Jo Manning

Nov 2016

James Bay Gem

By Liz Carroll

Crumpled white shirts, tactile tree trunks, listing fence posts, undulating grasses. They captured artist Jo Manning’s attention, challenged her interpretive skills. She would use them as themes.

 The multi-award-winning James Bay  printmaker, etcher, water colourist, and  oilpainter has added “author” to her creative  accomplishments. Etched in Time, a memoir,  was locally launched recently and has  attracted attention in and out of the art  world. It’s a good read.

 Jo always considered the Victoria area home.  After all, she was born in Sidney and, 92  years later, lives in James Bay. Of course,  there was a bit of a residential“time out” of  about seven decades, during which she  pursued her studies (Ontario College of Art); married (twice); raised four children (Peter, Paul, Mary, Ann); and gained international artistic renown. Her works were awarded prestigious prizes and exhibited in highly ranked galleries.

Jo’s interest in art was fostered by her doctor father who gifted her with tools of his painting hobby for Christmas and birthdays. But it was a book, recommended to teenage Jo by a visiting miniaturist in Amherstburg, Ontario, “that was seminal. He told me to read Rockwell Kent’s big book about 100 artists. I did.” She was hooked.

“I told my parents I planned to enrol at the Ontario College of Art.” They were not amused. In their minds it was a given that Jo would follow her father into medicine. She was adamant.

She studied painting and drawing, graduating from OCA in 1945.

Real life intervened when she met and married Klaus Rothfels, a German-Jewish refugee, a botanist who became a geneticist, whose passion was the chromosomes of the grasshopper. “Under a microscope science is mesmerizing, beautiful,” recalls Jo, ever the artist.

Living in a subdivision, Jo “set up a little studio with a big picture window. I would bring bundles of wild growth home and, while the children were napping, I painted. I still love grasses. When I can, I go to Holland Point and watch the way they move in the wind.”

When her marriage disintegrated, a slow, painful process, Jo went back to OCA to study etching and printmaking. “My first piece was grass. I did some etchings of tree trunks, loving the way light plays on the bark, this was my Goddess of the Trees series.”

Weathered fence posts on country lanes caught her eye and reminded her of the Standing Stones in Scotland. “To me these old, original posts were iconic.”

Like most things creative her “Shirt” series was unplanned, serendipitous (one example is on the cover of her memoir).

“I was going through a bad time. One day I was doing laundry and tossed a white shirt onto a cot. It lay there, crumpled, and I realized how beautiful it was, how meaningful to someone who felt rebuffed, rejected. I drew it and started making etchings of shirts. I was at a disastrous time in my life.” The works earned praise and prizes.

“Years later I used the theme to express how upset I was about crashing my car into a parking garage wall and shattering my leg.” That 1996 disaster culminated in a new hip, which is still “working really well”.

Printmaking was thriving in the seventies and Jo received international accolades. “We did a lot of innovative stuff.” In addition to exhibiting her “stuff,” Jo was teaching printmaking and etching and loving it, and she was involved with Graphic Arts and Painter-Etchers and Engravers Societies.

Then a noted printmaker started to mass produce signed and numbered reproductions. The bell tolled. “Our market crashed. Printmaking as we knew it died.”

Toxic chemicals used in etching were affecting her health. She went back to painting.

Jo met Al Beecroft in the eighties. “He brought joy into my life. He was very exciting, an expert in ink, paper, and colouring. My friends latched on to him, went to him for advice. He changed a lot of careers, made them better. We lived together for many years before we married.”

To escape Ontario winters the couple went to warmer climes, like Cuba. Then, in the nineties, “we came to Victoria. After a few winters here we decided to make it our home.” They bought a house on Montreal Street. Declining health forced Al into a care facility. He died in 2012.

Jo has an apartment in a James Bay independent-living facility where she is on the Food Committee. “We have good meetings, the chef listens.” There’s a tree outside her balcony and she keeps binoculars handy to watch the birds. But most of the time she’s at her computer. She writes every day, short pieces. “I have about a hundred pages. I’m working on a book about the nineties.” Her nineties, not the decade.

Artist/Writer nonagenarian Jo Manning has a few ailments but shrugs them off. “I’m too busy to die,” laughs this creative James Bay Gem.