Every wall of Mabel Brubacher’s room is lined with paintings. There are watercolours of farm scenes and flowers alongside landscapes done in acrylic. There are even paintings on the walls of the bathroom, and more of them stashed in the shower.
The artwork in her room at Chateau Gardens is just a small fraction of her creative output over more than 50 years of painting.
In December, one of those paintings was chosen for the holiday greeting card for Chartwell Seniors Housing, which owns a number of seniors’ residences across the country, including Chateau Gardens. Brubacher was surprised to learn that her painting won the annual greeting card contest; she was even more astonished to learn that 11,000 copies of the card were ordered at Chartwell homes across Canada.
Brubacher’s winning painting is a winter landscape done in watercolour. It depicts a family bundled in a horse-drawn sleigh cutting through white drifts and framed by snow-covered trees.
Brubacher had always enjoyed art classes in school, but she got more serious about painting after finishing her nursing course.
She worked for a year or two at Freeport Hospital in Kitchener – a tuberculosis hospital at that time – then got a job at the Elmira Nursing Home, which is now Chateau Gardens. In 1954, she and her husband Francis and another couple, Beatrice and Joe Snyder, bought the facility together.
Brubacher took her first painting classes in the evenings at Elmira High School at the suggestion of her friend Sue Weber.
“The first picture I did was a bowl of fruit, and I still have it,” she chuckled.
The most difficult thing to learn was perspective, she found. She drew bowl after bowl, struggling to get it to look like it was three-dimensional. Finally she took it to Sue and showed her.
“If you just make this line a little bit longer…” Sue suggested. It was like a miracle, Brubacher said; just one little change and the bowl looked true to life.
One of the paintings on her wall depicts the red brick house in Kitchener where the Brubachers lived. The family moved to Kitchener after selling the Elmira Nursing Home in 1962. Four years later, they opened Green Gables Nursing Home, which had space for 20 residents.
At that point, Brubacher hadn’t painted for a few years, but she got back into it shortly after they started Green Gables. She took classes with Peter Etril Snyder, who suggested she switch from oils to acrylics.
“He said, ‘It’ll be like starting over; why don’t you start in acrylics?’”
The Brubachers sold Green Gables in 1982. After she retired, Mabel started working in watercolour. She had always enjoyed putting the waste coat on the canvas when painting with oils; she painted more freely knowing it would be covered.
“I liked what I did with that loose way of painting,” she said. “I just took a notion to try it.”
Flowers are her favourite subject, but Brubacher also enjoys painting scenes of rural and farm life. She has given up canvas in favour of painting cards, which she can do on the table in front of her window at Chateau Gardens.
She learned about the greeting card contest from Vicky Rau, the recreation coordinator at Chateau Gardens. Rau collected entries from all the residents with artistic hobbies and knew that Brubacher had plenty of pieces to choose from. Not only are there paintings all around Brubacher’s room, but she had helped Brubacher organize a show of 45 of her paintings at Chateau Gardens.
There were more than 100 submissions from residents of Chartwell homes across the country, so it was an exciting moment when they learned that Brubacher’s painting was the winner.
It can be frustrating when something doesn’t come out quite right, but painting has always been a relaxing pastime for Brubacher. In the days that she was nursing, it was a nice change of pace from work.
“Sometimes my dining room looked a mess, but I was painting,” she chuckled.