Donald Ense

Poetry and Paint: Professional Artist Donald Ense Makes Masterpieces Out of Memories

Inspired by a simpler time, Donald Ense makes masterpieces out of memories. Born in Manitoulin Island, he started painting professionally at the age of 23, some fifty years ago. Growing up, he would create designs for his mother to integrate into the clothes or blankets she made for them. He started out copying the comics his uncle would buy, doodled constantly during class and was raised learning about his culture listening to the stories of his great grandparents who lived nearby. From these experiences, an artist was born.

His early art was primitive, because he had no formal training and was just creating through observation. He was able to learn how to use colour and other techniques from a local artist in his area to create his first coloured painting. Alongside his art, Ense worked alongside his father who was a stonemason, building fireplaces for tourists who had cabins around their island.

Ense's art wasn’t just visual, it was also literary. With the influence of his grandfather who was a strong writer and also with exposure to a Canadian poet, Ense started writing poetry and had some published, along with some of his illustrations, by an Ojibwe cultural organization. In the seventies, he taught art and shared stories and legends at the summer camp his community started. Participants would create art from what they imagined during the storytelling.

When he was young, Ense moved to Vancouver and met Bill Reid and Daphne Odjick who mentored him. He painted in the style of the artist, Norval Morisseau, but he started to feel like a copycat. He returned to his own style of drawing and created art based on childhood memories and the way he was raised. He makes art that reminds him of playing hockey, and gathering maple sap. "I dig into my memories of what it used to be like, because right now in this day of automation technology, we've lost touch with more of a basic way of doing things," he laments, thinking of how much more social interaction there once was in a time before cell phones.

Over the years, his visual art style has evolved with influence from Impressionists, combining techniques he’s learned along the way with his own original style of art. He loves using colours in his painting, integrating eight basic colours as his palette that he mixes himself. Ense also makes lino cut prints, a technique he learned in community college and he’s learning to work in pastels, something that allows him to create more dramatic colours.

Illustration by Shaikara David

Memories of working with his hands and moving things with his muscles make him smile, along with  memories of net fishing, hunting, gathering berries, making syrup and the way his grandfather would build boats. He learned how to build boats, too, and would help his grandfather, who came from a long line of boat builders. “Something I really miss is building things,” he confides. His family was full of hunters, gatherers, fishermen and trappers. Ense would help his grandfather trap beaver and sell the pelts to a nearby fur company.

To take care of his mental health, Ense goes walking, plays guitars and writes his own music. He used to play in coffee houses and was mentored by musician David Campbell. His own dad was a country singer and he used to drive him to his gigs. Listening to his dad play guitar, he was inspired, and he started listening to Buffy Sainte Marie and Bob Dylan. He would copy their finger picking styles.

HIs advice for aspiring artists is to have skills and employment to help them through the lean times as they are building their art career. He laments the mistakes he made along the way as he learned how to sell his art, dealing with galleries and collectors. Ense encourages new artists to learn about copyright, to go to art galleries and to visit local artists to learn about their experiences starting out.

Getting his start was hard work but it paid off. He would walk into galleries to introduce himself and share his work. In the beginning he was prolific but his output has slowed down over time. He likes to take his time now when he's making art.

Making masterpieces out of memories, Donald Ense has been an artist for some fifty years. He captures a simpler time in his work, and the imagination of aspiring artists as he shares from his wealth of experience. Evolving from an early practice of copying comic books and doodling in school, he’s now in a class of his own as a professional artist. Mentored by greats, he found his own greatness and expresses it in poetry, paint and pastel for the world to enjoy.

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Ontario
  • Date
    December 20, 2023
  • Discussion Guide
    create to learn discuss

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