Creativity flows in Trisha Romance's family
Written by Mary Wiley
Photographed by Denis Cahill
Paintings by Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Trisha Romance have travelled around the globe, but the artist’s heart and soul are rooted right here at home in Niagara. Romance and her husband Gary Peterson share a strong faith and commitment to family that transcends their phenomenal success. Together they’ve nurtured a famous Canadian art business and a family culture so rich in creative expression that the best is likely yet to come.
Fans of Trisha’s paintings may already feel they know the couple’s three children, Nathan, Tanya and Whitney. After all, as youngsters they were the focus of many of her works. Now that they are older, their individual artistic talents are blossoming, much to their loving parents’ delight. All three have been encouraged to follow their right-brain intuition and express themselves from the soul.
The story of the Romance-Peterson family begins with the almost ethereal tale of Trisha’s life. Her course toward success seems guided by a powerful force from above that she believes will continue to light the way. “I truly feel blessed every day,” says Trisha. “I don’t just believe in miracles, I rely on them.”
Fifty-four-year-old Romance recalls knowing she wanted to be an artist from a very early age. She and her three sisters were raised in a country home near Hamburg, N.Y. “My mother always supported creativity,” recalls Romance. “She set up a big table in the basement, with art and craft supplies, allowed us to make a mess and encouraged us to be as imaginative as possible.”
Mentored by a high school art teacher to pursue her artistic talent, Trisha was introduced to watercolour – now her signature medium. “I look back and think it’s amazing that my teacher wanted me to work with watercolour. It can be very unforgiving, so many teachers prefer to shy away from it,” notes Romance.
That high school mentoring resulted in scholarship offers to art schools in both New York City and Pittsburgh. Upon investigating the schools, Trisha declined, because they did not inspire her. It was then she decided to look north of the border. Sheridan College in Oakville was opening its doors in 1969, and Romance became their first American student, studying graphic design and fashion illustration.
Tanya displays one of her sculptures
Upon graduation, she worked briefly as a fashion illustrator for the Buffalo Evening News. A yearning to study classical art took her to Europe for two years. Back in Toronto, she met her future husband through a mutual friend. “I commented on how much I loved this house that we were driving by, across from High Park, and my friend said it was Gary Peterson’s home, and we just had to drop in and say hello,” remembers Trisha.
It was friendship at first sight. Gary was an actor and Trisha was selling art door-to-door. Sensing Gary was a born salesman, she convinced him to join her. Eventually, Trisha revealed to Gary that she had done some paintings of her own. She had been hiding them under her bed, thinking they couldn’t possibly compare to the great works she had studied in Europe. Gary recalls immediately seeing the appeal of her paintings, believing he could help market them.
The friends became a couple, marrying in 1977. They lived on a rented farm near Hornby, doing successful art shows from their home for six years. While still in Hornby, the couple’s oldest child, Nathan, who is now 25, was born.
Trisha’s love for Ontario’s farmsteads shows in her paintings from the 1970s. In celebration of their 25th year in business, Trisha and Gary will be releasing 2,500 prints each of three pieces she painted at Hornby. “They are from the era when I spent less time on detail; they reflect a much freer style than my more recent works,” says the artist.
The urge to settle in a home of their own led the family to explore Niagara-on-the-Lake. “Oh my God, look at the buildings here. I could be inspired to paint for years in this place,” she recalls saying to Gary. With 100 Canadian and U.S. galleries already on their mailing list, they decided on Niagara.
They bought a house on King Street around the corner from the Apothecary, opening it as the Romance Collection Gallery downstairs and living in the upstairs for their first few years in town. Folks strolling by would often see Trisha painting in her glassed-in studio at the back of the house. Tanya, now 21, was born when the family lived on King Street.
Eventually, the fish-bowl effect of the downtown gallery began to distract Trisha, so when Tanya was two years old, her parents bought their Georgian home and 10 acres on the outskirts of town. “The place was run down when we first bought it, but I talked Gary in to it. I knew that this setting would inspire my painting forever,” remembers Trisha. Before they could make the house livable, she would go there to paint, all the while envisioning its current totally-restored condition.
Nathan and Whitney share a musical moment
Trisha’s years in Niagara have not been without challenges. In 1989, Trisha had to take a sabbatical from her work due to a venous angioma attack - likened to a varicose vein in the brain. This bout left her weakened, with a heart condition and on medication for epilepsy. Now she finds she must pace herself, and the family plans around her health concerns. She no longer has the energy for public appearances. She credits Gary with being strong for her, saying: “You have to have that one special person in the world who believes in you.”
Gary is often portrayed as being all about business, but his artistic roots run deep. Growing up in Toronto with a father who was a cinematographer, he well remembers the era of Canadian acting personalities such as singer Robert Goulet and actor Lorne Green. Gary’s father began filming weddings and bar mitzvahs in the 1950s, later forming a company making television commercials.
Niagara’s draw for Peterson goes back to his boyhood and a family ritual of boating across the lake from Toronto for day visits. One of his favourite childhood memories is of watching the first moon landing on the boat’s portable black and white TV, while floating on Lake Ontario.
A Ryerson graduate, Gary worked on stage, in film, and as a cameraman before becoming an art publisher. He’s a photographer and a musician too. He plays the drums and sings backup vocals in the Between Stations Band, which plays regularly at the Double Olive in St. Catharines. The Band’s website describes Gary as “an art publisher by day, a drummer by night, with a love for the blues with a little rock influence.” Their CD, Forecast of the Blues, was recorded at Gary’s home-based Petersound Studio. “Film, photography, acting, painting, sculpture, music – it’s all related,” says Gary of the many forms of his family’s artistic expression. “Trisha listens to classical music when she paints. We are looking at putting together a compilation of the music that most inspires her in the studio,” Gary notes.
Nathan plays the piano, guitar, and studied jazz bass while at Ridley College. He has played drums in his cousin’s band, Wannamaker, for 31/2 years. They’ve performed at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern and the El Mocambo, and are currently recording a CD in the Petersound Studio. The band recently did 118 takes of one song for the CD before getting it right – illustrating the fact that the Peterson children have all picked up on their parents’ fanaticism for perfection in creative expression.
Nathan is also a talented photographer. A graduate of Sheridan College’s photography course, he has a passion for product and architecture shots. He’s done a lot of work for his parents’ company – they say it’s not easy to find a good product photographer. He discovered his knack for architectural photography while travelling in Europe. “The Home of Romance,” a book planned to profile the stately family home that has been the inspiration for so many of Trisha’s works, will feature photography by Nathan.
Despite the temptation to jump in to an active role in the family business, Nathan feels his special attention to detail will allow him to make his own mark on the world. Trisha would concur – she still treasures a watercolour he did at the age of seven, noting the detail in his drawings at such a young age. “My major inspirations are my parents’ example, and my desire to have other people see what I’m seeing when I take my photos,” says Nathan.
Whitney, 17, was once the infant subject of Trisha’s painting “Bright Eyes.” She’s extremely modest about her artistic abilities, saying it’s just part of her nature, not something that’s ever been pushed by anyone. “In our family, we’re all creative and we are supportive of each other’s creations,” says the youngest. One of Trisha’s favourite paintings is by Whitney, of their beloved horse Turrwyn, who died suddenly last summer. Whitney’s need to exorcise her grief resulted in the painting’s completion in a matter of hours. She captured the horse’s soul, running in a green pasture, seemingly weightless, as if already in heaven.
Trisha Romance and Husband Gary Peterson
Whitney credits her brother with helping her to kick-start her serious interest in music, when he gave her an acoustic guitar as a gift about a year ago. Whitney admits previous attempts at studying music simply did not inspire her – she took a few piano and violin lessons, and studied instrumental music at school – but now that she has learned to play the guitar and joined a band, she’s “fully inspired.”
As lead singer and a guitarist in the band Starlit Lounge, her stage presence and singing ability are being noticed. But Whitney is reluctant to discuss the band much, saying at this point, it’s all about jamming together and making music for the sheer enjoyment of it. “Music is just another form of expression, and they’re all related,” she says. “I like to express myself in many ways – through writing, music, stories, poetry and painting.”
Tanya, the middle Peterson child, took voice lessons when she was younger and won some local music festival awards for vocals. She says she would love to sing in a jazz band some day, but right now she’s focusing on her studies at the Toronto School of Art. She chose to go there because it’s small and hands-on.
Tanya says it was clear by the end of high school she would study art, but after one year in the illustration course at Sheridan College, she saw the course focus was too narrow for her. She took a year off and travelled to Australia. During her time away, she realized she especially missed doing sculptures. Now back at school in Toronto, she is happy exploring portraiture, sculpture and painting in oil and acrylic.
Tanya doesn’t feel at all in her mother’s shadow as she evolves her personal style. If anything, she feels completely encouraged and inspired by both her parents and her siblings. “I have a lot looser, free-flowing, more stylized way of painting than Mom does,” says Tanya. “I’m definitely less patient than she is. I’m a faster painter, but not nearly as intricate when it comes to detail.”
“People who meet my mother see that she’s a very warm person who’s very true to who she is,” says Tanya. “She’s a real inspiration, and I can only gain by knowing her and seeing what an incredibly strong woman she is. I know that in order to be successful myself, I have to follow my own path. I try to live each day to the fullest, soak up everything in nature, and take inspiration from seeing the beauty in the world – that’s what inspires me.”
The symbols of light in Trisha’s paintings seem to shine through in each of her family members. “If you live with love and support, you can be free to express your creativity,” says Trisha. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see just how far and wide the Romance-Peterson artistic legacy will extend.
Niagara Magazine - April/May 2005 issue