, This Little Rock We Call Earth. A move to Muskoka in 2010 brought new love and recognition. In 2014, Donabie received the Muskoka YWCA Women of Distinction Award for Arts, Culture, and Creative Energy. Today, a portion of each painting sold is donated to the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary for their rehabilitation work in Muskoka.
Heron’s Nest gallery showcases more than Donabie’s growing body of visual art. Five other artists are represented, including Maureen Haines’ stained glass, blacksmith forged decorative ironwork by Deb Harkness, encaustic paintings by Pat Whittle, clay creations by Naomi Frolich, and artisan-designed furniture by Conel O’Regan—all artists drawing their inspiration from the natural world.
The gallery is featured in ARTrail Muskoka, a year-round driving route/map marked by purple flags, which guides visitors to Muskoka artist locations. (See our ARTrail feature HERE). When you spot a purple flag, you know the participating studio is open for business… And when you happen upon a blue heron high on a hill overlooking downtown Bracebridge, you’ll know you need to stop, to pause, to be inspired by nature. It’s not only a sign marking Heron’s Nest studio art gallery. For Wendie Donabie, it’s a message.
To connect with Wendie Donabie and the artists she represents, see WendieDonabie.com. Heron’s Nest is situated 95 Muskoka Road in Bracebridge, not far from the Chapel Gallery. 705-646-3663 @wendiedonabie @heronsneststudiogallery
Images courtesy of Wendie Donabie and the artists of Heron’s Nest.