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A Conversation with Norbert Lemire 

Norbert Lemire’s name alone evokes images of vibrant watercolours bursting on a canvas like a sunset on a lake. We met with Norbert at his home in Laferté, surrounded by the very landscapes that inspire him. Hearing an artist of such talent talk about his creative process was a truly moving experience. 

“Your perception of reality is what comes through in your paintings. But before you can understand that, there’s a long way to go. When I started painting, I gave everything up. Québecor publishing house was just starting up, and Mr. Péladeau had offered me a management position. But me, living in Montréal? No thank you.

I said to myself, ‘Alright, I’m at a crossroads. What do I do now?’ I chose painting. Back to the countryside I went, to the place where I grew up, to find the traces of my childhood and draw little barns, the woods, and a villager picking strawberries.” 

Norbert grew up in Abitibi-Ouest. He spent some time in Sainte-Rose de Poularies, immersed in plowing and harvesting, and in Rapide-Danseur, where he drew inspiration from the river. 

“My father passed away when I was three years old. My mother took a job as a schoolhouse teacher, and we were placed in foster homes around the school in Rapide-Danseur, where I grew up. One day, I met a girl from Montréal. When she moved there, I followed suit. But the Montréal lifestyle was not at all for me. Two years later, I came back. Then, in ’96, I spent two years in Quebec City. But I missed Abitibi too much, so I made my way back here.” 

Despite the opportunities and love stories that took him near and far, Norbert never truly left his beloved Abitibi behind. When he left, it was to better return. 

“When you enter the region, you start to see our spruce trees packed tighter and tighter together. That’s when it really starts to feel like you’re home. When I go to Quebec City and Charlevoix to paint with my friends, I always end up painting the landscapes of Abitibi! It’s involuntary. Yes, there are beautiful sunsets elsewhere, but the most breathtaking ones are right here. Perhaps it’s the altitude. I don’t know, it’s really special. It inspires me, because it’s in moments like these when I feel most like myself. As a painter, I find it important to stay connected to my region, but also to help others discover it. When I create artwork on miners, I’m reliving the memories of my grandfather, my uncles, and even my own. I worked as a miner from ages 16 to 19 at the Wasamac gold mine. I remember a certain Mr. Brisson at the mine telling me, ‘Norbert, you’re so talented at drawing. If you don’t want to spend your life as a miner, you have to get out of here.’ The next day, I quit my job. After that, I was homeless for three years in the streets of Rouyn… Then, I started working as a layout artist for the La Frontière newspaper.” 

Like many artists, Norbert is tenacious. He isn’t afraid of changing course completely if it means respecting his values, and especially, living the way that feels right to him. 

“I quit and got hired again three times. Between each stint, I started a printing service with my screen printing shop. I printed reproductions and t-shirts. I worked as a lettering artist. That was probably the job I loved the most. But I’m glad to have spent the last 40 years as a painter. Yes, I’ve taken a few little side jobs here and there, but I’ve always chosen them carefully.” 

While he does find inspiration in the landscapes, he also discovers it in the experiences these landscapes evoke in him. 

“In Rapide-Danseur, we didn’t even have electricity. We had cows, sheep, and chickens. Those people bought almost nothing from the grocery store. I have memories of chopping wood in the forest, the older ones sitting on the wood pile with the horse farting and dragging along, surrounded by the falling snow.” 

With its four vastly different seasons, unique sunsets, and colourful characters, the region continues to inspire Norbert each and every day. 

“Winter is so beautiful! Sometimes the sun sets over the snow. When that happens, I soak it all in. It’s as though it remains in my deep memory: now and then, I’ll start working on something with no clear direction and it all falls into place on its own.” 

  

These days, Norbert Lemire enjoys sharing his experience through teaching, where in turn, he learns just as much from his students. 

  

“The only thing of value to me in art is that which you dig deep inside of yourself to find. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t always succeed. Occasionally, I’ll get inspired by something new and think, ‘Wow, I’m learning something.’ And strangely, the older I get, the better I am at painting. When I make mistakes is when I learn the most. I don’t get too invested: if it starts off all wrong, the garbage is never very far!” 

Norbert Lemire en vidéo

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