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91-year-old painter preparing to stage one-woman show

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Cathy Dobson

An impromptu tour of Jessie Rabbitt’s living room is like reading the story of an extraordinary life.

Over seven decades she has studied art, taught art and continue to paint. At one time she worked in the luxury of her own Montreal studio. Other times she painted with whatever she could scavenge in a remote classroom on James Bay.

Rabbitt, 91, has sold her work, been a part of an art collective, and joined others in countless shows.

And this day, she’s filled her living room with dozens of pieces to select some representatives for her first solo show in Sarnia.

“Over here is one I did when I taught Cree children in the far north in Quebec,” she says, pointing to a small blue watercolour.

“I learned an awful lot living with the Cree for eight years. That’s when I really got into my painting.”

She estimates she produced 600 to 700 pieces in the small community of Chisasibi.

“Everything I did in that period informed what I did later,” Rabbitt said.

Before Chisasibi, there were precise and colourful fashion drawings she did in the ‘40s, when she contemplated becoming a designer.

“I want to keep these,” she said simply. They aren’t for sale.

Paintings that will definitely appear in the show include a large depiction of sails on the lake and several huge abstracts in brilliant yellows and reds.

Many reference human figures and were painted in the late ‘60s at her Montreal studio, she said.

“That was the period when I had my biggest output.”

Rabbitt studied painting in Montreal and earned a degree in fine arts. In fact, she has four degrees and numerous certificates.

“I’m always trying new things,” she explained.

Attributing one style to a woman who has painted over 70 years is impossible. But it’s fair to say her work is colourful, evocative and frequently possesses a translucent quality. She likes layering, and some works are three-dimensional.

Her show is called, “Why Paint?”

“Painting is a physical outlet for this feeling that I have something to give,” she said.  “It’s not ground-breaking but it has satisfied me and I can’t stop.

“I’m still painting because no one has yet told an old lady like me that I can’t.”

Born in the U.S. in 1926, Rabbitt lived in numerous provinces and states before arriving in Sarnia in 1985. She had passed through on the train and Sarnia struck her as “an adorable place where I could find the yellow brick house I always wanted.”

Otherwise she had no ties here, but soon discovered an arts community in which she felt welcomed.

“I feel very fortunate to have connected with such a culturally embracing community as Sarnia,” she said. “There’s been a lot of competition among artists in other places I’ve lived. But here, I find there are so many wonderful patrons of the arts and people who will go the extra mile.”


WHAT:  “Why Paint?” an exhibition by Sarnia artist Jessie Rabbitt

WHEN:  Opening First Friday May 5 – May 31. Rabbitt will attend the opening and take appointments on request.

WHERE: R. W. Lawton Gallery next to the Imperial Theatre. 160 Christina St. North.






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