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Local artist inspired by Orillia scenes

Mehreen Shahid

By Mehreen Shahid, Special to the Packet & Times

Mehreen Shahid/The Packet & Times
Local artist Shirley Byers shares with her viewers a special perspective of Orillia, a view through her eyes.

Mehreen Shahid/The Packet & Times Local artist Shirley Byers shares with her viewers a special perspective of Orillia, a view through her eyes.

Everything in Shirley Byers’s home is about art.

“What I remember about her is she was always painting,” said Sylvia Vaughan, Byers’s granddaughter. “It was the best kind of upbringing. She even got me and my sister painting.

“Every kid has a plaque with their name on it in their room painted by her and she’s painted all the kids’ timeout chairs, too. If you stay still long enough, she’ll paint you,” she added.

Byers paints on whatever catches her eye, for example on hand saws, cupboard doors, paddles, horseshoes, pails and even old slates that came from the roof of Orillia Opera House.

The 72-year-old has been painting for over three decades. Her usual subjects include anything that catches her fancy or holds a sentimental value for her, such as paintings of the Orillia Museum of Art and History and the Huronia Regional Centre, where her brother was a resident.

“My brother was in the institution out there, and he worked on the farm,” said Byers. “It was his happy place.”

But her happy place is Orillia, which she presents to viewers through another one of her prized works. A contrast from her usually colourful paintings, the black and white depiction of how she sees Orillia helps focus on what is contained in the painting, Byers said.

“It’s all the things I remember having grown up in Orillia: going to the park, the fire hall, the opera house,” she said. “It’s the things I remember about it (the city), and it makes me feel happy and safe.” 

What started out as a representation of the Sunshine City’s logo was soon surrounded by landmarks, famous people and their achievements, such as the Champlain Monument, Stephen Leacock and the Tudhope car and factory.

Even though she has been producing and selling art at the local farmer’s market for more than three decades, Byers said, this wasn’t always her chosen path.

“When I was young and in school, I had dyslexia, so my words would go before themselves,” she said. “I had a hard time at school, but at Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving, my teachers allowed me to paint at school on boards, or anything that needed decoration. I thought it was because I had been behaving well — I never realized it was because I had a bit of a talent.”

Several years later, an innocent sale of one of her paintings on a rock by her then-seven-year-old son, gave her pause to consider making art to be sold.

“It relaxes me,” said Byers. “My husband can tell my moods from my paintings. If I’m upset, it helps me get over my frustration. After I lost my son, a lot of my paintings were really dark. So I used my painting as a tool for survival.”

What makes her happiest is painting farm scenes she has come across around Orillia and area, especially in the winter. 

“Because you get to use a lot of blues, and that’s my favourite colour,” said Byers. “People think of shadows as being grey, I think of them as mauve or blue, so the more shadows I can get into a painting, the happier it makes me.”

And she believes if the artist is happy, then the viewer will be happy, too.

But more importantly, for her husband, “A happy wife is a happy life,” said Charlie Byers, with a laugh.

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