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.


Sketching from Memory

a Portrait of My Mother, 

Cover drawings by the author.


Helen Mclean is best known to her public as an artist, but in this book she’s something quite different — a very private person, a young girl growing up in the Toronto of the nineten-thirties, where she and her family tried, usually in vain, to fit in. Now older than the mother of her memories she recalls that awkward, courageous figure, and the small provincial city where she lived, with a clear eye and a warm heart.

Oberon Press, Ottawa, 1994

Available from Amazon.ca or Indigo Books


Anyone who grew up in Ontario in the 1930s and has a bent for nostalgia will cherish Helen McLean’s beautifully written memoir, Sketching from Memory.  McLean’s slim attractive volume is not just a portrait of an eccentric personality; it is a backward glance at a lost and lamented time.

Mclean was born in Toronto . . . and she recalls vividly and with affection the long-forgotten almost somnolent Toronto of house-to-house milk and bread delivery, of coal and ice brought to the door by horse-drawn wagon, of walking to school in safe neighbourhoods and of a downtown edged along the lake with spacious parkland. She remembers maids who worked for $25 a month and doctors who made house calls.

McLean’s mother, however, is the centrepiece of Sketching From Memory and her brooding presence casts a long shadow over McLean’s colourful store of recollections. Although a woman of “feisty optimism and courage” she was also a woman whose. . . difficult personality intimidated her family, who felt the threat of her anger and hurt feelings to be the directing force in most of their affairs.

She describes her “contentious and difficult family life” with the calm assurance of hindsight. Her memories of Christmas are so distasteful that to this day she finds the holiday difficult. She describes it as a drawn-out time of frantic cooking and baking, of ill-chosen gifts to be exclaimed over, and of stilted visits to little known relatives. It was “a time of anxiety and apprehension,” a season of “feigned enjoyment, of disappointment and sadness, of activities that were supposed to be a pleasure but were really a trial of endurance. “

Still, amid rueful memories of the jumbled joys and distresses, McLean’s flurry of nostalgia is both appealing and without false sentiment. She conjures up, with rare precision, long-forgotten trappings of the past; Coronet magazine, Singer sewing machines with noisy pedals, white sugar sandwiches, the King George motorcade in 1939 and one welcome Christmas gift, a short, flared skating skirt of black velvet lined with taffeta which made her feel like Sonja Henie.

McLean is an artist who, after graduation from the University of Toronto, studied painting in Utica, New York. She taught in the art department of the University Of Calgary, designed costumes for Theatre Calgary and was art critic for The Albertan. She lives in Toronto.
Nancy Schiefer , London Free Press 1994

“I don’t know whether there is such a thing as an average family, or normal family life, but I considered my parents odd. . .”

In doing so Canadian artist Helen McLean probably resembles children the world over.  The difference is that McLean, a painter, costume designer, art critic and teacher, has chosen to write about it. Sketching from Memory is, among other things, her brief but absorbing account of the oddly matched couple who became her mom and dad.

McLean, who contributed articles and drawings to The Globe and Mail regularly from 1955 to 1959, was born in Toronto  when the city still boasted vast stretches of waterfront parkland and just about everything — milk, bread, coal and ice,  — was delivered by horse-drawn wagon.

Her father was a lawyer who had grown up on a farm, and her mother had been raised by guardians when her own 17-year-old mother virtually abandoned her. Like many couples at the time, they met in a church. Their differences evidently united them — initially, at least.

Father, dour, brainy and undemonstrative, and Mother, feisty and mercurial, spontaneous and demanding, were certainly well mismatched. “Mother read Good Housekeeping”  notes McLean, “Father read Good Literature.”

From the vantage point of maturity, McLean writes with a keen eye for the ridiculous —­ a protestant who attended Catholic school in the thirties, she dutifully “prayed for Franco, the Fascist, who was a good Catholic and had God on his side”— but not without feeling.

Though subtitled “A portrait of My Mother,” this book is in fact a cameo of a family . . . that contorted itself painfully in an effort to fit in. Compassionately and vividly, McLean depicts the self-conscious awkwardness of two people — her parents — setting out in the height of the Depression and attempting, without financial, social or familial support, to patch together a culture and a tradition. They didn’t succeed; as a result, writes McLean, “we lived a bit like fleas on a griddle, not knowing which way we might jump next.”

Sketching from Memory  is a quick sketch, yes, but not a careless one; an unsentimental yet affectionate personal memoir, it is also an interesting glimpse of still small-town Toronto in the thirties, forties and fifties.
Kathleen Byrne,The Globe and Mail, Nov 1994