After visiting Zena Bernstein’s Studio on Horse Thief Bay in the Thousand Islands region near the border of Canada and the USA you could find yourself believing in fairies.
Irish poet W.B. Yeats once noted that if you ask the Irish if they believe in fairies you’ll get the answer, “No, but they’re there.”
Yeats wrote a book called The Celtic Twilight. In it, in his ever poetic manner, he wrote: “Hope and Memory have one daughter and her name is Art, and she has built her dwelling far from the desperate field where men hang out garments upon forked boughs to be banners of battle. O beloved daughter of Hope and Memory, be with me for a little.”
That “Art” of whom Yeats wrote could easily be Zena Bernstein. Art lives in her creative soul.
Bernstein’s not Irish, but she knows the fairies are there, all around her.
Her studio is nestled in a wooded area near Rockport, along the St. Lawrence River. As soon as you step onto the short path leading to the studio, you enter another world. Branches twist and caress the studio in a way that seems otherworldly. I almost expect Bilbo Baggins himself to greet me when I walk toward the studio.
“When I was young, my father brought the family to the Rockport area for the last two weeks of August every year,” said Bernstein. “It was a place we loved. When my dad died we thought we’d never get back.”
But when her sister got married, Zena did get back.
“I remember being out in the boat and fell in love with the river again,” she said. “My mother bought a little island in 1957 and we continued to visit every summer. I did my art there. We were thinking of winterizing on the island but that wasn’t going to be possible so my mother and I bought this lot [where Horse Thief Bay Studio is] in 1963 and built the house in 1965.”
Bernstein completed her Bachelor of Fine Art degree at Syracuse University that same year. She now lives in her Rockport studio with her partner, Ian McKhann, a fellow artist.
Zena Bernstein uses a combination of watercolour and acrylics in her work. Through a meticulous process, she carefully places several layers of dots of pure colour to suggest subtle tones and shades. She refers to her creative work as a labour of love.
Her art career began as a book illustrator in New York City. Her drawings range from the natural world of mushrooms and insects to the unseen world of fairies and gnomes.
In 1981 Bernstein officially immigrated to Canada. It’s her home now. It’s also the home of the fairies she draws and writes about.
If you aren’t familiar with the name of this artist, there’s little doubt you’ve seen her work, especially if you have children. Bernstein’s art has graced the pages of many books. The best known is likely Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which went to Hollywood and became The Secret of NIMH. Bernstein was responsible for the delicate, life-like depictions of the animals described in the story.
Bernstein breathes life into the world of the unseen. An exquisite piece I saw was a limited edition print titled The Birth of a Fairy. In nature’s womb, a fairy infant is born. Amidst autumn colours, filled with love and nurtured by the Earth, the newborn fairy could be a poster child for an environmental cause.
Bernstein’s latest project is a book on the world of fairies. She’s finished the writing portion, which she started several years ago. Currently untitled, Bernstein unofficially calls it “My Life with Fairies and Gnomes.” She’s still working on the illustrations.
“I’ve been doing it like a journal,” said Bernstein. “It’s seen through the eyes of an anthropologist who’s studying another culture. I’ve been learning the ways of fairies and gnomes, where they live, their psychology, tools they use, their holidays, what they eat, how they hunt and fish for food. I feel very close to them. It’s almost like a play. I’m trying to stress that if people don’t take care of nature, the fairies will be gone. This is not a legend. It’s a story about life in the woods.”
In her book, she tells the story of the many ways that modern developments affect the fairy world. Bernstein explained that, as we destroy the woods, pollute the rivers and affect nature, we hurt the fairies, gnomes and nymphs. She said that with monstrosity homes being built, beautiful woodlands are destroyed along the river. The noise from cigarette boats kills fairies.
The Alberlings, fairies native to the area, live in a community that is almost circular, about two feet underground. They even have a water filtration system that involves charcoal and sand filtration. The other group of native fairies, Pucums, like to live in the cattails. In the winter they live in the fairy equivalent of longhouses. In her book, she explains, from an anthropological perspective, how beings like gnomes, elves and dwarves emigrated from Europe to North America during times of Viking raids and wars in Europe.
“A certain kind of life is being lost. In the book, I preserve the woods for the fairies.”
Bernstein said that art is important because it helps us understand things without needing words to explain.
“It’s much easier to explain things in a drawing or painting,” she said. “Drawings tell us what went on in the past. With writing, we do not always know how to read ancient languages, but through the art of cultures like the Mayan, we understand their world. Pictographs and cave drawings tell us what went on back to the dawn of time.”
Bernstein feels close to the natural world. In addition to her art, she also uses a microscope and magnifying glass to study things like leaves.
“I love nature,” she said. “I don’t go to church. I have my woods here. That gives me a more religious feeling than going to church in a building. It brings so much peace and it calms the nerves and spirit. I really can’t feel lonely with all of this around me. I don’t think you can really feel depressed in a place like this either. All life surrounds you.”
There is one problem with the studio: It’s like visiting the humane society. It’s hard to come home without something following you. In my case it was “The Birth of a Fairy.” It’s on my living room wall. The soul is soothed.
If you’d like to visit this fascinating artist, her Horse Thief Bay Studio is usually open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but it’s best to call (613-659-2092) first to make sure she’ll be there. To find her, take the Thousand Islands Parkway. Horse Thief Bay Road is 1.9 km past Highway 137 (the road leading to the Thousand Islands Bridge), on your right. The studio is only a few steps in at the first laneway. Be prepared for magic.