I wear two hats. I write books (8 so far) and for newspapers and magazines. For two decades, I contributed a popular weekly gardening column called The Real Dirt to the Toronto Star which ended in March 2018. (You can still read these columns in the Toronto Star)
But I’ve always been serious about my “other life” as a painter. And I can never decide which comes first–writing or art. I tend to write obsessively when doing a book, then I will pick up my brushes again and not sit at the keyboard for months (except to crank out a welcome paying article for a magazine or newspaper.)
Of the two, art probably comes most naturally because of my background. My grandfather, Walter Percy Day, was an eccentric British artist who attended the Royal Academy and would jump on his hat in a rage when a portrait wasn’t “going right.” But he’s become famous for his pioneer work in matte painting for the film industry, first in France and then England, where he received an OBE for his efforts.
My uncle Peter Ellenshaw, took this painting-on-glass technique to California and won an Oscar for special effects in the Disney movie Mary Poppins. My cousin, Harrison Ellenshaw, continued the family tradition capturing an Academy Award for special effects in Star Wars.
But then there’s the writing side. My sister Susan Day, is also an author. She recently concluded a successful career as an art historian in Paris where she wrote several books, notably on Art Deco and Islamic textiles. And our mother, Irene Day, was pretty good at poetry. Our father, Tom Day, broke the mold somewhat. A film cameraman and photographer, he had a lust for adventure, and hauled us off on a banana boat to live in Jamaica when I was 14. Later, we moved to Nassau, Bahamas, which I still regard as home.
How did my own working life begin? As a cub reporter for the Nassau Guardian, where I got to meet the likes of Sean Connery and the Beatles. (Both came to the Bahamas to make movies.) But I painted as well–selling watercolours of the colourful Nassau waterfront to tourists. I then left home to work for newspapers and magazines in England, the Cayman Islands and Costa Rica. I was also a writer for the Bermuda Department of Tourism – a fun job which provided plenty of spare time to paint the island’s lovely scenery and then display the results in the lobby of the swanky Princess Hotel in Hamilton.
Deciding (don’t ask me why) that I wanted to experience snow and to learn to ski, I quit the tropics and emigrated to Canada in my late twenties. I found work on a crummy weekly rag called The Sunday Express in Montreal. Then for years, I was a corporate writer and editor there and in Toronto – the only time in my lIfe I’ve ever earned real money. (I never quite got the hang of downhill skiing, but still love to snowshoe.)
In middle age, interested in growing things, I became a Master Gardener and wrote for magazines like Canadian Gardening, where I also had a humour column. Weekly columns for the Toronto Star, plus six plant-related books, commissioned by Canadian publishers, kept me busy too.
Along the way, I met a graphic artist named Barrie Murdock. We lived in Costa Rica, Montreal and later Toronto, where – between freelance corporate communication gigs – I carried on painting. Our shows of my work every November at our home in Bloor West Village were jam-packed, with lots of sales.
Then, abruptly, that ended. On impulse, we bought a dilapidated country farmhouse with 48 overgrown acres, in the wilds of southwestern Ontario. Our 20 years there –northeast of Fergus on a dirt road, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else – were a wonderful adventure, full of surprises and quirky rural characters. I chronicled them in a memoir, Middle-Aged Spread, Moving to the Country at 50, published by Key Porter Books. (Available at any public library. Also used copies on Amazon.) I followed this up with my first novel, Deer Eyes (also on Amazon) a middle-aged love story about a hunter and a woman from the city.
And now? Ice storms, endless driving, a huge garden and hauling 30-pound bags of wood chips indoors for our pellet stove eventually wore us out. So we reluctantly downsized. Our home – since fall, 2018 – is a 1930s brick house in the centre of historic Fergus, Ontario, where we can walk to everything. And as I write this, I’m looking out on the gorgeous, gushing Grand River – because it’s right in my backyard.
Beside this little bit of heaven, I continue to write and paint – and occasionally do speaking engagements.
~ Sonia Day