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Reflecting His Light

"Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious … if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things!" Trisha Romance's art is so loved because it embraces this Scripture.

"I want to paint the goodness that is in the world … to keep the positive things in life alive," says Trisha Romance, one of Canada's leading water-colour artists.

All Is Calm
All Is Calm

Trisha's paintings are "bursting with healthy children, picturesque homes and happy, caring families," describes Lynda Porter in Art Impressions magazine. The scenes focus on her daily experiences with her husband, Gary, and her three children Nathan, 14, Tanya, 10, and Whitney, 6. "My children aren't perfect—they're like everyone else's," Trisha admits. "But we do have perfect moments."

"It takes a special talent to recreate the intensity of forgotten emotions," states Christine Boyko in Preview Magazine. "The warmth and compassion transmitted from the water-colours of Trisha Romance have made the Niagara-on-the-Lake resident one of the best loved artists in Canada." Unlike many "nostalgia" painters, her work is not wistful for a bygone era, but awakens the viewer's own memories. Just as the sight of a sleeping child washes away the frustrations of his behaviour during the day, Trisha's images produce feelings of unconditional love for our own family.

Though one critic labelled her work "corny and contrived" and another as "blatantly sentimental," these are not numbered by thousands who treasure the wholesome scenes. Limited-edition, signed reproductions of her originals are sold in over 600 galleries across North America. In 1990, two of Trisha's prints were included in the top ten of U.S. Art Magazine's bestseller list. Since 1989, Romance collectors have been able to enjoy collections of her prints in two books: Celebration of Life, published by The Artists' Garden and The World of Trisha Romance, published by Penguin Books. Enesco Corporation, popular for their Precious Moment figurines, created six limited-edition figurines of her work. In 1992, Trisha, chosen to represent Canadian artists, met the Queen of Jordan during her visit to Ottawa, and in 1993, she again represented the Canadian art community in presenting some of the YTV (Youth Television) awards.

Trisha believes the success of her work is based on her positive focus which is rooted securely in her Christian faith. "From childhood, I have been blessed," says Trisha. "I've never had to search for God. I experienced His miracles at an early age. I've always felt His light and promise. I hope I convey that in my paintings."

Trisha Romance
Trisha Romance

The second of four daughters, Trisha was born in 1951 in Hamburg, New York, to devout Roman Catholic parents. She remembers her early childhood as idyllic and secure. Each day they could roam safely in the nearby woods meeting their father under the chestnut tree after he finished cutting hair in the barber shop. All of them enjoyed drawing, but an unexpected event set the stage for Trisha to become an artist.

At the age of four, painful ulcers struck her right eye and doctors feared they would spread to the other eye leaving her blind. They placed Trisha in hospital isolation. All her comforts, even a favourite doll, were removed and her eyes were bandaged for weeks of darkness. Yet, even in this visual night, Trisha experienced inner light. Day and night her parents prayed by her bedside for her recovery. Eventually, after six weeks, her eyes were healed miraculously and Trisha was left with an overwhelming appreciation of light and God's power. Sight was precious to her and she started to draw everything around her. Trisha had obvious talent and began winning art exhibitions in grade one. "Even then I wanted to be an artist," she recalls.

As the years passed, Trisha found comfort in this focus. "While my sisters were out cheerleading, I stayed behind painting posters." After many discussions with the high school art teacher, Mr. and Mrs. Romance supported Trisha in her desire to leave home and study are at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. Upon graduation she was quickly snapped up by Buffalo Evening News as a fashion illustrator, but after seven months Trisha felt the need to study the "masters" in Europe.

Trisha describes herself as having been the "black sheep" of the family throughout her childhood. "I was the curious one," she says. "I was always asking questions and wanting a practical answer." This curiosity often got her into trouble in a Catholic school where the nuns did not appreciate probing questions and comments on evolution or birth control. With such a forthright personality, it was no surprise to her parents when Trisha tackled Europe alone, with a pup tent and paints.

Trisha was strong-willed and determined to make her own decisions in life. She valued solitude, and found herself relentlessly searching for something. Though the beauty of architecture and timeless paintings brought her to tears of appreciation in every museum and country she travelled, her search ended in a little village with the most unlikely name of Hell, Norway.

"What a perfect place to send my parents a postcard from," thought Trisha, as she stepped off the train at the station by the sea. A small island about 40 feet wide caught her attention as she admired the seashore view. Enjoying a challenge, she walked out through the seaweed at low tide and set up her tent on the island. Later, as the tide moved in and the storm clouds gathered, Trisha realized her mistake, too late. "That night changed my life forever," insists Trisha. While she clung to the tent pole and the flaps whipped free around her, the waves kept knocking her, as if she faced God's wrath for her rebellion. "If you spare my life, Lord," she prayed, "I will change my foolishness, my 'black sheepishness'." She had always been critical of the rituals in her church, but now she found herself thankful for the words that expressed her heart: "Father, you are the end, the purpose and the fulfilment of my life."

Plate: Christmas at the Cottage
Plate: Christmas at the Cottage

The storm cleared with the dawn and Trisha not only found herself alive, but filled with overwhelming peace and joy.

Unfortunately the effects of the high tide stayed since the storm had forced the water to remain in the small inlet. By the end of the day, she spotted a fishing boat on the horizon and waved her tent-pole desperately. When the boat was close enough, she was startled to see one sole fisherman with a face exactly like the stained glass image of Jesus Christ in her church. "At first I thought I was hallucinating," remembers Trisha. "Here was the 'Fisher of Men' coming to rescue me." Though there was a barrier of language, he brought her safely to shore. Trisha's life was saved and she found what she had been searching for. This epiphany brought her into a personal relationship with God and gave her a hunger to know Him better.

Not long after this experience, Trisha returned to Canada and met her husband-to-be, Gary Peterson, who encouraged her in the two most important areas of her life. She began attending a Bible study at his church, and with his support and help, started to sell her paintings. After two years of studying the "greats" it was hard to feel confident—she had been hiding her work under the bed.

Gary managed to convince her to take the risk, and they began to sell them door-to-door "like Girl Guide cookies," recalls Trisha. In 1977, they were married and after a few years, organized her first art show from the farm they rented in Hornby. "We kept looking out the windows wondering if anyone would come." They needn't have worried; the show sold out within the first hour.

Trisha's career has grown in 26 years from hiding paintings under her bed to public recognition across Canada and America. What started as passion for preserving the images of old barns in Ontario grew into the preservation of precious family memories. What began as door-to-door selling of her watercolours at $25 for an original, mushroomed into a booming art business. As well as Trisha's work, The Artists' Garden, the company they formed to market her work, now handles other artists, such as Alex Colville and Philip Craig.

Throughout this time, Trisha and Gary have tried to bring business and life decisions to God. "We take the Lord's blessings and the Lord's directions as they come," says Trisha. They have experienced living through tough times, hand-to-mouth in a one-room flat without a kitchen, and many wonderful years in spacious homes. In both, they have learned to be content, trusting God. What if it were all taken away from you, some have asked. Trisha says with faith: "We can live with nothing—with God's help!"

Like others, Trisha and Gary have had their trials and disappointments. In the early years, worries were often over financial matters. They borrowed money to buy frames and pleaded with bank managers to believe that limited-edition reproductions by an unknown artist would sell. Later, when financial success seemed secure, their youngest child, Whitney, almost died from crib death syndrome leaving her listless and unresponsive for weeks.

Christmas tree ornament: Snow Queen
Christmas tree ornament: Snow Queen

The yearly schedule of numerous art shows at galleries, thousands of prints to be hand-signed, and book tours involving over a hundred engagements, place tremendous pressure on Trisha and the family. Like most working mothers, she battles constantly to make time for her family and keep their lives as normal as possible despite the chaotic lifestyle. "My biggest fear is that one day, 20 years from now, the children will say I was never home," says Trisha. "However, they do realize that they are the focus of my work."

With these demands on her energy, Trisha suffered a physical and emotional burnout in 1989. "I felt totally weak and vulnerable, but God gave Gary the strength to help me," she says. "Gary is often hidden behind the scenes but he has been the wind beneath my wings. I couldn't paint what I do if our marriage wasn't a happy one." Since this crisis, they guard their private time with family. Still, Trisha is plagued with periodic recurrences of eye problems, bursitis in her shoulder and now, damaged tendons in her wrist.

Throughout these pressures, Trisha finds solace in her times of meditation and painting. The household enjoys the help of a nanny for the children, but Trisha tries to paint while they are at school. Her work begins with hundred of ideas and memories that jostle in her head, each a potential painting. Trisha asks God to show her which one would glorify Him the most—which one will make people ask questions about what is important in life.

For Trisha, each painting must have a message or she will be unable to finish it. "I know when it's right for me," she says, "when I can get emotional and cry while I paint." It may be tears of joy, as in the painting of Bright Eyes that portrays her hugging Whitney after her close call with death; it may be tears of pain, as in The Storyteller that portrays a loving great grandmother who has died; or it may be tears of humour, as in Sunday Morning that captures the chaos of the family scramble to get to church.

The messages are always filled with hope. "Sometimes I tuck away little things for people to find," says Trisha. "It might be a Bible on a table, my favourite hymn on the piano, or the Nativity scene under the Christmas tree." They are all symbols of the spiritual foundation that Trisha believes encourages happy family moments. "When people notice them and feel the same emotions I tried to capture," says Trisha, "I feel blessed."

After the message is chosen, Trisha gets down to the slow task of sketching, choosing her composition, and making her colour tests before applying the paint. It usually takes a month to complete a painting. Watercolours are unforgiving; unlike acrylics, mistakes cannot be painted over. "There is a point in every painting," explains Trisha, "where everything is unbalanced. You feel frightened and over-whelmed; the wrong stroke can ruin it all. When I finally think it's finished I breathe a prayer of thanks."

The Conservatory
The Conservatory

What Trisha is striving for is the perfect balance of colour which creates the translucency the viewer sees as light. In all her paintings light is a major focus and conveyer of hope. Even in her early paintings of abandoned homes with moody skies, "I tried to convey hope with a shaft of light coming from a cloud." Today light dominates her work—even in the night scenes the darkness is pierced by warm, yellow beams of light from the windows. "It is as if, rather than seeking to represent light as a sort of substance enclosing objects," comments art authority, David Burnett of Toronto's Drabinsky Art Gallery, "Trisha accepts light as a searching energy … a vital unifying force, intense and revealing."

When Trisha and Gary first entered the run-down, 19th century, Georgian home they have now restored, there was only one box left in the attic by the previous owner. It was filled with crystal prisms that that the family now hangs on their Christmas tree. For Trisha, they are symbols of God's light coming into us: "We can be like prisms reflecting His light like a rainbow of hope, bringing light into the darkness." For her fans, Trish's paintings hang like prisms in their homes, reflecting life-giving moments that feed their souls.

Gail Reid is currently the director of communications for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Originally published in Sally Ann, April 1994.




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