Helen McLean's prose is lucid and evocative. She is at her best in conveying the appeal of a place where she feels spiritually at home, whether that is a spartan cottage on Lake Ontario or a villa in the vineyards of Piemonte. This multi-talented artist is an inspiration to all women and proves that it is never too late to achieve self-fulfilment.    

Canadian Book Review Annual.


Details From a Larger Canvas

Details From a Larger Canvas

In this memoir Helen McLean creates a moving portrait of a woman driven to develop her talents as an artist, struggling against the illiberal social pressures of the Fifties while outwardly conforming to the roles she and her contemporaries are expected to perform. Set in Toronto, New York State, England, Calgary, rural Ontario and Italy, Details From a Larger Canvas  traces the growth and changes of an artist’s sensibility with language that is lucid and frequently poetic: words are as much Helen McLean’s medium as the acrylics with which she loves to paint.

Helen McLean lives in Toronto. She has exhibited her paintings across Canada, and has also been a teacher and a journalist.


. . .While Jackson Pollock was being feted as the next big thing in the New York art world, Helen McLean spent an all-too-brief year studying art in Utica, NY. , a good Toronto daughter whese parents agreed to indulge her dream of attending art school after she had completed a degree at the University of Toronto. In 1950 she became a wife, and soon after the mother of three children. . . .McLean says she lacked the necessary courage to rebel against the “pernicious fifties” in pursuit of a career in art. When she did finally rebel the revolution was a quiet one, but readers will applaud it nonetheless.

The memoir opens with an account of McLean’s summer job as a fruit-picker in Grimsby, Ont, circa 1944, and closes as she and her husband assist with a grape harvest in the Northern Italian district of Piemonte.

The chapter Painting Margaret Laurence is especially moving. Here we encounter two women of the same certain age working in two very different creative mediums, both of them with a first-hand understanding of the strain involved in balancing artistic ambitions with domestic demands. McLean’s recollection of sketching one of Canada’s most beloved authors at home in Laurence’s kitchen in Lakefield, Ont, is powerful portraiture in itself.

Details from a Larger Canvas is just that. Written with the descriptive warmth of a good short-story collection, McLean’s memoir takes us along with her as she and her family move from Toronto to London, England, on to Calgary, and then to a farm just outside of Peterborough, Ontario.

. . .Meditations on aging, creative restlessness and delf-doubt are tucked into passages describing the places and people she encountered throughout her life.

It’s a shame that younger readers are more often drawn to tales of hedonism and tragedy when it comes to the lives of artists, because here is a quiet parable about the importance of making room for what matters to the soul. Then again, McLean may also be suggesting that the journey to art takes as long as it’s meant to.
Marnie Woodrow , May 2001, TheGlobe and Mail

Like so many women of her generation, Helen Mclean gave up her earlier ambitions for marriage and child-rearing. . .Deciphering a bout of midlife melancholy as a message, she  gradually managed to rearrange her life so she could paint again.

Her memoir — a collection of 14 vignettes — begins in the summer of 1944. . . With almost every male in Canada off at war she joins the farmerettes, teenage girles hired by the government to pick fruit on Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Her reminiscences of picking peaches, cherries and apples for a good-looking young farmer and flirting with him unashamedly, evoke a carefree interlude of innocent sensuality.

“The sun shot ruby light through bunches of ripe cherries hanging before my eyes, and I could smell their juice on my fingers and taste their astringent flavour on my tongue, and it all made me feel burstingly alive, as full with my own blood as those cherries were with their juice.  It was a happiness almost too powerful to bear, a sensation of being filled, overwhelmed, by something that might disappear if thought about, or given a name. . .”

Details from a Larger Canvas, McLean’s third book, is entertaining, even poignant. . .and the writing sparkles   —  especially the descriptions of years spent in London and a stay in northern Italy. This tale of an artist’s search for her muse, interwoven with the coming-of-age narrative of a Toronto-born Canadian, has much to offer. . .
Elizabeth Godley, Vancouver Sun.  2001

Helen McLean is an accomplished artist and writer who struggled against society’s expectations for women of her time. . .    The patterns of her life seemed preordained. . .  In the 1950s, women’s jobs were only stepping stones to marriage and motherhood, still the ultimate goals for women. . .

It was during an 11-year sojourn in Calgary in the 1960s that the restrictions of McLean’s life crystalized.   While acknowledging the grandeur of the landscape, she found it unforgiving and artistically uninspiring. A move to an Ontario farm  alleviated her malaise, but the priorities imposed by a busy country life were also limiting. At the age of 50, she left her family for a year to devote herself to painting and rediscover the artist within. Since then, her landscapes, still lifes and sensitive portraits, like that of Margaret Laurence, have brought her recognition as an artist.

McLean’s prose is lucid and evocative. She is at her best in conveying the appeal of a place where she feels spiritually at home,whether that is a spartan cottage on Lake Ontario or a villa in the vineyards of Piemonte. This  multi-talented artist is an inspiration to all women who have set aside their  talent. . . and proves that it is never too late to achieve self fulfilment.
Canadian Book Review Annual