Art is Ultimate Expression for Vancouver Painter

Artist Joy Zemel Long sits in the August sunshine with her dog, Honey.

By Lissa Miles

Like a scene from a children’s picture book, the twisted trees and shadowy walkway leading to artist Joy Zemel Long’s West Vancouver home is an idyllic prelude to the colourful world inside.

Long, who has been painting since she was a child, has her self-described autobiographical paintings lining the walls along the staircase in her home, peppering the kitchen and bathroom walls, and watching over the cozy living room.  

The paintings are striking, bold, sometimes dark, sometimes joyful, and sometimes overwhelming en masse.

The living room opens to a windowed room on the southwest side of the home where Long spends much of her time, overlooking the ocean. A treed yard perfectly frames the view of a rocky beach and the Pacific beyond.

“I have my soul sitting on my walls,” said the 91-year-old artist, during a late morning interview over lemonade, sherry and cookies. She was joined by her dog, Honey, and friend and neighbour, Camille Mitchell. “My paintings are inspired by my observations of life. I look around and see things. When I see things, I feel things. When I feel things, I try to express it onto canvas.”

Long is soft spoken and humble when discussing her art. She nonchalantly recounts turning down the Vancouver Art Gallery’s request for her art and tales of Janice Joplin spending the night at her home and flying her to San Francisco. She shrugs and smiles graciously when complimented on one of the countless works hanging in her home, elaborating a little when encouraged by Mitchell.

Born in 1922, Long has lived in the same house since she was six years old.  Her father, Jack Zemel, was a Jewish sign painter, so there were often paints and brushes lying around the house.

“I would just pick up a brush and paint,” said Long. “When I decided to go to art school, my father was against it. He didn’t approve of art school. He believed you could just figure it out and that it couldn’t be taught. He would have liked for me to be a writer or something. That’s why I got married, I suppose. So I could go to art school.”

She attended the Vancouver School of Art and the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Montreal. Her work is based on a solid tradition of French painting reaching back to Post-Impressionism. Her work addresses mother and daughter relationships, domesticity, her Jewish heritage and the life surrounding her seaside home.

Some of her work was inspired by periods of her life: pregnancy, her marriage break-up, living in a house with her mother, Kate Harding, and daughter, Frances.

Long said she would wake up in the night with an idea for a painting. The next day she would sketch it and the following day she would paint it onto a canvas. Sometimes she mixed her own paints, sometimes she painted on orange crates rather than canvases.

Her paintings have been exhibited in Canada and the US, including the Lucien Labault Gallery and the Park Gallery in San Francisco, the New Design Gallery in Vancouver and the Burnaby Art Gallery. She turned down a request from the Vancouver Art Gallery for her work because of the paperwork and red tape it would have entailed.

Mitchell, a critically acclaimed actress, said Long has been a great friend, confidant and inspiration.

“She has had an incredible life and her art work is simply inspired,” said Mitchell. “She has met Jack Kerouac, Canadian poet Bill Bissett, members of The Grateful Dead and she was friends with Janis Joplin.”

In the 60s, Long was involved with other artists who put a little bit of money toward bringing musicians to The Coliseum to perform alongside art exhibits. Through that project, she met numerous musicians and beat poets.

Mitchell said she is drawn to Long’s demeanour, philosophy and her healing presence.

“My son, Charlie, took an immediate liking to Joy when he was young and they have been great friends ever since. He has called her Auntie Joy since he was very young.”

Mitchell said Charlie and Long would wander the beach, paint together, make birthday presents for her. One summer, they built a raft together on the beach.

“I don’t have any grandchildren,” said Long. “But I’ve always felt a polite familiarity with Charlie.”

Mitchell pointed out several of Long’s paintings where an uncanny likeness to Charlie is depicted. However, the paintings were done long before they ever met.

“I have always had a high opinion of Joy – both as a person and as an artist,” said Mitchell. “I suppose that whether you’re an artist or actor or sculptor, you’re inclined to seeing things and observing in a bit of an unusual way. It causes you to be a bit more solitary at times, which can be a blessing and a curse. It can be a bit isolating.”

Having lived in the same house for approximately 85 years, it’s no wonder Long insists she wants to stay there until she dies.

She suffered a stroke about a year ago and was home within two weeks. She has a housekeeper who helps keep the place tidy and Classic LifeCare provides her with home care. Additionally, she receives home care from a government provider.

Daughter Frances, during a phone interview in September, said her priority is making sure her mom stays in her own home.

"She's happy in her own home and that's the most important thing to me," said Frances. "I do my best to support her being in that house so she can enjoy her life as much as possible."

Frances said she and her cousin, Lorna Bravo, visit Long regularly in her home to make sure her needs are met.

“I am not leaving this house willingly,” said Long, with a smile. “As long as I have my wits about me, I will die in this house.”

She said it has been more than a year since she picked up a paintbrush because her breathing and eyesight make it too difficult to paint.

“I absolutely feel a void since I stopped painting. I am very lonely these days and very bored. I can’t really read with my poor eyesight so I watch the news and a friend of mine brought me some books on tape.”

Despite her deteriorated health, Long said she’s quite happy and thankful she can enjoy the company of friends.

While Jewish influences show up in some of her paintings, Long said she doesn’t really believe in a heaven or hell or have any use for religion.

“My father used to say, ‘We’re as near to God sitting on this beach as you can be.’ I don’t know if there’s anything out there after we die, but if there is a god, angels and a heaven, I like to think I’ll talk my way in.”