Sketch of the Artist
Profile by Sean McQuaid
I steal a sip of apple juice while the small, graying brunette across the table continues speaking, repeatedly folding and unfolding her place setting with methodical delicacy. Dale McNevin seems compelled to impose art on her surroundings in one form or another, a trait that serves her well in her career as an illustrator.
McNevin was born on the Island, though her father's military career meant that her family moved frequently. She returned to P.E.I. many years later when she was pregnant with her daughter, and decided to stay.
"I don't like big cities," she says flatly. Her last visit to Toronto was uncomfortable because she couldn't smell the ocean. She felt detached from the landscape.
She also dislikes the anonymity of big cities. "I like to know who my neighbours are," she explains. She believes her art career would not have been possible without the support of friends and associates. "I don't think I would've gotten that in a big city."
Life on P.E.I. hasn't been strictly idyllic, though. A debilitating accident left McNevin unable to work years ago, and she had to find a new way to support herself. "I didn't know what to do," she recalls. That's when she turned to art, or as she puts it, "I made myself a job."
McNevin had no formal artistic training in her youth apart from "doing some posters for the nuns," but she threw herself into drawing regardless. Eventually, a friend noticed her work and insisted that she exhibit some drawings at the Irish Festival. She did, and was astonished when an admirer bought one of her pieces for $150. "I didn't know anyone would buy `em," she marvels. "That opened up a whole new ball game."
Dale began looking for work and started studying art at Holland College. She had a sort of "good cop-bad cop" relationship with her instructors, Nigel Roe and Sandy Carruthers. Carruthers frustrated her with his criticism, but in hindsight she realizes that it helped improve her work. "[Sandy] would make me so mad, and I'd work twice as hard," she recalls. "I thanked him in the end."
McNevin has stayed afloat with a string of commissions, notably the illustrations for The Prince Edward Island Music Series compiled by Rollie MacKinnon and Gordon Belsher. Her most recent credits include the illustration of David Weale's best-selling Island Christmas Reader.
"I think I've been very lucky," she says, despite the modest income of a freelance artist. "I live on very little," she continues. "I don't have great expectations."
McNevin does have future ambitions, though. She wouldn't mind working on another David Weale project, but what she'd really like to do is "something different, something that's gonna make me learn a new technique."
For now, McNevin's plans include more Rollie MacKinnon projects, some modest commissions and an alliance with Anne Putnam, who will produce T-shirts based on McNevin's "topless Anne of Green Gables" design (above). "Everything [on P.E.I.] is Anne, Anne, Anne," McNevin drones. "I had to throw in something cynical."
Cynicism aside, McNevin is thrilled to live and work in a community that she sees as a gold mine of creative talent. "We don't market ourselves nearly enough," she says. Regardless, McNevin hopes to continue mining her own creative gems.