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.


Just Looking and Other Essays

In these essays Toronto writer Helen McLean meditates on her world with a painter’s eye. What at first appear to be simple observations often mask unusual and startling perceptions that prompt the surprised reader to say “why, of course!”

She examines the puzzle of why an artist feels compelled to paint. What is it that captures his attention, and how does he go about reproducing that first perception in his studio, days or weeks later?

Does an artist record what he sees or what experience has taught him? She inveighs against phoniness in art and the contemporary lack of rigour that Umberto Eco calls an “orgy of tolerance.” Just Looking might have been called “just living.”

Just Looking and Other Essays by Helen McLean
Seraphim Editions, 2008
122 pp,

Available at Indigo Books, Amazon.ca and The Book Band, http://www.thebookband.com/


Little guesswork is required in Helen McLean’s Just Looking. She tells us exactly what she thinks about art, and life, and aging, and looking. Over-cerebralizing, she says early on, diminishes the direct perception of what is before one’s eyes. “Becoming aware of oneself as observer is the death of observation. Oh, I can still see the landscape, but it has separated itself into parts that can’t be put together again. The scene has ceased to be a whole. I have particularized it to death.”

The only way she has been able to un-fracture the fractured, McLean tells us, is by translating it into paint and canvas; in so doing, she experiences feelings both of timelessness and loss of self. When you are addicted to looking, she says, you are forever being thrown off balance, shaken up, transported.

Her essays go on to describe the unsettling influence artist Pierre Bonnard has had on her work, the strengths of her heroines Margaret Laurence and Carolyn Heilbrun, life’s brevity and time’s irrelevance. They discuss too the importance of quality over quantity of life, the wisdom of C..S. Lewis, Paul Tillich and Seneca, and lessons such as: “Living well means staying awake, and listening, looking and noticing things. It’s the entrenched routines, the fixed opinions and attitudes which eliminate the need for thought or decision that will find us rearing bolt upright on our deathbeds, belatedly aware that we’ve spent this precious gift of time sleepwalking.”

Finally, for one resonating observation alone, McLean’s sweet, wise little book, reminiscent at times of Winston Churchill’s Painting as Pastime, is very much worth reading: “I am convinced that many, if not most of us, live with an unexamined awareness in some deep level of our hearts that our place of birth was arbitrary and home is elsewhere.”
Nigel Beale, Nota Bene Books, January 2009.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the Globe and Mail, January 2009 .