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Artist goes from medical school to power tools

Nanoose Bay painter discovers love of abstract after decades of realism
Abstract artist Cindy Jane Mersky works during an art demonstration at Qualicum Art Supply during Friday's Art Walk.

To say Cindy Jane Mersky took an unorthodox route to a career as an abstract artist lends a new definition to the term understatement. Canada’s early fur trappers and explorers probably had a more direct path.

Some of her earliest art training came in medical school. Her first efforts painting in acrylic were done as watercolours. After years of creating the most rigid works of realism while scoffing at abstract painting, she now creates nothing but abstracts. And she discovered her defining painting technique not with a brush or palette knife, but with a power sander.

“I don’t mind letting people see how I work, because I don’t even know what’s going to happen,” Mersky said while hosting a demonstration at Qualicum Art Supply during last weekend’s Art Walk in Qualicum Beach. “Let’s see what the forgers can do with that.”

A cheerful, upbeat 57-year-old with a lively sense of humour, Mersky works out of Circus Poodle Studio in Nanoose Bay. Her abstract acrylic works, utilizing a textured, multi-layered process taken from the ancient Japanese sword-making form Makume-gane, have earned her residencies and gallery showings from Daugavpils, Latvia to Tbilisi, Georgia, and a double-page feature spread in International Artist Magazine.

“Do art and go to places you’ve never heard of,” Mersky said with a laugh.

And yet, she has only been working in acrylic and in this form for a few years.

She and her husband relocated to Nanoose Bay five years ago after she had spent several years “on the dark side” creating advertising copy as art director for a pharmaceutical advertising firm in Toronto.

Abstract artist Cindy Jane Mersky, left, chats with a visitor while giving an art demonstration at Qualicum Art Supply during Friday's Art Walk. — Image credit: J.R. Rardon/PQB NEWS

Much of her life’s work to that point had been in the medical field, thanks to her acceptance to one of a few coveted spots in a University of Toronto Art as Applied to Medicine degree program in 1982. Mersky already had a four-year diploma in visual communications from the Alberta College of Arts in Calgary and had been working as a graphic artist and photographer when she read a magazine feature about medical illustration.

“I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Mersky said. “Growing up, I was trying to decide whether to be an artist or a doctor. Much to my father’s chagrine, I chose art. He really wanted to have a doctor in the family.”

Dad didn’t get his doctor, but during her first year in the medical art program in Toronto, Mersky and the four other students accepted into the program took classes shoulder-to-shoulder with the first-year medical students.

She had to learn all the medical terminology and an in-depth knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, much of which was picked up via patients in the operating theatre or from cadavers in the anatomy museum.

“It was amazing,” she said. “The last thing I had dissected was a frog, in grade 12. Now I’m standing over a body and thinking, ‘This is real.’”

And realism. With her Bachelor of Science in Art as Applied to Medicine, Mersky took a job in the medical art department, drawing pen-and-ink sketches of body organs, arterial systems and bone structure for Toronto General Hospital.

“Toronto General is a teaching hospital,” she said. “There were two art departments, medical photography and medical art. I was doing illustrations for teaching purposes, or if a doctor was publishing a paper for a medical journal and needed an illustration.”

However, those heady days in the 1980s gave way to the rise of the computer industry, and the job was gradually taken over by computers.

“My son was born in 1989,” she said. “By then, art departments in hospitals were seen as an extreme luxury. There were cutbacks, and they realized they could hire freelancers for the work.”

Rather than submit herself to piecework in a fading career field, Mersky moved on to a firm that created educational materials for doctors looking to upgrade their education. The pharmaceutical advertising job followed, but the seeds of her conversion had been planted.

“Every chance I could get, I took art workshops, landscape classes, photography,” Mersky said. “All that time, I was doing art on my own time.”

With her husband working as an IT technician for IBM, the two were free to move anywhere he had an internet connection. So, with her sights set on landscape painting, she relocated to Vancouver Island.

“This is Mecca for landscapes,” Mersky said. “So we packed everything in a U-Haul and drove, like the Beverly Hillbillies, to Nanoose Bay.”

Her landscape work to that point had been done primarily with watercolours, but she wanted to move into acrylics. So she bought the paints, created works on large canvases, and took some of them in show local artist Disa Hale in hopes of being juried into the Federation of Canadian Artists.

“She said, ‘I’ve never seen watercolours this large,’” Mersky recalls. “They weren’t watercolours; they were acrylic. But I didn’t know how to use acrylics.”

Hale steered the neophyte to a 10-week acrylic painting class with Janice Bridgeman. When the second session rolled around, Mersky was crestfallen.

“We were going to do abstracts, and I didn’t want to do that,” she said. “That’s not art. But I tried it, and it was so freeing. I haven’t done anything but abstracts since.”

For the first couple years she painted in acrylic, Mersky says, she had no defined “style.” But she had been working with polymer clay, sandwiching thin layers of different colours and then pushing a rod or blade through the layers to make the colours swirl and bleed together.

She wanted to get that look in acrylic, and experimented in putting down a backing colour, covering it with a series of polymer circles, then painting another layer. After removing the circles to expose the colour underneath, she wet the canvas and began sanding around the circles to allow the colour underneath to show through.

“I was sanding with heavy-grit sandpaper and wearing down my hands,” she said. “So one day I went to my husband’s side of the garage and found a power sander.”

Afterward, she hung canvases outside, sprayed them with a hose and attacked them with the power sander. Later, she attended a talking art session hosted by Don Farrell, a senior member of the CFA who lives in Qualicum Beach. As part of the sessions, Farrell invites attendees to bring in one or two pieces for critique.

“The first one I took to the critique, he looked at it for awhile without saying anything,” Mersky recalls. “Then he looked up and said, ‘No one else is doing this. Keep doing this until you can’t stand to do them any more. This is your style.’”

The technique does not allow for a great deal of control over the final product, she admits, which is part of its appeal.

“You don’t know what’s going to emerge,” she said. “Sometimes it’s like unwrapping a Christmas present.”

So, has Mersky finally arrived where she wants to be as an artist?

“Oh, no,” she said, noting she has already turned to decollage, another technique based on texture and layers. “I’m still evolving. I know a lot of amazing artists who have reached a point where they know who they are and what they want to be doing. But I’m constantly learning new things.”

Mersky has works on display in Qualicum Beach this month at Coastal Community Credit Union and at Qualicum Arts Supply. To learn more, visit her website at

Artist Cindy Jane Mersky shows off an example of her former career as a medical artist during an art demonstration at Qualicum Art Supply, part of Friday's Art Walk in Qualicum Beach. — Image Credit: J.R. Rardon/PQB News

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