In “Artists’ Album/Lancaster County” — Gerald Lestz's 1983 survey of significant artists from Lancaster County — there is a painting by the late Myrtle Tremblay of an arched stone bridge spanning a creek.
The bare trees on both sides of the creek throw shadows on melting snowbanks and the reflection of the bridge flickers on the surface of the cold water.
Looking at the image, you can feel the gray chill in the air. You can hear the water running over stones in the creek, the distant clip-clop of a horse pulling a buggy and the call of a nearby crow. The painting is obviously the work of a master of watercolor. And, as she did thousands of times during her prolific career, Tremblay once again brought an iconic Lancaster County image to life.
In the quote paired with her painting “Stone Bridge Near Green Dragon,” Tremblay wrote that when she moved to Lancaster she was "impressed with the historical interest and lovely countryside."
Now, during a retrospective exhibit of Tremblay’s work at the New Holland Historical Society Museum, her paintings of Lancaster’s lovely landscapes have become a part of history.
The New Holland Area Historical Society knew it had something special when Tremblay’s estate presented it with boxes of the beloved late artist’s work — much of which had never been seen before.
“The Unseen Works of Myrtle Tremblay” — opening with a reception Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum — showcases some of her well-known Lancaster County pieces (some on loan from collectors and some owned by the Historical Society) beside a selection of never-before-seen work that includes sparkling impressions of foreign locales from Norway to Guatemala, as well as portraits and experimental pieces.
Some of the work is for sale and proceeds will be used to maintain the collection as well as repair some of the paintings that have been damaged over time.
Tremblay — who died in 2011 at the age of 102 — painted thousands of watercolors of Lancaster County landscapes and many collectors can recognize her work simply by her distinctive use of color and delicate, but vivid detail. She was known not only for producing a high volume of high-quality work, but also for being a generous supporter of the art community who was always willing to share her techniques with other artists.
With “Unseen Works,” another side of the artist emerges. Through her lesser-known works and a collection of personal effects including early photographs and documents — such as her heavily stamped passport —Tremblay appears as an adventurous world-traveler and an artist determined to explore her boundless talents.
Visitors can vicariously travel far beyond the limits of Lancaster County with Tremblay and be transported into her past. Photographs of the artist as a young woman beside some taken in her 90s show the same enthusiastic smile.
Trembley and her husband — who died in 1972 — had no children. There were no known relatives and many of the late-artist’s friends and acquaintances are dead. Some people remember her as being very polite, but somewhat distant and perfunctory. Some local artists remember an older woman who would surprise you with a funny comment or provide a helpful tip.
The exhibit brings some color to her life.
“There’s a side of her that we’ve found — whimsy,” says Lou Ann Miller, a volunteer who helped put the exhibit together. “There’s a picture of her sitting on the car, that’s whimsy. There was this humorous side of her and I loved finding that out about her.”
As a watercolorist herself, Miller marvels at Tremblay’s use of blue in a painting of the Chorfa Gate in Morocco. “The blue in the sky. How did she see that? How did she get that blue?”
It’s true — in the hands of an artist with the prodigious talent that Tremblay possessed, blue becomes more than just blue. The color seems to vibrate with life.
“Unseen Works” adds another dimension to the self-taught artist’s work — especially through some of her early experiments.
“You can really see her evolution as an artist,” Miller says.
Another painting, “Woodstock after John Pike,” is done differently than the others and shows an artist experimenting with style and learning from one of her contemporaries.
Don Horning, a member of the board of directors of the New Holland Area Historical Society, who also volunteered his time to put together the museum’s first foray into the art world, was equally impressed with Tremblay’s adventurous spirit. He points out that as a young woman in the 1930s, Tremblay traveled alone to Cartagena, Colombia and later made her way around the Caribbean in a banana boat while she sketched and painted her surroundings.
“She has a very detailed travel diary,” Horning says. “She was very meticulous in the travel diary, but there’s not the same amount of detail about the art.”
Visitors can read over a timeline of Tremblay’s life. Some quick highlights of her barebones bio include: Bachelor of Science degree at Central Michigan University in 1929, travels to Colombia and other parts of the world in 1937, marries Louis Roland Tremblay in 1948, moves to New Holland in 1952, travels to Peru (1953), Norway (1959), France 1969) and Guatemala, the Caribbean and Mexican in the 1970's and '80s. Tremblay stopped painting in 2004 and passed away in 2011.
The historical society is hoping visitors who knew Tremblay will attend the opening and share stories and memories about her and fill in some of the gaps of her story. (One quick example: the artist once provided local police with a sketch of a criminal that led to an arrest.)
Horning also contacted Garden Spot Village (where Tremblay spent her last years) resident and art expert Win Reber to help with biographical research and provide insight on Tremblay’s evolution as an artist — as well as to matt the more than 60 paintings.
“I believe the most impressive thing is her experimentation,” Reber says. “She was never satisfied and always trying new techniques and ways. Amazingly enough, she was very successful in all of these paintings too. She always understands her subject and represents it very well.”
Besides this collection of career-spanning work (just a drop in the bucket of her artistic output), Tremblay left another gift to the Lancaster art community. In her will, the longtime member of the Lancaster County Art Association, left money for a $1,000 scholarship to be given annually in her name. (The deadline for this year’s scholarship is Saturday. More information can be found on the association’s website, lcaaonline.org).
Carol Herr, the director for the association’s gallery and an impressionist landscape artist working with oils, notes that she, like many Lancaster County artists, shares Tremblay’s love for the beautiful local landscape.
“I hate to see so much of it disappear,” Herr says. “(Tremblay) appreciated the Lancaster County landscape. She did so many paintings of it. She was obviously inspired.”
Tremblay shared Herr’s sentiment about the disappearing landscape. In the last part of her statement in “Artists’ Album/ Lancaster County,” Tremblay writes “This is supposed to be the Garden Spot. The farms are being gobbled up for factories and other buildings. What will be used for farms?”
Tremblay did her part to preserve the beauty of Lancaster County — and the area appears even more idyllic through her eyes — with her masterful works of art. She also ensured the future of Lancaster’s art scene with her scholarship. She’s an important figure who helped usher in the current vibrant art scene here in the area — and “Unseen Works” offers some insight on the life of one of Lancaster’s most important artists.